Selling newspapers and serving pints: How Millwall’s Shaun Williams made ends meet when football dream seemed over

SHAUN Williams could have been forgiven for thinking that it just wasn’t meant to be.

Earlier in his career, after two clubs he played for went bust, it seemed a career as a professional footballer wasn’t fated for him.

The second time it happened, Williams, in need of a job to pay the bills, sold the Herald, a daily newspaper, at the side of the road, getting up before dawn on freezing Dublin mornings.

Williams, 33, played for Drogheda United and Sporting Fingal in the League of Ireland but in 2010, at the age of 24, he was out of work.

He had been named Players Football Association of Ireland Young player of the year, but there’s nowhere you can cash that in when bills arrive through the letterbox.

Remarkably, despite never having played overseas – where, really, Irish players have to go to make a decent living – and given his precarious situation, Williams turned down a three-and-a-half year contract offer from Glasgow Celtic.

It wasn’t until March 2011, more than four months after his last senior competitive game, that he joined MK Dons. He was named their player of the year in the 2012-13 season.

Williams has played 383 games in English football and is now an Ireland international. It’s all a far cry from those dark days in 2010.

NewsAtDen spoke to Williams last week and asked him what the best and worst jobs he had after matters outside his hands in football threatened to wreck his dream.

“The worst was probably selling newspapers on the side of the road,” he said. “I was at Drogheda and they went into administration. I’d literally no job so that was the easiest thing to do. Me and my best mate who was at Drogheda at the time as well had bills to pay. You have to live and that was the easiest thing we could have done.

“I couldn’t do it for that long, too many early mornings.

“The best? Probably barman. I worked in a few bars. I worked in Gibneys [in seaside town Malahide in north Dublin] and closing was obviously the best time, drinking the bar!

“It was my local area and if I went back now I’d still know everyone there. I started off collecting glasses and you gradually get moved up.

“I’m not saying I’ve had it the hard way but I’ve been at two teams that folded. You lose your job straightaway. I’ve had to do all sorts of jobs just to make ends meet.

“Maybe if you have it a bit younger you could kind of take your foot off the gas a little bit. I know the price of a pound, basically.

“I was at Fingal and because it was a summer season me and my missus were going to Thailand for four weeks, travelling and that. I came back for pre-season and the club folded.

“There’d been a bid from Celtic for me and they turned it down. I was thinking, ‘why are they turning the money down?’ and about four days later they folded.

“I was thinking, ‘what’s going on here? That money could have helped.’ I had no club, no job, again.

“I was training with Shamrock Rovers just to keep fit. [Now Stoke boss] Michael O’Neill was there, he wanted to sign me.

“I didn’t know what to do, to be fair, my head was all over the place. Celtic came back in again with a new offer and I had nothing to do with the money they were going to pay for me. I turned it down. It was for three-and-a-half years and the first half year of it was to go on loan to MK.

“I said, ‘no’. I went to MK [on a permanent deal]. At the time I was 24 and it was my first move abroad. I didn’t think I’d fit in that well at Celtic. I was thinking maybe playing in Scotland you can get pigeon-holed a little bit.

“It was a bold gamble, but it paid off.

“I’d known Stephen Gleeson who was [at MK Dons] at the time. The perception maybe is that it’s hard to go into a dressing room, but everyone is welcoming pretty much anywhere. It was fine.”

Shaun Williams joined Millwall in January 2014

Williams is Millwall’s longest-serving player, after been signed for the Lions by Ian Holloway from MK Dons in January 2014.

When more experienced players are interviewed their views on things around the game, away from their own personal experience, is often sought.

Williams was one of the most important players in former boss Neil Harris’ side. It was Williams’ cross in the 2017 League One play-off final that was flicked on by Lee Gregory for Steve Morison to score the winner and send the Lions into the Championship.

Millwall finished eighth the following season but the last campaign was difficult as Harris just steered the club to safety.

But the strain told and Harris stepped away in early October. Did Williams know Harris was feeling the pressure of the role?

“At the age I am now you can recognise that it is a stressful job,” Williams said. “It ain’t just turn up when we turn up, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that none of us could even imagine the amount of stuff they have to do. Analysis, tactics, opposition, training, dealing with people’s needs.

“It definitely is a big stress and you could see how it got to him towards the end. He was here for a long time.

“He was amazing. My youngest, he was ill a year-and-a-half ago. His daughter had been through the same thing when she was younger so he said, ‘take as long as you want, make sure the family is right’.

“I know myself and my missus can’t speak highly enough of him.”

Watching the strain on Harris hasn’t put Williams off coaching or management. He completed his Uefa B Licence last summer (the third of five coaching badges) with his Millwall team-mate Alex Pearce and Ireland team-mate Seamus Coleman.

Williams explained how he is now thinking like a coach.

“[Last week] I was actually taking down a few drills that we’ve done. That was the first time I’d done that. My missus was like, ‘what are you doing?’

“We got an app when we were doing the coaching and it allows you to do anything. You have a pitch and you can put mannequins, cones, whatever on it. I’m just picking up little bits now as I go along.

“It’s a learning curve, isn’t it? You want to pick up little bits because when you do eventually go into the coaching side of it and you haven’t been doing that you’re not going to know what to do.

“It’s important as well to see what other teams do. It’s important to open your eyes to other things.”

Williams is no stranger to that.

Image: Millwall FC 

John Kelly