Three clubs, one year: how Lydia Williams navigated a big 2022

Gustavsson: What he'd do differently & the world catching up with USWNT (4:22)

Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson discusses what he'd change about his tenure if he had the chance, and how the women's football world has closed the gap on the U.S. (4:22)

For Lydia Williams, the realisation hit last week.

"One of the girls here in Brighton, she said, 'Oh we have two more camps left', and I was like, 'What!?'" she told ESPN with plenty of incredulity.

"Then I realised we only really have two more camps left and then it's like we're in."

The "in" here being the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, which kicks off on July 20.

Over the past few years, every camp, every game, and every decision a player made in regards to their football, has been influenced in some capacity by the impending World Cup, and Williams is no exception. It can be argued that of all the Matildas, the keeper's journey in clubland over the past year or so has been the best encapsulation of that.

She was a part of the Matildas exodus to Europe in 2020, landing at Arsenal alongside Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord. With Manuela Zinsberger already at the club, there was genuine competition for the No. 1 spot, but Zinsberger was ultimately the preferred choice.

After two-and-a-half years at Arsenal, and 20 appearances across all competitions, and with her fellow Australian goalkeepers starting week in, week out at their respective clubs, something had to give.

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In July 2022, Paris Saint-Germain announced the signing of Williams on a one-year deal that would take her to the World Cup. It seemed like a perfect move; PSG needed a goalkeeper, and Williams needed game time. However, by September, PSG had signed former Lyon and France goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, who would take the No. 1 spot. Williams made one league appearance -- and two overall -- for the Parisiennes before moving to Brighton & Hove Albion in the Women's Super League in January 2023.

The catalyst for the move was obvious.

"I think it was to get more opportunity for game time," Williams told ESPN. "I really loved being in Paris, and it was such a wonderful city, but in terms of a professional move, a football move, and to put myself in the best position for the national team and for the girls doing the best I can, I think it was a right way to go."

Goalkeepers have always been a little different to the rest of the team. The nature of the position means only one can be on the pitch at any given time. It's as competitive as it is collegiate, with the "keeper's union" a worldwide understanding between those who don the gloves.

From the outside, it seems this past year would have been really tough. But that's not how Williams sees it.

"It probably seems like it has been difficult, but I've honestly made some of the best friends and had the best experiences over this last kind of year or so, and... all of that has really helped ground me and really given me a sense of appreciation," the 34-year-old said.

"Obviously leading into the World Cup, even though there's a lot of pressure and stuff. It's exciting to see how the game's growing, and I've been able to be a part of the ride."

Unsurprisingly, Williams' attitude to the life of the goalkeeper, which appears emotionally taxing from the outside, is just as grounded in honesty, gratitude and reflection.

"I think it's more mentally taxing," she said. "I think the emotional side of things, it's like most professional athletes, you kind of have to put the emotion aside and really focus on the physical and mental aspect.

"But definitely the mental side of things, I think in goalkeeping, is quite difficult because you're basically on edge, ready to be thrown in; and then if it doesn't happen, you kind of have to quickly dust off any disappointment and keep working. But I think the exciting thing about being a goalkeeper for a team is that you really want the team to succeed.

"So when it comes to game day, your selfish needs gets thrown aside and you do everything with the team. But during the week, you work for yourself... you want to improve and you want to put yourself out there, but when it comes to match day minus one and match day, it's all about the team."

Navigating this mental load, and the ability to compartmentalise and flick the switch between team first and player first is something Williams has been able to develop over her 18-year national team career.

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"Obviously as you get older you get a little bit more, I don't want to say wiser but you kind of know how the game's played a little bit," Williams said.

"I think the hardest thing at the end of the day is what is the coach's decision, and how you respond to that and respect that and do what you need to do for the team.

"And I think as I've gotten older, I've kind of found, I guess, the love of when I first started in that it's an honour to travel the world and play the best sport with your best mates; I've kind of found the joy in that again, rather than the pressure of pushing myself all the time to allow that mental block or pressure come on that.

"So, it's actually really enjoyable for me to kind of be there, and doing the best that I can, and it's the decision of the coach."

It often reads as a cliche about wanting what's best for the team and seeing joy in its success not matter your part, but there's a genuineness that's plain to see in this Matildas team and in Williams herself.

You only need to look at photos and videos of how pumped she was during the Olympics in Tokyo, where she was generally second-choice to Teagan Micah.

The closeness of this team and their individual success has also helped Williams shed that mental pressure and take a step back when it comes to just enjoying her football.

"I think it was actually watching everyone else succeed in a way like all the girls and the national team. Just watching them really develop and flourish," she recalled.

"It's just watching them and knowing that we've kind of all been together for so long as a national team, but watching them and being really happy for their individual achievements, I think kind of really switched it for me.

"It is selfish in sport when you're training, but as a group and whole you kind of appreciate what they're doing for the sport."

Williams has finally settled into life by the sea in Brighton, and she has already seen some game time, making her debut for the club just prior to the international window. While it wasn't the outing she or Brighton would have been hoping for -- they went down 6-2 to Aston Villa -- it was her first start in a league game since mid-September.

After being at Arsenal and PSG recently, Brighton presents a different kind of club with different aspirations and challenges; but it's an opportunity Williams is embracing.

"Obviously being at Arsenal and PSG it was an extra competition in terms of Champions League and kind of the significance of that," she said. "So, there was a lot of pressure and high-octane results. It's almost like tournaments within itself, knockouts and all that, and that's the highest kind of place that you want to be as a footballer.

"But in Brighton... they're in a rebuilding phase and just got a new coach and the new facility last year, and it's just exciting to kind of be a part of a team that's building. They want to strive to make it into what would be Champions League, and making sure they're getting points and not losing games that they should win.

"So, it's definitely a different mentality, but it's kind of nice to be a part of something that's, they have really big dreams and small improvements are big improvements and it's exciting."

The transition back to the WSL has been an easy, and even though Williams wasn't gone for very long she has noticed one key difference.

"It's crazy to see how much the league is grown since the Euros, and just the support around it," she said.

Williams will be hoping that growth is replicated in Australia, and she is willing to play her part -- whatever that may look like.