I was fortunate enough to have an in-depth chat with Jonny Williams about his career and the contrasting experiences he has had so far. I knew that this chat would be full of gems for any aspiring footballer and it definitely didn’t disappoint!
Joniesta is the nickname he was given in our youth team days. Watch him play for 5 minutes and you’ll understand why we compared him to Iniesta. Despite his many successes, the journey has been far from smooth sailing for this Welsh international.
ALEX: Jonny, we come through the academy at Crystal Palace from the age of 9. You went on to make over 70 first-team appearances for the club, including playing a huge role in helping the club gain promotion to the Premier League.
How was your journey through the academy system?
JONNY: It was a long journey. I was grateful to be selected when I was 8 years old but it’s one of those things I haven’t really appreciated until I’ve got older. It was always nerve-wracking at the end of the year because you’d only sign for a year. You had to play well in that season, then wait for the end of season meeting with the coach to see if you’d be offered another year.
But it was an amazing journey for me, the closer you got to the youth team you started to realise that your dream is actually achievable. You’d look at youth team players as heroes when you were in the younger age groups and then suddenly we were doing that.
I remember after training on a Saturday morning, going to watch the youth team play and seeing the likes of John Bostock and Victor Moses.
Then before you know it, we were playing in those games and it’s just scary how quickly our dreams became a reality. At that young age, we looked up to those players and idolised them.
I remember the crowds would slowly start to get bigger. Then the agents and scouts would start to turn up as you went through the age groups, now I see that they have to stand in a box by themselves.
Agents! I know you had it when you were coming through, as did most of us in our group, but as a young player with any hype surrounding them, it’s only a matter of time before the agents are getting in touch. I remember my Dad speaking with agents before I had even turned 16. Nowadays players are getting approached at a much younger age than we were!
What were your first experiences with agents like as a young player?
I remember getting my agent at 16. You have to take a bit of a risk and go with who you think is the right person for you. There is so many out there and you never really know, especially at that age, but if you’ve got a good relationship and trust them then that is important.
Sean Scannell actually put me in touch with my agent and that was someone who I looked up to in the first team advising me that he’d be good for me etc. He was right because I am still with him, I’ve got a great relationship with him and he’ll definitely be a friend for life.
You’re a Welsh international and have been to two European Championships, including playing in the Euro 2016 semi-final against Portugal.
The dream as a young boy was to play first-team football but you went on to achieve the ultimate dream of representing your country, against some of the best players in the world.
It was a proud moment for me watching, but what was it like for you?
It’s crazy how football works. I’ve always been very grateful for what I have achieved, I feel lucky. I’ve played with players that have been more than good enough but just haven’t quite reached that level of football.
That always helps me remain grounded and grateful. I have to pinch myself sometimes when I look at pictures and I’m playing against players at the very top of the game.
I had parents who sacrificed so much for me when I was in the academy, driving to and from training multiple times a week and giving up their jobs etc. Without those sacrifices, this dream would not have happened.
I know how lucky I am to have had parents who put me first and gave me the opportunities to reach those heights and I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
I always gave 100% and dedicated my life to it. Every decision you make; what you do when you get home, missing social events, eating, drinking, sleeping, everything is geared towards that Saturday and that’s been me throughout my whole life.
As I have got older, I have realised it’s also important to step away from football and realise that your family and your life is just as important, because it can be a cruel world.
When you’re young and in the academy, you’re told it has to be, “Football, football, football”. But as you get older you start to realise that you need to have a life outside of football.
We’re not just footballers, we’re humans, who need to come away from the stresses and pressures of football because they can take their toll when you don’t have that escape. That leads me to my next question…
You’ve played for some huge clubs in England; Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest and Sunderland to name a few. I know that going to Sunderland you were excited to sign for the club, but for reasons on and off the pitch it didn’t turn out the way you had hoped.
Could you tell us a little more about the problems that you encountered whilst at Sunderland and how you managed to deal with them?
It was the day before the end of the transfer window and at the time I was away with Wales. I was told that I was going to be leaving Crystal Palace that window with a year left on my contract.
I was hoping to secure a permanent move somewhere. I had had a few loans and I wanted to find a new home because I knew there wasn’t a place for me in the squad at Palace, even though I believed I could offer something different to the squad they had, but that is football and you accept it and move on.
Sunderland were interested in a loan for the season. They had just been relegated to the Championship and expected to return to the Premier League with the squad that they had. I was hopeful that it was going to be a really good season; a massive club in England, great fans and a great stadium, so I saw it as a massive opportunity to achieve something.
I was eager to do well and I think I started well but we weren’t getting the results we deserved. Before we knew it, it was backs against the wall and teams were coming to the Stadium of Light and enjoying themselves. We had the pressure on us from the beginning to do well and it just wasn’t happening for us.
That as well as getting my shoulder injury. I had already undergone an operation on it, which I had recovered from and then it happened again. I tried to play with it for a few games but it just wasn’t right.
It was a frustrating injury and I had to get it pinned which took 3 months out of my season. That added to the frustrations because although we weren’t getting the results, I was enjoying playing football and felt that we were about to turn a corner, but that all got taken away from me.
So I spent 3 months rehabbing the shoulder I had already spent 3 months rehabbing before, which was tough.
I was living in a house in Sunderland that I could only dream of living in back home but I was so far away from home and family. It just shows you that you can have a lovely house, but it doesn’t mean anything if it’s just you and 4 walls, with no family or friends close by.
All I had was football and that was taken away from me so I was thinking, “Where am I going to get my happiness from?” I struggled massively and it was tough.
I look at myself now and I’ve come on leaps and bounds just in my own happiness. Lockdown helped me personally because I was able to step back from being ‘Jonny the footballer’ and I realised what is important to me.
I’m not always going to be a footballer. Having that time in lockdown to strip back has enabled me to come on leaps and bounds with my own mental health and mentality and I’m a much better person for it.
You just touched on your current mindset and you currently find yourself at Swindon Town in League Two. You’ve spent the majority of your career in the Championship. From the outside looking in, it may look like a “step-down” and it would have come as a surprise to many.
I know that there are a lot of factors that have to be taken into consideration when moving clubs, so can you share your reasons behind joining Swindon Town?
Ideally, I wanted to play higher but sometimes you just want to be happy, whether that is in League Two or wherever. Swindon is a massive club. I’ve played here in pre-season games before and it’s a massive club for League Two, with the ambition to get back into League One. That is something I would love to be a part of.
There were options on the table elsewhere but I had always thought that I would be happy playing under this manager. I wanted to play under him when I got older because I enjoyed playing for him through the academy. I’ve always liked the way he wants to play and his attention to detail in everything we do is spot on. I think I would have regretted it at some point if I didn’t play under him just to experience it.
Happiness is key, I have realised that over the years. The level or size of the club means nothing if you’re not happy and enjoying it.
Managers also have a big part to play in players’ experiences at clubs and I have been there where you just aren’t someone’s cup of tea. There is no doubt that we play our best football when we feel valued and wanted, so I can totally understand why you have chosen to go and play under Ben.
Fly On The Ball Quickfire With Jonny Williams
Has to be playing in the European Championships semi-final and just being on that stage. I’ve had some real high moments. Being involved in two play-off finals and winning both was amazing but to represent my country in a semi-final, with my family present has to be my career high.
That season at Sunderland when I was injured. I was lost and I had such high hopes and expectations and it just didn’t go well for me. I’d love to do that season again!
3 celebrities you would invite for dinner and what would you cook?
- Lionel Messi. He’s my idol, I just want to meet him.
- Ed Sheeran. He can sing before starters and mains.
- Will Ferrell. I find him funny.
Lasagne with garlic bread and salad, then brownie and ice cream for dessert. I think they’d enjoy that.
Most famous person in your contacts?
Gareth Bale or Ryan Giggs. I can’t pick one!
Something that has changed a lot over the years. At the moment it’s beans on toast but sometimes I have salmon and rice, or chicken and pasta but it changes, to be honest. I used to be quite fussy but when you’re staying in hotels it’s hard to have what you’d cook at home, so I had to break from that mindset and become a bit more relaxed but eat what I think will give me enough energy for the game.
Top 3 characteristics needed to have a career in professional football?
- Hard work
One bit of advice you’d give to a 9 year old Jonny Williams starting in the academy again?
Believe in yourself, enjoy it and stay confident as much as possible.
I would like to thank Jonny for his time and honesty. There is no doubt that he has had a career that many can only dream of, yet throughout his journey, he has also faced many challenging experiences and overcome them all. I am sure that every aspiring footballer will be able to take something away from his story that will be of great value at some point in your journey.
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