Paige Williams began 15 weeks of training at Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service on Monday
“A mistake on the pitch maybe leads to a goal. A mistake in my new team, it’s going to be lives. I know I’ve got to be the best version of me every single day to help keep Merseyside safe, and that excites me.”
Aged 25, former England youth international Paige Williams has swapped her football kit for hose reels, breathing apparatus and ladders, starting a new career with Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service.
Having won Serie A and the Coppa Italia with Brescia in 2015-16, as well as picking up two Women’s FA Cup runners-up medals, Williams’ decision to leave top-level football may surprise some fans, coming only a year after she was part of the Birmingham City side that finished fourth in England’s top flight.
A marauding full-back with a lethal left foot, Williams was whipping in crosses for Ellen White last season, but the pair were among 10 departures from Blues in the summer of 2019.
The months that followed saw her endure a “a bit of an identity crisis”, work in a supermarket warehouse and almost join Real Madrid, before she ultimately decided to find a completely fresh challenge.
“It was like all the signs were pushing me away from football,” the former Everton youngster told BBC Sport.
“Last summer was such a mad time.
“It was the first bit of adversity, apart from doing my ACL, that I’d properly faced, and it scared me a little bit that, without football, I had absolutely nothing.
“I’d never made a huge amount of money so I didn’t really have savings. I don’t own a house, I’ve not got that many qualifications. I said ‘what else would I be good at?’ and my mum suggested the fire service.
“The fire service is a whole new level of team. You have to be quite selfish in football at times, but as soon as I joined the fire service, I was doing everything for everyone else and I loved it. It just feels right.”
Having been part of the England Under-19 squad that reached 2013’s European final – alongside now-senior stars including Nikita Paris and Beth Mead – and having started 2017’s Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley, Williams’ footballing CV was undoubtedly among the strongest of last summer’s free agents from the Women’s Super League, but a number of options fell through.
‘Everyone made me believe I was going to join Real Madrid’
“I felt like I was giving a lot to football and it wasn’t giving back,” Williams added. “To be honest, there are some things in the women’s game that don’t get covered because we all want the women’s game to grow so much.
“I had trials or trained with quite a few teams. I went to Liverpool for a lot of their pre-season, I spent time at Brighton and then I was over in Spain and that topped it off. I really thought I was going to play for Real Madrid.
“Everyone there made me believe that I was going to join Real Madrid. One morning, I was walking past Marcelo, saying ‘good morning’ on my way to training, sharing the same facilities.
“But it turned out one of their players couldn’t go out on loan, so that meant they couldn’t free up a space for me. Silly little things like that – it was like everything was pushing me away, because there were factors I couldn’t control, in the way of me getting those contracts.
Paige Williams helped Birmingham reach the 2017 Women’s FA Cup final, which Blues lost to Manchester City at Wembley
“When that move didn’t materialise, I had to start thinking. In five or six years, when I’m 30 or 31, was I going to be in the same boat again, with not much behind me?
“I had so many messages asking me ‘what’s going on?’ It was a bit of an identity crisis I think. ‘Who am I? What else am I good at?’
“I don’t want to just be like your average Joe. My mum said ‘you’re going to have to get a job’. I got one in Farmfoods’ warehouse, picking stock.
“It was me and 50 men in a dirty little warehouse, getting 200 crates of coke, wrapping them up and putting it all on the van ready to send off.
“In the end that warehouse spell was another sign that the fire service was meant to be, because grip strength was a massive part of my assessment and I genuinely think having to carry all those cans got me ready for the fitness testing.”
‘I’ll never stop learning in this job’
Yet upper-body strength alone would not be enough to land her new dream job, as Williams was about to find out.
“I knew it was tough to get into the fire service,” she continued. “It’s been a mad process. After the application phase, you get invited to a fitness testing day, but it’s very different to the usual football testing that I’d done.
“We were assembling things, climbing up ladders, going into containers with breathing apparatus on and your kit, trying to find your way out in the dark through a tunnel.
“That was all amazing. Then you went through to another assessment day, working in a group, giving information about yourself, and then the final interview. When I got measured for my kit, I thought ‘wow, this is it now’.
“Already, I’ve met some of the most incredible people. I have to say thank you to Chris Barrett, Jimmy Nugent and Lauren Woodward. They’ve invested so much time in me and I feel like I’ll never stop learning on this job.”
Williams has also been determined to keep learning during her season without a club, spending time working at a school for children with special educational needs – Oakfield Pupil Referral Unit – in Formby, prior to her first day with the fire service on 4 May.
In becoming a firefighter, she is following in the footsteps of another left-back in Rachel Unitt, who won 102 senior caps for England between 2000 and 2013.
“There are a few ex-professional female footballers in the fire service so we could get a decent little football team going,” Williams said.
“I’m not saying I’ll never put on a pair of boots on again, but I found I wasn’t getting the same satisfaction from football, as I was getting older. I definitely think I’ll play again. At what level, I don’t know.”
Paige Williams (left) won the Women’s Serie A and Coppa Italia with Brescia in 2015-16
Starting her career with Liverpool Feds, Williams represented England at every age group from under-15 through to under-23, but says her best memories come from her successful spell in Italy, working under Milena Bertolini, who is now Italy’s women’s national team coach.
Williams added: “Representing England in the competitions that I did was unbelievable. Serie A – that will live with me forever. That time was so special and nothing has really lived up to that since.
“There are so many people who have helped me in the game but the person who probably had the biggest influence on me was Milena. She really taught me the game. Growing up, playing with England, it’s a lot about fitness. Milena really made me think about football.
“I’m grateful to every single team-mate I’ve played with. I’ve had some of the best times of my life playing football and without those experiences I wouldn’t have had a CV strong enough to get through the application to the fire service.”