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Interviews

History Boys: Marvin Williams

From a tough spell in Somerset to six career-altering minutes of cup football, Marvin Williams speaks to Dan Long about his eventful footballing journey

13 June 2019

In similar circumstances to recent History Boys interviewee Marcus Bean, when Marvin Williams joined Brentford in the summer of 2008, he was looking to get his career back on track. 

On the books of Millwall from the age of nine, he made his Lions debut aged 18 in bizarre circumstances. Convinced a lack of Youth Team appearances would spell the end of his time in South London, the end of Steve Claridge’s farcical 36-day stay at the helm was the stroke of fortune his career required.

 

“THE GRASS ISN’T ALWAYS GREENER”

“Colin Lee [Claridge’s assistant at Millwall] took over and it just so happened that he’d watched me in a Reserve game and liked what he saw,” Marvin tells BEES.  

“Within two weeks of him taking the First Team job, I was in his squad. I remember travelling to Mansfield and I didn’t make the bench, but the following week at Coventry I made my debut. I’d come so close to moving elsewhere, it was a huge turnaround.

“I’ll never forget it because the assistant manager Dave Tuttle said to me at training, ‘You’re coming with me, we are going to do some running.’ I didn’t really see eye-to-eye with him at the time and I was thinking that he was making me run to try to get me out of the club! He asked me if I knew why I was running and then told me that I was in the squad to face Coventry on Saturday. That’s the only time I’ve ever been happy to do running!”

It wasn’t just a one-off. Marvin became an important member of The Lions squad in the 2005/06 campaign – often playing alongside former Bees striker Ben May – as they were relegated to League One.

More of the same followed the next season, though the club avoided a second successive relegation. Marvin’s openness for change saw him swap the hustle and bustle of the capital for country life with Yeovil Town, then managed by Russell Slade.

“I just wanted a change,” he says. “I’m very independent and once I’ve made a decision I’ll stick to it. I’d been at Millwall for so many years and it was the same training ground, the same faces and the same routines.

“On top of that, I wanted to play as a centre-forward. I’d just done a season in the Championship as a centre-forward, played really well and could’ve left, but I didn’t want to because Millwall was the club I wanted to be at. Willie Donachie came in to stabilise the club and did a great job, but he said that I was fourth or fifth in line as a centre-forward.

“Yeovil made a bid and said that they saw me as a forward, so I said that I just wanted to have a change. I don’t regret it because it taught me in football that the grass isn’t always greener, though it ended up being a bit of a nightmare with the injury I sustained.”

Though an Achilles injury would prevent Marvin playing into his 30s, ankle woes plagued his early career and a reconstruction limited him to just 23 league appearances for The Glovers, 15 of which came from the bench. Couple that with attempting to settle into a slow-paced life, alien for a London native, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

 

GROUNDS FOR OPTIMISM

When Brentford came knocking in the summer of 2008, Marvin approached the potential move with scepticism.

“I’d gone from the Championship to League One and now I was going down another league and wondered if my career was spiralling. I didn’t just want to go somewhere for the sake of it. Yes, I’d be back in London, but it had to be right for my career.

“I remember having a coffee with Andy Scott in Beckenham and we got on really well. He spoke highly of me and sold me his vision for the Club - what he said to me at that time was what we achieved come the end of the season.

“Andy brought a lot of new faces in and, as is often the case when you are signing a new set of players, it can go one way or the other; either you are really successful or it’s a bitty and stop-start environment with people moving on. You could sense from day one that everyone got on and there were no cliques.

“It was a tough pre-season. The running side of it with Andy was always tough, but the lads got through it together. I think that was the most important thing about running, it was more about togetherness and dragging the ones who were struggling along with you. Once we got through pre-season, you could sense the potential for a special year.

“Alan Bennett and Kev O’Connor were both top, top guys who you could have a conversation with. They were very honest people, which is a quality I respect. They created an environment of being there to do things properly and that’s the best thing. Those two, as far as professionals go, were the model pros to look at and learn from. If no one was looking, it didn’t matter, you did things properly.”

 

“THE LOWEST POINT”

A week after his debut in the season opener against Bury, Marvin gave fans a glimpse of his ability when he provided assists for Charlie MacDonald and Nathan Elder in a 4-0 demolition of Grimsby Town.

His desire to play as a striker was still yet to be fulfilled, but over the course of the season he appeared 37 times in all competitions, scoring twice. He never bettered that during his further employment in the Football League, yet he remembers his time with mixed emotions.

“I was still getting my head around playing as a wide guy. At the beginning of the season I was enjoying it and my confidence was sky-high, but there were also times when my confidence was low and I wasn’t performing how I wanted to. I had a few disagreements with the management, which wasn’t the best thing for myself. It was just up and down really.

“Towards the end of the year it brightened up as we had a common goal to win the league title. I didn’t hit the heights that I could’ve done for whatever reason, but the biggest thing that came out of that year – apart from winning the league – was what I learned about relationships.”

Though he stays tight-lipped regarding the details, Marvin’s recollection of the final day of the season is in stark contrast to the bulk of the squad.

“If I was to tell you all about that day, it wouldn’t be much good that would come out of my mouth. If there was a lowest point in my career, it would be that. I hold my hands up and say it wasn’t my strongest season and I remember expecting to be in the squad, but I didn’t get picked. I knew my time at the Club was done after that. I’ve got a lot of friends that I still talk to from that group, so I was very happy for those lads and what they achieved. It was a great day and a great occasion for the Club and the fans, but from a personal point of view it was one of the lowest points of my career.”

 

A CAREER-ALTERING SIX MINUTES

A mutual agreement was made to place Marvin on the transfer list in the weeks that followed, however he remained in West London into the 2009/10 season and even made a six-minute cameo in the 1-0 League Cup defeat at home to Bristol City.

“During pre-season we mutually agreed that I could leave,” he says. “One evening, I got a phone call from Millsy [former Bees CEO Andrew Mills], who said he’d spoken to Andy Scott and asked if we could mutually agree a pay-out. While negotiating, Colin Lee – who was Director of Football at Torquay – asked if I wanted to come down on a six-month contract. Once the pay-out was agreed, I signed for Torquay. I phoned Andy afterwards and thanked him for giving me the league experience and making me a part of it, despite anything that happened along the way.”

Unbeknown to Marvin, those final seconds he spent in the red and white stripes were to alter the course of his career. Just four appearances later, in December 2009, he was released by Torquay. Having played for two Football League clubs in the same season, he had now reached the maximum allowance under League regulations. His subsequent options were limited, yet his willingness to adapt this time played to his advantage, allowing him to sample life in Sweden with third tier side Östersunds.

“The guy who was looking after me should’ve been aware of it, but as a young kid I thought it made no difference - I thought I’d get special dispensation having only played six minutes for Brentford that season. But I was told that was the ruling and the only thing I could do at the time was to play Conference football, which I didn’t want to do as I felt I was above that level.

“I trained with Östersunds on their pre-season tour of Scotland and thought, ‘Why not?’. They were very good to me. They looked after me, gave me a house, gave me a car, flew my family back and forth and covered the costs. My family moved over there for a few months and I definitely improved in terms of learning a different side to the game; it was a lot slower, more technical and at the time there weren’t many teams playing 4-3-3.

“My wife got a bit homesick with the little one and they went home and there were some sniffs from Barnet at the time. It kept me ticking over for a few months and it was never going to be a long-term option for me.”

 

HOMECOMING

Barnet failed to firm up their interest with an offer and in September 2010, aged 23, Marvin entered a self-imposed hiatus from the game, following a forgettable two-week spell at Stevenage.

He had grown understandably disillusioned and enrolled on a personal training course to explore an alternative avenue. In February 2011 he gravitated back to football, merely to return to basics and simply take enjoyment from the game in which he’d made his name.

“I can 100 per cent confirm that Non-League was the most enjoyable time because there was a lot less politics. I lost my love of the game playing League football because I never really clicked with a manager. That probably sounds like it was me! I had a break for a long time and then got a call from a friend who asked if I wanted to play at Hemel Hempstead; the plan was just to go and enjoy it with a little bit of cash in hand each week.

“After a while a few clubs were showing some interest at that level and I ended up at Salisbury who had one of the best managers I’ve ever played under in Darrell Clarke, who is now Bristol Rovers’ manager - I loved playing under him. I had a short spell at Eastleigh and then moved to Sutton. It was local to home and Paul Doswell is someone who I’ve got a really, really good relationship with now - he’s an honest man and I loved playing under him, too.”

 

“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”

Marvin’s Non-League days were undoubtedly the most fruitful of his career; he could play through the middle on a regular basis and 28 of his 38 career league goals followed.

Persistent Achilles trouble tormented him, though, and in 2015 forced him into early retirement, when the next stage of his unique journey kicked into gear.

“The physio told me my Achilles was pretty much done and there wasn’t much more they could do. They could do an operation, but it would take me nine months to do the rehab on it and I just thought, at the level I was playing, it wasn’t a big enough carrot for me to have to go through all of that.

“I could have kept playing with the injury and risked not being able to run around with my kids in my mid-30s, or I could retire and say I got to play in the Championship, League One and League Two. I won leagues and played in FA Cups. If someone offered me that when I was 10 years-old, I would’ve snapped their hand off. I realised that I could keep forcing it or just say enough is enough.”

 

THE NEXT CHAPTER

Having taken on some grassroots coaching responsibilities towards the end of his playing career, Marvin was presented with the rare chance to establish an academy set-up at Sutton in late 2014.

Fast forward to the present day and the department continues to thrive. At 31-years-old, he is running a successful full-time programme with the National League side. Developing players, he admits, brings more fulfilment than his playing career ever could, and the methods of a certain Mr. Scott still inspire his coaching philosophy to this day.

“I enjoy my current job more than I did playing and that’s me being really honest,” he admits. “I loved my time at Salisbury and loved my time at Sutton, but I definitely enjoy this job more than playing in the League.

“I always say to my younger boys now at Sutton, I will never forget the amount of work he [Andy Scott] put in and I will always take that with me. We used to do pattern of play and I always remember we would do it day after day and wherever the ball was, you had to know where you needed to be as a player.

“It was tough at the time because, especially as a young player, you are questioning why you are doing it; you don’t really understand the outcomes until later in life. Now that I’m coaching I understand the thought process behind Andy’s methods. We wouldn’t have won the league that year if it wasn’t for that level of coaching because that’s what we had over any team; we had a philosophy that we stuck to and knew exactly what our jobs were individually and collectively. We just blew teams away at times.

“We’ve got five teams here at Sutton, ranging from Under-18 to U-21, and my job is to oversee the programme, from coaching to taking matchdays, arranging the logistics of a game as well as organising fixtures and recruitment.

“Effectively funded by the government, we run alongside an education programme so the boys that come in also have to do a full-time course. We are one of many clubs that do it, but we do it very well and are one of the best in the country at doing it.

“I’m on the training pitch every day, which keeps me young and fit. I don’t miss playing, but when you go and watch your mates play or watch the First Team play, you do miss that matchday feeling.

“I’ve still got so much to learn and I’ve tried to get around to different academies to watch people and see what they do, but at the moment I’ve got a job that keeps me very busy, I’ve got two kids that keep me busy and I’m just enjoying life.

“Though I’m not actively looking, management is something I’d love to get into. I’ve probably got the experience now that I wouldn’t have if I was still playing. I like to think I’ve utilised the time well outside the game and I hope that’s geared me towards a new path for the future.”

Though his playing career ended prematurely, it seems we haven’t seen the last of Marvin Williams in professional football.

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