The second in our ‘Top Boyos’ series sees us turn to one of the first poster boys of the Welsh Premier League. Mark Pitman talks about his admiration for former Barry Town, Caernafon Town and Hartlepool striker Eifion Williams. Mark is certainly an expert on the Welsh Premier and all things Welsh football-related with regular contributions to Wales Online as well as several other websites including ‘In Bed With Maradona’ and ‘The Ball Is Round’. Mark also writes his own excellent Welsh football blog which can be found here.
To celebrate two decades of the domestic top-flight, the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League, in collaboration with broadcasters S4/C, spent the 2012-2013 season handing out awards to twenty influential figures who have played their part in the success of the national league. The Hall of Fame choices proved to be a popular topic of debate, and the winners were celebrated at the league’s end of season presentation night earlier this month. One deserved recipient was former Caernarfon Town and Barry Town striker Eifion Williams, a free-scoring forward who’s goals took him from the then-named League of Wales to the Football League where he marked his arrival with a dream debut that served not only to raise the price of his own stock, but also that of the domestic league. The success of the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League is often judged on the subsequent success of its exports rather than on the performance of players competing within the league, and the impact of Williams in raising the profile and credibility of the top-flight should not be underestimated.
Following his release from Wolverhampton Wanderers, Williams returned to his native North Wales to sign for Caernarfon Town and played for the Canaries between 1995 and 1997. Still a teenager upon his arrival at the Oval, Williams proved influential beyond his years as he scored 63 goals in 75 league appearances. With Molineux now a distant memory, Williams was offered a surprise return to the professional game when Barry Town, the flagship side and only professional outfit in the League of Wales at the time, invested £25,000 to secure his services in the summer of 1997. It remains the record fee paid between two clubs in the league today. Goals at domestic level had not been in short supply for Barry Town before Williams’ arrival, but manager Gary Barnett was building a squad capable of competing on the European stage. After a season at Jenner Park, Williams scored the only goal in a 2-1 home UEFA Champions League defeat against a Dynamo Kiev side that included a certain Andrei Shevchenko in their starting line-up. By 1999, and after four seasons in the national league, Williams had achieved a scoring ratio of over a goal a game, and his League of Wales career came to a close with a record of 131 goals from 130 starts during his time at Caernarfon Town and Barry Town. However, his achievements had been noted further afield, and Williams was about to make the biggest headlines of his career.
After rumoured interest from clubs such as Nottingham Forest, Chester City, Crewe Alexandra, Cardiff City, Hartlepool United, and a trial at Portsmouth, Williams eventually signed for Torquay United for a fee of £70,000. As well as his record and natural ability in-front of goal, interest in Williams had also been prompted by the success of Mark Delaney, who a few years earlier had progressed from Carmarthen Town to the Premier League with Aston Villa, via a short-spell at Cardiff City. The success of Delaney naturally attracted interest in the recently-formed national league, with professional clubs across the country keen to find a bargain from the emerging top-flight. With Delaney establishing himself in the professional game, attentions switched to Williams and his goalscoring form. The investment was a significant one for Torquay United, and as a result the transfer was also considered to be a significant risk. Manager Wes Saunders had heard good reports about Williams from his goalkeeper, Wales legend Neville Southall, and the Third Division side offered Williams the opportunity to prove himself in the Football League.
Eifion Williams subsequently turned-out for his Football League debut at Plainmoor on 27 March 1999, and in front of the family and friends who had made a surprise trip, he scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 victory over Hartlepool United in what can only be described as a dream debut. “I’ve always believed in my ability,” said a delighted post-match Williams. “My game is about scoring goals and that’s what I’ve always done. I look to get in the box and get on the end of crosses. If I do that I’m confident that I will score goals. For me, this season was probably my last chance. I’m 24 this year and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to show what I can do. The fee was a lot of money for a club like Torquay but that’s not going to bother me. I’m just going to enjoy it and try to score as many goals as possible. Who knows, if I can do that I may make some bigger clubs take notice. It’s every player’s dream to play in the Premiership. The game was a bit quicker than I’ve been used to, and you don’t get much time on the ball. It was also a bit more physical than the League of Wales. But I’m sure I’ll wake up this week and think I’ve dreamed it all.”
Williams also used his new-found celebrity status to promote the national league, the league that had provided the platform for his success. “People were probably afraid to gamble because I was playing in the League of Wales. But the League of Wales is a good standard. Several players have moved into the Football League from there and done well. Look at Mark Delaney, who was playing at Carmarthen last season, one year on he’s at a Premier League club. It shows there are good players in the league, and, hopefully, more teams will come along and take them out.” His debut hat-trick was therefore as valuable to the league as it was for Williams, and his post-match comments about the domestic top-flight would have served only to remove the elements of doubt that scouts and managers around the country would have had about increasing their interest in players emerging from the predominantly part-time league. Despite his instant impression, there remained doubts over his longevity at this level having been released as a youngster, but there was much more to come from Williams in his new surroundings.
After a century of appearances for Torquay United, Williams eventually moved on after finding himself out of favour with manager Roy McFarland and his plans in 2002, and joined Hartlepool United for a fee of £30,000. Manager Chris Turner had previously worked with the youth players at Wolverhampton Wanderers and had monitored the progress of Williams from the time of his release from the club. The move took his collective transfer fees into six-figures, and he remained at his new club until 2007. Williams made over 200 appearances for Hartlepool and scored a half-century of goals before his release. During his time at Victoria Park, Williams played in a play-off final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and was called-up for the full Welsh squad under manager Mark Hughes, although he missed out on adding a full cap to his previous appearance for the Wales B team. Settled in the town with his young family and cementing his place in the hearts of the club’s supporters, the best years of Williams’ career were spent at Hartlepool. However, injuries were becoming more common-place, and he retired from the professional game one-year into a two-year contract at Wrexham in 2008. Williams and his family subsequently returned to the north-east of England to pursue a career away from the professional game.
But despite his retirement, Williams clearly had not forgotten the attraction of playing, or the faith that had been shown in him by the manager that plucked him from Barry Town for £70,000. Like Williams, former Torquay United manager Wes Saunders had stepped away from the professional game and had opted to take on a coaching role at Northern League side Jarrow Roofing. Based in the north-east, the club tempted Williams back onto the field in 2008, and with it return Williams to the sort of surroundings he experienced when signing for Caernarfon Town as a teenager. The goals for Jarrow Roofing have been as sporadic as his appearances since he agreed to return Saunders’ favour, but if Williams remains grateful to Saunders for offering him the opportunity that made his career, the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League remains just as grateful for the profile and respect it gained from one of its most popular and successful exports.
Mark Pitman (@markpitman1)