The Saint: The Steve Williams interview

PUBLISHED: 07:00 12 February 2018

Steve Williams. Ref edr 03-18TI 4401. Picture: Terry Ife

Steve Williams. Ref edr 03-18TI 4401. Picture: Terry Ife

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He played for Southampton, Arsenal and Luton in the top flight of English football, and six times for England. East Devon resident Steve Williams spoke to Steve Jennings about his career.

Cup Final Plate. Ref edr 03-18TI 4408. Picture: Terry Ife Cup Final Plate. Ref edr 03-18TI 4408. Picture: Terry Ife

Steve Williams has called West Hill home for 27 years. His career as a professional footballer brought him to East Devon, but he has also been a successful magazine publisher, builder and property developer.

Born in 1958 in Romford, Essex, his parents ran a small grocers. Although money was tight, they provided a good home for the young Steve who excelled in sport, particularly football playing for the school team.

But opportunities were limited: “If I wanted to play football or cricket and I couldn’t cycle there then I couldn’t play”, he says. “My mum and dad were too busy so I cycled everywhere and that helped get me fit.”

He was making a reputation for himself but unable to attract the big London clubs: “The Glenn Hoddles and Alan Curbishleys were all signed to clubs but I couldn’t get to them. How could I?”

A selection of Steve Williams England Caps. Ref edr 03-18TI 4406. Picture: Terry Ife A selection of Steve Williams England Caps. Ref edr 03-18TI 4406. Picture: Terry Ife

It was a club based 120 miles away that showed firm interest; Second Division Southampton, and Steve was invited for a trial in Hampshire.

“Lawrie McMenemy (Saints’ manager), was very clever and knew they had to create a youth policy to compete”, he says. “So they had to cast their net.

“I was the first one they looked at with a player called Austin Hayes, who went on to play for Ireland. They gave us two weeks and it was make or break, but they saw something in me.”

But it was far from glamorous: “They put us in digs, which were awful, and there was no food”, he remembers. “We had to steal apples from trees to eat and one day we got caught and I was hauled in front of Ted Payne. I thought that was it.

Steve Williams with his player of the year award from Southampton. Ref edr 03-18TI 4398. Picture: Terry Ife Steve Williams with his player of the year award from Southampton. Ref edr 03-18TI 4398. Picture: Terry Ife

“But he offered me an apprenticeship and told me I had two years to prove I was a footballer. I rang my dad straight away, I couldn’t believe it.”

So the young Williams joined Southampton as an apprentice after school, joining a squad that included internationals Peter Osgood, Jim McCalliog and Mick Channon, who particularly looked after Steve: “He was good to me was Micky”, he recalls. “He used to give me £5 for cleaning his boots. Not bad for a guy on £8 per week!”

Luckily the accommodation was vastly improved: “They put me in Mr and Mrs Jones at Bitterne Park and they looked after me. I was getting great food like there was no tomorrow.

“I stayed there six years and didn’t want to leave. Not even when I met Angie, my wife.”

Southampton player of the year, Steve Williams. Ref edr 03-18TI 4379. Picture: Terry Ife Southampton player of the year, Steve Williams. Ref edr 03-18TI 4379. Picture: Terry Ife

On April 6, 1976, Steve made his Southampton debut in a local derby at bitter rivals Portsmouth, three days after Saints’ had beaten Crystal Palace in an FA Cup semi-final. His opportunity was prompted when three of his team-mates were dropped for disciplinary reasons.

“Osgood, McCalliog and Steele were left out, so I got my chance”, he recalls. “I was told I played well, but I don’t remember that. It was a hostile atmosphere; the Pompey fans went at us all game long. Micky Channon had wound them up in the local paper saying, ‘the best thing about Portsmouth is the M27 back to Southampton’.

“Then, in the last minute, Channon popped up and scored the winner and did his famous windmill celebration in front of them. It was a great feeling to win.”

Steve’s career continued to flourish. In 1976–77, he was voted player of the year at The Dell and earned the first of 14 international caps for England at under-21 level. So started a bright period for the south coast club with Steve playing a major role.

In 1977–78, captained by England World Cup winner, Alan Ball, Saints’ were promoted back to the First Division and in the following season Steve was an ever-present as his team made the 1979 League Cup final, losing 3–2 to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.

But it was the 1983-84 season that would live long in the memories of Saints’ fans. Steve had succeeded Ball as team captain and led them to an FA Cup semi-final defeat to eventual winners Everton, his biggest regret: “I was unfit but they filled me with steroids and let me play, but I could barely move.

“I would have loved to have led Saints’ to the FA Cup final, but it wasn’t to be.”

But a 3-1 victory against Notts County in the final league game saw Southampton finish in second place – the highest in their history. The club was on a roll.

The world was at Steve’s feet and it looked only a matter of time before he gained full international recognition. But the initial lack of acknowledgement was a cause of frustration for him: “Southampton players tend not to play for England”, he says. “England managers were never seen at The Dell. Look at Peter Osgood, he should have played more games for England.

“They did everything but pick me. It was when the press got involved that they had to.”

In June 1983, Steve finally got to play for his country, but on the other side of the world, when he stepped out in front of 28,000 at the Sydney Cricket Ground alongside England greats like Peter Shilton, Trevor Francis and Terry Butcher in a 0-0 draw against Australia. This the first of two friendlies he played in; the other a 1-0 win in Brisbane.

“Nobody wanted to go to Australia”, he recalls. “None of the bigger name players so they picked those that were willing.

“I enjoyed it but didn’t get to see much of Australia, just the hotels and stadiums.”

His next international in February 1984, was 2-0 defeat against France in Paris with Michel Platini scoring twice, his only defeat in an England shirt.

His Wembley debut for the Three Lions was in September 1984, when East Germany were defeated by a single Bryan Robson goal and there followed two World Cup qualifying games inside a month where England scored 13 goals! First Finland were thrashed 5-0 at Wembley in October and Turkey 8-0 in Istanbul in November.

Amazing then to think this would be the last we would see Steve play for England. In all he played six games for his country. He recalls: “Arsenal actually came in for me when I was 22, but I didn’t go.

“A senior pro told me later, ‘if you had joined them earlier you would have played 50 games for England, not six!’

“But there you go, I am still proud to say I played for England.”

But his career would take a twist before the end of 1984. McMenemy, and some of his senior players, were unhappy at Southampton, and Arsenal approached Steve, who was finally going to be a Gunner!

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