Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO Celebrating his goal against Wales in September.
# latecomer
'At my age, I thought the opportunity to play for my country might not come along'
Millwall midfielder Shaun Williams on a year that saw him make his Ireland debut and score for the first time on the international stage.

AT 31, IT looked as though the chance to pull on that green jersey had passed Shaun Williams by. 

Since moving to England from the now-defunct Sporting Fingal back in 2011, the midfielder has gone on to carve out a successful career with MK Dons and his current club Millwall. 

Despite playing regularly in the Championship last season, Williams was once again overlooked by Martin O’Neill when the senior manager named several new faces in his squad to take on Turkey last March. 

With that in mind, the Dubliner booked a holiday to Spain with his partner and two sons for the end of the season — only for him to learn that he had been called up for the first time ahead of the summer friendlies while he was on vacation.

Williams got the nod in an Ireland XI that faced Celtic for Scott Brown’s testimonial at Parkhead, but it was a week later in Paris that his first senior cap finally arrived. In front of a full house at the Stade de France, Didier Deschamps’ star-studded side were given a fitting send-off ahead of the 2018 World Cup finals — a tournament which they would go on to win. 

The game ended 2-0 to Les Bleus thanks to goals from Olivier Giroud and Nabil Fekir, but the result didn’t prevent it from being an unforgettable moment for the Dubliner, who was introduced as an 82nd-minute substitute. 

That was a bit surreal,” Williams tells The42. “At my age, I thought the opportunity to play for my country might not come along. Luckily enough, it did and I’ve had a couple of games since then. It has been a dream come true.”

He missed the US game in Dublin later that week to marry his partner Sinead, but came on in the 3-1 defeat to Wales in September to score his first international goal — a calmly-taken chip over Wayne Hennessy after he had stolen the ball from Aaron Ramsey.

That cameo earned him a first start in the following friendly at home to Poland, and Williams brought something that had been seriously lacking in the Irish midfield by getting on the ball regularly and finding a team-mate with his passing. It was a drab 1-1 draw, but he had stood out with a stylish display. 

“I’ve been around for long enough now to know I play the way I play,” Williams says. “It hasn’t suited people in the past, but I just said ‘Look, I will play my own game and enjoy it as much as I can’.

“It’s a privilege to play for your country and I think I gave a good account of myself in the couple of games I played. I’d like to have played more as I was on the bench for the last four games without playing at all.”

Shaun Williams goes close late in the game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Facing France in the pouring rain in Paris. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The matches in question saw Ireland record three 0-0 stalemates and a 1-0 loss to Wales, as they suffered relegation from their Uefa Nations League group. 

With the likes of Williams, Harry Arter, Conor Hourihane and David Meyler all among the substitutes, O’Neill opted to deploy full-back Cyrus Christie in midfield. A willing runner, he often looked out of his depth and completely lost in the middle of the park.

“I felt it was a strange decision, but managers have players that they trust, who have done well for him in the past,” Williams says.

I was only in the door so I wasn’t going to be knocking it down demanding to play. It was one of those things where you think ‘Can I do better to get into the plans?’, but that wasn’t to be the case.”

2018 was one of the most frustrating years for Irish football in living memory, and it ended in the management team walking away after a string of poor results. Despite the negativity from fans and the media, Williams looks back on his time in the set-up with great fondness and pride.

“I really enjoyed it, to be fair,” he says. “On a personal basis, I had no bad words to say about Martin. He gave me my debut for Ireland and I’ll be forever grateful.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the experience working with Martin and Roy and getting to know some of the lads who I didn’t already. I’m still clinging onto being Ireland’s top goalscorer in the Nations League!” he joked.

Mick McCarthy has since been reinstated to a job he left 16 years ago, and has already been busy planning for the Euro 2020 qualifiers in March. Having tasted international football, Williams is hungry for more caps.

“He seems to get a lot out of his teams and that’s how he did so well with Ipswich,” he says of McCarthy. “They were a hard-working side who played good football as well. Hopefully I’ll be selected for the squad as I’m looking forward to getting another opportunity.

“I’ve got six goals this season for club and country and I feel like I’m doing well, so hopefully I’m catching the eye of the new staff.”

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United Kingdom: Millwall v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet Championshi SIPA USA / PA Images Williams taking on Ipswich Town in the colours of Millwall. SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Next month will mark the five-year anniversary of Williams’ move to Millwall, and he and his family are satisfied with life there both on and off the field.

“It’s the club I’ve played the longest for. It feels like home and I’ve done so much in that period, including raising a family. I really enjoy it here and I get on really well with the manager, so long may it continue.”

He has fellow Ireland international Aiden O’Brien as a club mate and the pair are good friends. O’Brien also scored his first goal in the green shirt recently.

I get on really well with Aidan and I’m over the moon for him and his family that he got the opportunity, which he has grabbed with both hands. Fair play to him.”

The Lions exceeded expectations last term by finishing eighth in the Championship, but this season they find themselves in a relegation dog fight at the wrong end of the table.

Christmas is a busy time for footballers and Neil Harris’ side will be desperate to dig themselves out of a hole over the coming weeks — starting at home to Nottingham Forest tomorrow. 

“Every season that I’ve been here, we’ve always been slow starters,” Williams explains. “The year we got promoted, I think we were second last coming up to Christmas and I don’t think we were too far of it last year either. We then went on a 17-game unbeaten run but it won’t mean anything unless we can repeat it again this year.

“I don’t think we were expecting to do as well this season but we’ve been letting in a lot of late goals and throwing away points. Towards the end of last season, that just wasn’t happening. Maybe it is concentration, I don’t know, but hopefully we can turn it around.”

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