Jake Williams has proven himself an asset to New Zealand across the field so far in the OFC U-17 Championship, but the defender is no stranger to hard work and sacrifice, devoting his young life to football.
Born in the United Kingdom, Williams spent his childhood in the South Island of New Zealand, but made the move up to Wellington when he joined the newly relocated Wellington Phoenix Football Academy.
“I trialled in the APFA initially, four years ago, and they moved up to Wellington when I trialled so I’ve been with them since they started,” he said.
“Being in that professional environment all the time is really positive for a player. The players are great and the staff are really good.”
With his heart set on a professional football career, Williams devotes most hours of the day to improving his game, but school is still a priority in the 16-year-old’s life and although juggling the two is a challenge for Williams, he’s determined to continue his learning on and off the field.
“It’s certainly tough but you’ve just got to keep working at it because you never know, you could get an injury with football and then you’ve got to fall back on your school,” he said.
“It’s certainly hard, but you don’t have a choice. You’ve got to do both.”
Unlike many other players in Williams’ position, the young footballer has been lucky to have his family by his side through his development at the Phoenix academy.
“My family moved up with me, we were originally down in Nelson,” he said.
“It’s nice being with your family and having that support around you all the time.”
Although Williams has temporarily parted with his family to represent his country in Tahiti, he feels comforted knowing that they are behind him all the way.
“We talk every other day, we’re quite tight-knit. They like to know how I’m getting along.”
Williams’ was quick to call the folks after New Zealand’s second match against Solomon Islands, where the defender opened the scoring for New Zealand after leaping to connect with a corner ball.
“Scoring a goal is a good feeling. I don’t know what was running through my head through all the celebrations, we all just went mental. I was just happy to get it for the team,” he said.
The goal was just enough for New Zealand to top their group undefeated, but Williams believes his side were lucky to take away three points in their 2-1 win against Solomon Islands.
“Technically the Solomon Islands were far and away upper class,” he said.
The contrasting style of play displayed by the Solomon Islands caught the New Zealand side off-guard after their earlier domination of Samoa, but Williams believes the lesson learned will benefit them at the FIFA U-17 World Cup if they can secure a place.
“The most challenging part of the competition would be the different kinds of players you get. We started with Samoa, and it was very different, and then you get to Solomon Islands and it’s technical and they’ve got fast feet and their very quick, and then there’s Fiji who are very strong,” he said.
“The different types of players would be the most challenging thing. We’re prepared for anything after facing these players.”
Williams is readying himself for another unpredictable match on Tuesday, when they face Group A runners-up Papua New Guinea, but he has confidence in his side after their professional display against Fiji, and the committed culture they have built as a team throughout their journey.
“The boys are pretty confident after that win against Fiji. I’m excited to play, really keen on the opportunity for the World Cup, it’s a big deal,” he said.
“The boys get along really well and everyone is mates and that helps when you play on the football pitch because we all work for each other,” he added.
“I know the boys are going to throw everything at it. Fingers crossed we can get the win, I’m pretty sure we can.”
Although the side dominated through the group stage, Williams believes New Zealand still has plenty left to show on the field.
“We’ve been pretty good but I don’t think we’ve given our best performances yet, we know we can do better, but coming out of the group stage undefeated is not a bad result,” he said.
“It’s been a good start to our campaign but we’ll certainly be looking to do better against Papua New Guinea.”
New Zealand will face Papua New Guinea for a place in the final of the OFC U-17 Championship, and one of two spots for Oceania at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, in the semi-final at 7pm on 21 February (local).