'I've played 350 games in England - I wasn't overawed'
As the Championship season kicks off Daniel McDonnell speaks to Millwall's Shaun Williams about surviving in a competitive division and finally getting his Ireland reward at the age of 31
The Premier League kick-off is a week away but the return of the Championship means that the serious work resumes for the bulk of Martin O'Neill's squad this weekend.
In the aftermath of the World Cup, the Ireland manager was vocal on the importance of getting as many players into the English top flight as possible.
That remains an aspiration, however, with the core of his group engaged in a league which is still a pretty big operation in its own right.
A report released at the beginning of this year detailed that it had the third largest attendances in Europe after the Premier League and Bundesliga.
In terms of revenue, it's just behind the major leagues, with the average wage in excess of £6,000 per week, and several clubs paying much, much more than that.
That's a risky business, given that losses are being accumulated. The most recent full season figures available - focusing on the 2016/17 campaign - detail that 19 out of 24 clubs lost money. Liberties are being taken in search of the Premier League pot of gold. It's a cut-throat league and it takes staying power to survive in it.
Shaun Williams has managed to do that, and a string of consistent performances at that level for Millwall finally earned him a call into the Irish squad for the summer international window.
He did feel it was overdue, given he was a key player in a Millwall side that made a late run for the play-offs last year and ended up falling just three points short.
The key defeat came against Middlesbrough, who visit the Den this afternoon to kick off the new campaign.
Williams missed the middle chunk of the season with a knee injury and Millwall's results in his absence confirmed his importance. He is comfortable at a demanding level, yet the 31-year-old was a tad aggrieved that his performances were going under the radar at home.
He decided to publicly voice his frustration at exclusion from the Ireland squad for the training camp in Turkey in March, but O'Neill did not hold it against him.
Instead, he gave the Malahide man a chance to make his point, and a lengthy appearance in Scott Brown's testimonial was followed by a proper cap as a sub against France in the Stade de France.
It was a career highlight that was quickly followed by a landmark moment in his life. Three days after his Stade de France date with a side that was starting their journey towards World Cup glory, Williams was in Spain getting married to his long-term partner Sinead.
He missed out on the friendly with the USA because of the date that had long since been pencilled into the diary, with the scheduling hinting at a belief that his time had perhaps passed him by.
For the League of Ireland graduate, it was a sweet fortnight, and with those celebrations now in the rear view mirror, the incentive is there to go and make this an even better season.
Williams is pragmatic about Millwall's initial aim given that their budget is modest compared to big-spending rivals.
"I think our objective is to get to 50 points as soon as we can," he says. "It took us until March last season. If we can do it by around Christmas time, then hopefully we can flourish from there.
"At the start of last season, we were being tipped for relegation so to prove a lot of people wrong was quite nice. At the end of it, you could say we were unlucky to miss out."
He might be softly spoken off the pitch, but Williams is a confident and steely character who has fought hard to establish himself in England following a late start there.
That's why the technically assured midfielder - who is well able to mix it up too - was determined to embrace the Irish call and prove that it was deserved.
O'Neill did make a couple of press conference references to players who had been calling for their chance, but Williams says there was no discomfort when it came to meeting face to face.
"Everybody was fine with me," he says. "It wasn't awkward or anything. I'm a grown man and I'm not going to be shying away from any conversations. I got on with the manager and all of the coaching staff and I look forward to meeting them again.
"You have to make the most of everything. I've played almost 350 games in England now, so I wasn't going to be overawed by any situation I was put in.
"I've played this game for long enough. I wanted to go in there with the same attitude that I have for my club, and I'm happy with how it went.
"I wasn't worried about coming on in Paris. I absolutely really enjoyed it. I met some new people and I had a good time; it was my proudest moment in football. It meant an awful lot to me and it means a lot to everyone that knows me well. They've known I always wanted to play for Ireland, and for that to come through was special.
"I had all of my family there with me. They stayed with me on the Monday night in France and we celebrated well into the early hours and we went back down to Spain and the wedding was Thursday. We had a great week."
From afar, he enjoyed watching that French side go on to claim the World Cup. Like every Irish player who was a part of the Stade de France friendly, he was blown away by Kylian Mbappé, although he was resting up by the time that Williams was introduced.
"He's only 19 and he's already torn it up at the World Cup," he laughs. "He was the best player I've seen that close up. Frightening."
Williams was already back in pre-season as that French team scaled the summit. For the Championship clubs, July really is the calm before the storm. It's the only real window they have for sustained work on the training ground as, once the season gets underway, it's a proper slog.
The 46-game campaign is peppered with midweek matches that give players very little time to breathe. Millwall will already have seven competitive games under their belt by the time the next Irish window comes around, whereas the Premier League players will have come through four.
With modest resources, Millwall have to get all of the details right.
"Last season, we used the least amount of players in the division," says Williams.
"The way that we play, everyone needs to be at peak fitness."
They made the most of what they had, which is the minimum requirement in a punishing division.Any drop-off will be punished. International recognition has given Williams added motivation to keep the standards high, safe in the knowledge that he is being watched.
A momentous summer gave him memories that will last a lifetime. But there's also a short-term focus that comes from the realisation that the best days of his football life might still be ahead.
THE PRESTON GANG
Graham Burke has the perfect role model in Sean Maguire as he looks to follow in the footsteps of his fellow League of Ireland export following his summer move from Shamrock Rovers. Maguire is set to be out for the opening six weeks of the season with a hamstring problem and that’s beginning to become a worry as it was an injury in that department that halted his momentum last year. Burke has a bit of work to do to find his ideal role in Preston’s plans. Daryl Horgan looked to be on the way out but impressive form in pre-season has put him back into the mix – and Maguire’s woe might move him up the queue – although the jury is out on Alex Neil’s faith in the Galwegian. Alan Browne was player of the season last term and needs to build on that and bring that confidence to the international stage.
MOVERS AND SHAKERS
James McClean’s switch from West Brom to Stoke was the main Irish transfer of the summer and he will get the opportunity to work with Gary Rowett, a manager who clearly rates him, and that support tends to bring the best out of the combative winger. He’s at a club with ambitions of bouncing straight back. Sheffield United splashed out £4m to sign John Egan from Brentford and that should boost his profile. David McGoldrick has also signed for the Blades but he has fallen out of favour with Martin O’Neill and his injury record does not inspire confidence.
THE MIDFIELD RIVALS
Browne didn’t quite take his chance in the summer internationals, and Conor Hourihane was unable to advance his claims due to Aston Villa’s involvement in the play-offs – which ended the pain of a Wembley loss to Fulham. He hit double figures last term and can press on again. Shaun Williams played himself into the frame following an excellent campaign at Millwall, and Eunan O’Kane shouldn’t be forgotten as Leeds seek to push forward again. A step forward from QPR’s Ryan Manning would be welcome following a stop-start year, and an injury-free campaign is what Bristol City’s Callum O’Dowda requires. Richie Towell has been linked with a return to Rotherham after a loan spell where he helped them gain promotion from League One. It’s imperative that he drops down from Brighton and becomes active in the Championship to further his Irish prospects.
THE SEARCH FOR GOALS
Maguire is the leading Irish candidate to be top scorer in the second tier, even with the delayed start, with Scott Hogan under pressure to prove that he belongs at Aston Villa, with the suspicion lingering that he’s not quite suited to their style of play. Irish-eligible Patrick Bamford (Middlesbrough) and Will Keane (Hull) are on the radar but the latter has a lot to prove while Bamford has only belatedly come around to the idea of declaring. Alan Judge was racking them up from midfield two years ago and did sign off before the summer with an injury-time goal against the USA. If he can regain his old spark, he could help to fill some of the void left by Wes Hoolahan’s Irish retirement.
O’Neill broke from his normal selection policy to include Blackburn duo Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams in March even though they were playing in League One – a level that the manager had previously only dipped into for goalkeeping cover. However, it was clear that the Ewood Park club were on the way back up and both Lenihan and Williams have experience at Championship level. They did their bit in a summer window and operate in a back three for their employer, which might help if the Derry man follows through on an experimentation with that system.
THE SENIOR PROS
John O’Shea has retired from Irish duty and Paul McShane has fallen down the pecking order but their Reading team-mate David Meyler and Derby’s Richard Keogh and Alex Pearce remain on the premises and their season kicked off last night. Their places in the pecking order are quite vulnerable, though, and they would need to have exceptional campaigns to progress beyond fringe places in the Ireland squad. Keiren Westwood’s Sheffield Wednesday future is in doubt, and he is not really in a position to put Middlesbrough’s Darren Randolph under pressure.
BELOW THE CHAMPIONSHIP
Graham Carey was excellent for Plymouth last season as a creative, goalscoring midfielder and there were reports of Championship interest in the Dubliner. Time is not exactly on the 29-year-old’s side, however. It will be interesting to see how ex-Derry City winger Ronan Curtis fares with Portsmouth after his switch to the League One side; he has the raw materials to become a good player yet needs to display the right temperament. Jack Byrne is in the bad books at League Two Oldham and has to escape and show he still has something to offer. Defender Anthony O’Connor left Aberdeen for League One side Bradford and feels he can play his way into the Irish picture.
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