Ryan Byrne/INPHO Shaun Williams pictured during last month's friendly in Poland.
like a fine wine
Could O'Neill be about to put faith in a 31-year-old international rookie?
Shaun Williams impressed off the bench against Wales last month, and could be set for a full competitive debut this evening.

DERIVING A POSITIVE from last month’s largely bleak 4-1 defeat in Wales may seem like scraping the barrel, but if there was one plus point for Ireland on the night, it was the eye-catching performance of Shaun Williams.

The Millwall man replaced Conor Hourihane in the 55th minute and went on to impress. Of course, it should be noted that in many ways, it was the ideal scenario in which to make a competitive international debut. With Ireland 4-0 down, the game was effectively over, nonetheless Williams still acquitted himself admirably.

The midfielder looked for the ball frequently and was tidy in possession — a stark contrast to the Irish team’s panicked play in the first half when an exuberant Welsh outfit left them reeling.

To cap off his assured display, the Dublin-born player also scored an extremely well-taken consolation goal after robbing Aaron Ramsey of possession.

Williams was rewarded for this performance with a start days later against Poland. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Ireland delivered a much-improved display and were unlucky not to come away with a victory, as Mateusz Klich’s late goal meant they had to settle for a 1-1 draw.

Yet Williams can hardly be considered ‘one for the future’. He turns 32 next week. Glenn Whelan, who has won 83 caps and has effectively retired from international football according to reports, is only slightly older at 34. The fact that he has been thrown into the deep end all of a sudden is, in a way, an indictment of the lack of depth and the absence of a coherent pathway for Irish youngsters. It feels as if Williams is a player who suddenly finds himself playing international football by accident rather than design.

But the flaws within the Irish set-up should not take away from Williams’ personal achievement. He has clearly worked extremely hard to get to this level. He began his career in the League of Ireland with Drogheda in the mid 2000s, with time spent on loan at Dundalk and Finn Harps, before a year-long spell at the now-defunct Sporting Fingal.

Williams seems to have been highly regarded wherever he’s played. He won the 2010 Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland (PFAI) Young Player of the Year award. This form helped secure a move to England, joining MK Dons in 2011 and going on to make over 100 appearances for the club, winning Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year accolades during the 2012-13 campaign, as the club finished eighth in League One.

In 2014, he made the switch to current club Millwall, helping the side gain promotion to the Championship, where they currently sit 20th after 12 games. Williams has been a regular at the Den for some time now, but until recently could be forgiven for thinking his dream of playing international football would never materialise. It was only last March that Williams branded his continuing absence from the squad “confusing and disappointing”. However, he was called up by the Boys in Green promptly thereafter, coming off the bench to make his debut at the Stade de France last May, and edging closer to first-team contention ever since. 

Shaun Williams celebrates at the final whistle Cathal Noonan / INPHO Shaun Williams celebrates scoring a goal for Sporting Fingal in 2009. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Nevertheless, for all the progress he has made, starting Williams in the Nations League clash against Denmark tonight would still be considered a gamble by O’Neill, particularly with the more experienced likes of Jeff Hendrick, Harry Arter, David Meyler and Conor Hourihane to choose from in midfield.

“There were a number of performances in Poland that would give me a little something to think about,” the Ireland manager said at yesterday’s pre-match conference.

“You have to ask Shaun where has he been for not five years, 10 years. He’s [almost] 32 years of age, making his debut coming on against France and then finally starting a game. But some players take a wee bit longer to come through.

“When I came into the job first of all and went to Millwall early on, I saw Shaun playing — he was playing in what would be termed the old third division at the time and he wouldn’t have been immediately rushing into your thoughts to be playing international football.

“But you have to give him credit and the fact that he got promotion with the team, they had a really good season last year and he is a pretty big part of Millwall’s set-up.

“Now of course, you have to take Millwall this season maybe not going so well at this minute and the sort of impact that that has on individual players.

“But for instance, if you look at Shaun and you look at [Millwall team-mate] Aiden O’Brien, who did very well for us as well too, you have to be encouraged by that if nothing else.”

In Wroclaw, Ireland opted for a 3-5-2 formation, in contrast with the 4-4-2 they went with in Wales, handing Williams a starting spot in midfield alongside Jeff Hendrick and Callum O’Dowda. But O’Neill played down suggestions that people should expect more of the same this evening, emphasising the futility of reading too much into one game.

It was, after all, a friendly game,” the 66-year-old Derry native added. “It wasn’t a competitive match and it gave us an opportunity to try out a few things — it wasn’t the first time we’ve gone three [at the back].

“But if some performances have been good, then of course it gives you something to chew on, something to think about.

“Really what we are trying to do is we’re trying to work out the system that best suits the players that we have available to us and the players who are likely to have some sort of impact in the game.”

With a number of individuals retiring following the 2018 World Cup qualification failure, O’Neill clearly feels there are places up for grabs in his new-look team. Williams, so far, has done more than most to justify a starting spot.

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