SHAUN Williams admits he owes a “great deal of gratitude” to Millwall manager Neil Harris after scoring on his competitive debut for his country during the recent international break.
Williams, who will be 32 next month, became one of the oldest players to make his Republic of Ireland debut when he came on as a substitute against France in a friendly in June.
He followed that up with his competitive debut against Wales in the Nations League, coming on in the 56th minute when Martin O’Neill’s side were 4-0 down, before he robbed Aaron Ramsey of possession and ran through to chip delightfully over goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy.
Williams then earned praise from Irish fans and media for his performance anchoring the midfield on his first start against Poland, when Aiden O’Brien put the side ahead before they were pegged back late on.
Harris didn’t sign Williams and the midfielder wasn’t a regular in the Millwall team until the current manager’s second full season in charge, which ended with promotion to the Championship in 2016-17.
Ultimately, playing in the second tier brought him into consideration again for international honours.
“It was an amazing moment for me and my family to make my debut, I’m still on cloud nine from it. It was disappointing to lose but on a personal note to score for my country is a dream come through,” Williams said.
“I like to do all the shooting sessions here with the gaffer and luckily I was ready to take the chance when it came.
“The gaffer here is up there with the best I’ve played under. I’ve played under him since he’s been manager here and I couldn’t say a bad word about him as a manager and a person as well.
“I owe him a great deal of gratitude for the opportunities he’s given me and hopefully I can keep repaying him.
“The Ireland jerseys will be going in a frame, I got the one against Poland signed by all the team.
“I didn’t get nervous at all because I think there are a lot worse things that can happen to you in life than just going out to play football.
“Playing at The Den on a Saturday has steered me in the right direction, because if you can do well there then playing anywhere else is alright.”
Williams’ role for Ireland against Poland was slightly different to what he is used to, playing in a three rather than the two under Harris for Millwall.
Williams sat in front of the defence, allowing Jeff Hendrick and Callum O’Dowda either side of him to push on.
And he had specific instructions from one of the best midfielders of his generation in that role, Ireland assistant boss Roy Keane, after learning only a couple of hours before the game that both he and O’Brien were starting.
Williams explained: “I had a couple of chats with Roy and the manager. Roy indicated what he wanted from me. He was one of the best ever so it was great to learn from him and get pointers on my own game that I can use in Millwall matches as well.
“In the formation that we played I was the sitting one of a three, so he told me to stay within the width of the centre circle up and down the pitch and not to be going out wide. I stuck to that and we didn’t concede while I was on, so that was a plus.
“I just tried to play to the best of my ability. I enjoyed the game and felt I could have done more, I didn’t feel overawed with the occasion.
“The heavy defeat against Wales means the finger is going to be pointed in the staff’s direction, but I think they’ve done a great job. I can only speak from my own experience. I’ve really enjoyed it and embraced every day I was there because I know it’s not a long career and you have to make the most of it when you can.”
Williams and O’Brien arrived back at Calmont Road last week in high spirits, to a squad that was also in positive form and feeling settled after the closure of the transfer window.
Williams also revealed he could have been ruled out for Millwall through injury.
“It was a disappointing week before we left so to come back and see everyone upbeat was great,” Williams said. “And obviously me and Aiden were on top of the world after the ten days we had, so everything fell into place.
“When I came back I had to do a fitness test on the Saturday and luckily enough I was able to make it through.
“We needed a performance and Leeds at home was ideal. We were disappointed to concede late again at home but overall we were really at it.
“There’s no better feeling than playing games and it’s going to be an intense period before the next international break [in mid-October].”
Williams had a new midfield partner against Leeds after the signing of Ryan Leonard from Sheffield United to replace George Saville.
Williams played down the loss of Saville to Middlesbrough, feeling Leonard and Jem Karacan have strengthened the squad.
And the Irish international was on hand to offer Leonard words of encouragement before his Lions debut.
“Ryan’s was a fantastic debut,” Williams said. “I said to him before the game, ‘no better debut to have than Leeds at home’. If he can perform like that every week he’ll be a fans favourite and do well for us.
“I spoke to [Saville, when he was linked with Boro] but it didn’t really bother me, people come and go every day. I wish him all the best and hope he does well for his new team. Luckily now we have Ryan to replace George and we have other players who can play a similar role.
“Jem is a great fella to have in the dressing room as well. He’s played at a high level and he’s another good addition to the team.”
In the next international break Ireland face Denmark and Wales at home in the Nations League.
Williams should be involved, but isn’t letting whether another call-up comes along concern him.
“You just have to do what you can with your club to be considered, and as I’ve said already I’m just on a high. If it happens it happens and if it doesn’t, so be it.
“I really enjoyed my time with them and hopefully I’ve done enough to stay in the squad.”
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