Wednesday 13 December 2017

Ambitious Dublin Don plots graduation to a higher level

Shaun Williams is making waves in Milton Keynes, writes Seán Ryan

NOT many young Irish footballers would say no to a three and a half-year contract with Celtic, but that's what Dubliner Shaun Williams did early last year -- and he has no regrets.

"Sporting Fingal had turned down two bids from Celtic," he recalled, "and then when Fingal went bust Celtic offered me a deal which wasn't the same as before so I turned it down. I think it was the right decision in the end because they are a big club and I wouldn't have played as much there as I have here at MK Dons."

Originally, Celtic planned to send Williams on loan to the Dons and, when the deal fell through, the Dons were happy to sign Williams on a one-year deal. He has since signed a two-year extension.

It has worked out well all round, although Celtic may yet rue missing out on a quality player, who was the PFAI's Young Player of the Year in 2010, and has been hugely instrumental in MK Dons' push for promotion from League One this season.

Signing Williams was a bit of a gamble for the Dons as the transfer window had closed, and he was unable to play until this season. "By the time I played for them in the league," he said, "it was 10 months since my last competitive game. They put on a couple of behind-closed-doors games for me from the end of March to the end of the season, but when pre-season came around we played a lot of games and I was raring to go."

Part of the Dons' pre-season took place in Williams' native Portmarnock, and they plan to return there this year.

Originally signed as a central midfielder, Williams has spent most of the season playing at centre-back -- and helping to set a club record 18 clean sheets so far. "In pre-season a lad got injured and I was stuck in at centre-back," he explained. "I have played there all season bar a couple of games in midfield to cover for suspensions."

Williams had played there for Sporting Fingal on a number of occasions, but it's not his preferred position. "Being my first year in England I didn't mind as long as I was playing, but hopefully next season I'll be back in midfield."

It's important to Williams' ambitions that he returns to his favoured midfield slot, for he hopes to follow in the footsteps of former Dons' favourite Keith Andrews and wear the green jersey. Andrews was a big favourite with his surging midfield runs and accurate shooting, which helped the Dons to the League Two title in 2008 and earned him a move to Blackburn Rovers and a place in the Irish squad.

Williams, with his radar-like left foot, has already scored eight goals, and if he is playing in the Championship next season, he is likely to attract the attention of Giovanni Trapattoni.

As a schoolboy, Williams went on trial to Everton, but was let go. He signed for Drogheda United, but found it hard to break through to the first team, and didn't really come into his own until he signed for Liam Buckley at Sporting Fingal. "With Liam we won the FAI Cup and he made me captain in Europe, so I owe him a lot," he said.

As to whether he is the classic Irish late developer, Williams responded: "I always believed in my own ability, but I never got the chance to show it. At Drogheda, the senior team was winning the league and cup so opportunities were limited. If I had been given the opportunity it mightn't have taken so long to get where I am."

Williams is not built in classic centre-back mould, but he hasn't felt any need to bulk up for the role. "I still have my slender build," he said. "I'm skinny as a whippet, but I don't get into that (bruising) side of the game, and we've done all right with a new club clean sheets record.

"Still, I hope people will see the best of me next season in midfield. This season is helping me learn how the lads at the back need the support from midfield to mark the runs, and that will help make me a better player."

Williams won't be 26 until October so he has plenty of time to emulate Andrews, who wasn't capped until he was 28, and is now a mainstay on the Irish team going to Euro 2012.

The first step on the road to accomplishing that happens on Saturday when MK Dons take on Huddersfield Town in the first leg of the play-offs. In their two meetings this season, it's been level pegging each time, but there has to be a winner this time.

There is a little Irish colony in Karl Robinson's squad, with reserve 'keeper Ian McLoughlin, midfielders Stephen Gleeson and Darren Potter, and winger Jay O'Shea alongside Williams, who also reckons that reserve centre-back Tom Flanagan, both of whose parents are Irish, could be attracting the attention of Ireland under 21 manager Noel King.

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