The World Cup shines brilliantly on the horizon for any player with dreams of competing in Brazil next summer, but for Rhys Williams the road to Rio is not nearly as important as the hike to Huish Park.
Middlesbrough’s refreshingly grounded captain admits he is best known as the “kid who missed the World Cup” back home in Australia after suffering injury heartbreak on the eve of the finals in South Africa.
As Brazil looms large in the thinking of most internationals, Williams’ sole focus is on ending Middlesbrough’s season on a high – and breaking back into the team by the time they round off their campaign in the humble surroundings of Yeovil.
“Of course I’d love to play in it but first things first – I need to perform and get back into the Middlesbrough team,” Williams says.
“I’m known by a few people back home simply because I missed out on the last World Cup squad. That’s not a nice tag to have, but it’s not my major motivation this season.
“I think missing out on the squad at the end of last season was really the icing on the cake of a season that didn’t really go very well for me.
“I wasn’t working hard enough for myself and I wasn’t working hard enough for my team-mates so I probably didn’t deserve it.
“My priority lies with Middlesbrough. That’s the most important thing – I owe it to them and I owe it to my team-mates to come back and give more to the cause than I did last year. Getting us out of this division is my goal this year.”
In common with everyone involved with the club, Williams has plenty to prove after a campaign that imploded after Christmas to leave promotion-chasing Middlesbrough nervously glancing at the drop zone by the time May came around.
The centre-back’s problems were a lack of confidence and an injury that he now recognises he attempted to come back from too soon. Still, Tony Mowbray’s decision to drop him came as a wake-up call that he needed ahead of a new season.
“I can honestly say last year was a year to forget for me,” he admits.
“First up the injury was a bad one and I think I came back too soon. We had a talk about that in training and I think I came back too soon from it. It affected me and as one of the players who should have had higher standards, it affected the team as well.
“Being dropped by Australia was really just the tip of it, but the good thing for me is that it can’t get much worse. I have to use that as a stepping stone for a much better year now. I’ve got to work harder and be better.”
If there is one benefit of Boro’s collapse, it has allowed them to sneak under the radar in the Championship to the point where even their supporters are hoping rather than expecting a promotion challenge.
Two experienced signings – Dean Whitehead and Hungarian Jozsef Varga – have been added, but the consensus is that they need more depth and quality in the squad.
The problem is that Tony Mowbray is working within financial constraints that have been imposed by the club’s failure to get close to returning to the Premier League since their relegation four years ago.
The worry, as Williams freely admits, is that Boro run the risk of becoming second-tier staples. “Everyone says that the longer you are out of the Premier League the harder it becomes, and we’ve made it harder for ourselves as a football club over the last few seasons,” he says.
“I think this is still a Premier League football club in everything but status, but there are a lot of clubs in our division who probably feel exactly the same and tell themselves that they deserve to be in the top division.
“Well actions speak louder than words and we have to go out there and actually prove it now.
“We don’t want to be known as a mid-table Championship club, but we have to be honest and admit that’s what people outside the football club probably view us as now. We have to prove them wrong.”
Boro might have thought they had begun the process of fighting back last year as they surged to the top of the table but for the second successive year, they collapsed like the Australian top order in the Ashes.
It is a cause for concern but Williams is adamant that the psychological scars have healed.
“I think we’re over it. That’s left behind over the summer,” he says.
“There’s been a lot of changes at the football club. We’ve seen a lot of players go and a couple of new faces come in. I think we’d all like to see some more but only time will tell on that front.
“We’re hungry, we’re motivated and we’re desperate to go out there and have a really good go at getting Middlesbrough back into the Premier League.”