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Fara Williams: 'I was living in hostels for seven years – football saved me'

England's most capped footballer Fara Williams competed at the top level while experiencing homelessness – after learning the game in the football cages on her estate

Fara Williams remains England Women's top scorer with 40 goals in 177 games

Fara Williams. Photo: Greg Funnell.

Fara Williams is one of the greatest footballers ever to play for England. She was born in Battersea, London, in January 1984 and joined Chelsea Ladies at the age of 12. By 16, she was a first team player, scoring 30 goals during her breakthrough season in 2000-01. The following year she signed for Charlton Athletic Ladies and won the club’s Player of the Year and the FA Women’s Young Player of the Year in her first season.

Williams made her senior England debut in 2001 and went on to earn 172 caps (still a record) and score 40 goals. She played in four European Championships and three World Cups – scoring the goal against Germany that clinched third place in the World Cup in 2015. She also represented England for 19 years, also playing for Team GB at the 2012 London Olympics. 

While performing at the highest level on the football pitch, Fara Williams experienced homelessness and lived in hostels for years after leaving home at 17 following a family dispute. She overcame these setbacks to go on to play for Everton, where she won the FA Cup, Liverpool – winning back-to-back WSL titles, and Arsenal, where she won another FA Cup title, before hanging up her boots in April 2021. These days Williams appears as a football pundit on the BBC and works for homeless charities.

People say, how did you play football for England while living in a hostel for years? But if I didn’t have football, I wouldn’t have got through that period

Fara Williams

Speaking to The Big Issue for her Letter to my Younger Self, Fara Williams looks back at a childhood obsession with football and the unexpected places it has taken her.

At 16 I was probably a little shit. I was really mischievous. I knew that all I wanted to do was play football. But I also knew that it would come at a cost in terms of being able to afford to play. My mum was really supportive, so I chose to work in a supermarket to help pay my subs and buy football boots, as opposed to going to college. And I took the risk of wanting to be a footballer, knowing that was all that motivated me, all that excited me. 

I was a total street kid. I never watched TV or films and wasn’t into music. Just football. I’m one of four kids, and Friday and Saturday nights were Blockbuster nights. We’d rent a movie, get ice cream, but unless you watched the film, you weren’t allowed the goodies. So I didn’t get to eat the ice cream because I’d be running around the estate. 

I knew I was never going to be a professional footballer because I’m not a boy. That’s how it felt. So unless I was somehow going to sign for Chelsea and play alongside Dennis Wise, it was not an option as a career – although that midfield would have been alright. He would have been the little tackler, I’d have been the ballplayer. But I thought my love of football would lead me nowhere.

I grew up on an estate and football cages were massively important. I spent all my youth in them. And I knew I was good because you don’t survive in a cage with 20 boys if you’re not good. My sister quickly realised the cage wasn’t for her. The last estate we lived on in Battersea, when I was 12-16, had three football cages. There is only a year between me and my brother and he’d go around the estate getting a team together. I’d do the same. It was about being persuasive, who’s gonna play for me? We did that every single day. We’d name the cages after different stadiums. One was Stamford Bridge. The one that had steps going down to it, that was the ultimate. It was our Wembley.

Fara Williams dribbles a ball on the pitch
2002 Fara Williams playing for England vs France at Selhurst Park. Image: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Football helped me focus. It gave me discipline. I didn’t skip school – much as I wasn’t academically the best, didn’t want to be there and struggled to learn because my learning style was very different to what was taught back then. I knew if I didn’t go to school, I wouldn’t be able to play football.

It took a while to understand that my talent could take me somewhere. I didn’t realise I could represent England and have a successful career because football was just about the love and joy it brought me, regardless of where I played. I struggled with that when I was playing for England, because I just thought I was playing any other game of football. It took a long time to understand what it meant to represent England. But I played for England for 19 years and stayed at the top of the game for 23 years. That is something that I’m immensely proud of, looking back.

When you’re living in a hostel, you feel like you don’t have any value to your life. You don’t have belonging. You hit the lowest point imaginable in terms of self-worth and how people view you. I was living in hostels for seven years, but football helped me get through because I had a focus. It enabled me to leave the hostel and feel like I lived in the real world. For the duration I was in a hostel, I didn’t tell people. It was the fear of being judged.

People say, how did you play football for England while living in a hostel for years? But if I didn’t have football, I wouldn’t have got through that period. Living in a hostel, you see the choices some people made because they had nothing and didn’t have that focus or motivation. Football saved me.

Hope Powell, my England coach at the time, was the one person I told. She was really supportive. My best friends, Eartha [Pond] and Lauren were another constant. I stayed on Eartha’s sofa for a while, and Lauren lived round the corner from the hostel and would let me have a hot shower. The hostel wasn’t a clean environment so I could get clean which was important for someone with OCD. They also fed me a cooked meal when I was just living off rice. A packet of rice would get me through the week.

Fara Williams celebrating scoring a goal for England in 2015
Fara Williams is the most capped England footballer of all time. Image: Canadian Press/Shutterstock

Football was the constant for me. It never failed me or let me down. It was always something I could be a part of and felt a belonging to. And it always brought me joy. I stayed in love with the game through good and bad. It was the one thing that allowed me to switch off from the world. I lived in my own bubble of football. Every time I went into training, I’d forget about what was going on at home. I owe football so much. 

If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell her to be more open to getting support. On the pitch, when you’re carrying baggage, it weighs you down. Whether you feel like it shows or not. That’s why I work with homeless charities now. I want to help people talk about it. Mental health is so important, and I was suffering mentally without realising. I was too embarrassed to admit I needed help. But if I had opened up about it, maybe I wouldn’t have spent as long in hostels.

I know from my own experiences as a kid growing up with trauma that at some point it is going to come out. I watched the Dele Alli interview [with Gary Neville on The Overlap] and it was heartbreaking – I didn’t need to be crying at 9am. It was pissing me off the way that the media and pundits were talking about him before. Everybody was aware that Dele Alli was an adopted child, and anybody that has worked with kids that have come from broken families knows at some point in their lives, they’re going to have to deal with that trauma.

I don’t believe you become a shit footballer overnight. He was far too talented for that. I was saying for ages, has somebody actually talked to him? As somebody that has experienced trauma, you can see it. And I am super proud that he’s able to come out and speak the way he did. Hopefully, for fans and media, it’s an eye opener. We are all humans.

Fara Williams getting her MBE
2016 After receiving her MBE at Buckingham Palace. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

My teenage self would not believe she’d end up working with Prince William [on his Homewards project to end homelessness]. It would have been a lot to get my head around. Because I was that ignorant kid that only saw homelessness as, you know, tramps on the street, alcoholics, or drug users. I didn’t understand what homelessness was or looked like. Those lived experiences opened my eyes to how many people are actually homeless – families in sheltered accommodation, people in temporary accommodation, sofa surfing, on the streets or in hostels. I’m still learning. But I know how I lived. I know how it felt for me. So I want to share those experiences. Things need to change, certainly now with the crisis we’re in. I’m glad I’m part of this campaign.

My younger self would be so excited by where the women’s game is now. Young girls can dream of being a professional footballer now. For me to think of being a professional footballer was crazy. If I was just coming into the game, I’d be absolutely buzzing about how far we can go with it. At the top of the game, players are in a much more stable position. But for the teams outside of the top six it still needs improving. So just because the Lionesses are comfortable, it doesn’t mean the whole women’s game is. But I’m excited for future generations that have the opportunity to dream. And for those dreams to be realities.

Vicki Sparks, Steph Houghton, Jo Currie, Jonas Eidevall, Ellen White, Reshmin Chowdhury, Gabby Logan, Alex Scott, Anita Asante, Rachel Brown Finnis, Fara Williams and Robyn Cowen – the BBC's World Cup squad 2023
The BBC World Cup team – Vicki Sparks, Steph Houghton, Jo Currie, Jonas Eidevall, Ellen White, Reshmin Chowdhury, Gabby Logan, Alex Scott, Anita Asante, Rachel Brown Finnis, Fara Williams, Robyn Cowen. Image: Madeleine Penfold / BBC

What advice would I give myself about love? Stop being so bloody loyal to everybody! I’m too loyal. There’s not many loyal people in love, that’s for sure. But what football has taught me in terms of being able to love is about being able to be vulnerable. Being able to be vulnerable is hugely important in any walk of life, and certainly in love.

Lucky, lucky me. That’s what I say. I never thought I’d be a professional footballer. And no way did I ever think I’d be a pundit. I don’t remember seeing female football pundits when I played. So to even consider that as an option shows the way opportunities have opened up for women. I was so lucky at the end of my career that the BBC gave me the opportunity to talk about the game I love. I’ve always treated it as though I’m coaching, which is what I thought I’d be doing.

If I could go back to any time in my life, I would love to go back to being a carefree kid. And I would be telling my younger self to continue to be innocent and not to care what other people think. I’d love to be an adult with that mindset. The joy of running around the estate as a kid, so carefree, just playing football – because they were the happiest days. 

Fara Williams is part of BBC Sport’s FIFA Women’s World Cup coverage across BBC television, iPlayer & Sounds

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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