History Boys | Marvin Williams

Originally featured in BEES 2018/19 Issue #6 v Birmingham City (2 October 2018)

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.

“Colin Lee [Claridge’s assistant] took over and it just so happened that he watched me in a reserve game, liked what he saw and honestly 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 away at Coventry I was making my debut. Millwall pretty much became my club due to the amount of years I spent there and then to make my debut was crazy because of how close I’d come 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 he told me that I was in the squad for Saturday against Coventry so we just want you to get fit. 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 season – often playing alongside former Bees striker Ben May – as they were relegated to League One and more of the same followed the next season, though this time – fortunately – without a second successive relegation. But his willingness to seek change saw him swap the hustle-and-bustle of the capital for country life with Yeovil, then managed by Russell Slade.

“I just wanted change,” he says. “I’m very independent and once I’ve made a decision I’ll stick to it. I’d been at the club for so many years and it was the same training ground, the same faces, 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, did really well and could’ve left but I wasn’t going 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 just 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. Looking back now I don’t regret it because it taught me in football that the grass isn’t always greener in one respect, 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.

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

“I’d gone from the Championship to League One and now I was going down another league and I 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 the vision of the club. The thing for me was that I would be a big part of his plans and 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 the case when you are signing a new set of players, it could either go one way or the other; either you are really successful or it was going to be bitty and stop-start with people moving on. You could sense from day one in pre-season that everyone got on and there were no clicks.

“It was a tough pre-season, I always remember the running side of it with Andy Scott was always tough but the lads would get through it together. I think that was what was most important about the running because it was more about togetherness and getting lads through the running, dragging the ones who were struggling along with you. That helped and one we got through pre-season, you could sense that it could be a special season.

“Alan Bennett and Kev O’Connor were just both top, top guys who you could have a conversation with; very honest people, which is what I respect in people. They created that environment of being there to do things properly and that’s the best thing. Those two, as far as professionals go, they were the model pros to look at and learn. Andy Scott used to do a lot of passing sessions and organised sessions and it was always just about doing it right. If no one was looking, it didn’t matter, you do things properly.”

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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. 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 any 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, playing it how I wanted to play it and really being consistent. At the beginning of the season I was enjoying it and the confidence was sky-high through pre-season and then there was times as well where my confidence was low, I wasn’t performing how I wanted to perform and there were things going on within the club where I had a few disagreements with management, which wasn’t always the best thing for myself. It was just up and down really. Towards the end of the year it brightened up and we just had one common goal really which was to get the league title. From a player’s point of view I know I didn’t hit the heights that I knew I could’ve done for whatever reason, but the biggest thing that came out of that year – apart from the league – was what I learned as a player and 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 but 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.

A mutual agreement was made to place Marvin on the transfer list in the weeks that followed, but in spite of this, 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.

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“During pre-season we mutually agreed that I could leave,” he says. “One evening, I got a phonecall 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 now 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 them but made sure I made a phonecall to Andy and said, despite anything that ever happened, thank you for giving me the league and making me a part of it.”

Unbeknownst to Marvin, though, those final seconds he spent in the red and white stripes, were seconds that altered the course of his career. Just four appearances later, in December 2009, he was released by the Gulls, and 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 Swedish life, playing for third tier side Ostersunds.

“The guy who was looking after me he should’ve been aware of it but as a young 20-odd year-old kid, I thought it made no difference and 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 the club on their pre-season tour of Scotland and I thought ‘Why not?’. They were very good to me and looked after me, gave me a house, gave me a car, flew my family back and forth and paid for the flights. 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. It got to a stage where 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 there was never going to be a long-term option for me.”

Barnet, however, 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 in order 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 the love of the game playing league football because I probably never really had a relationship with any manager that I really clicked with. That probably sounds like it was me! I had a break for a long time I got a call from a friend who asked if I wanted to play at Hemel Hempstead and 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 then 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 Sutton, for the last six or seven years, is where I’ve been. It was local to home and Paul Doswell is someone that I’ve got a really, really good relationship with now; he’s a really honest man and I loved playing under him as well.”

Marvin’s non-league days were undoubtedly the most fruitful of his career – he could play through the middle on a regular basis as he’d always longed to 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 just 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 was at a stage where I was doing a bit of coaching in the evening with some grassroots teams and I thought I could keep playing with the injury and by 35 not be able to run around and play with my kids, or I can say I got to play in the Championship, League One, League Two, won leagues, played in FA Cups, played in front of thousands. 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.”

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 setup 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 and finally comfortably settled.

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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 can probably say I enjoy my job more than I did playing and that’s me being really honest,” he cathartically admits. “I loved my time at Salisbury and loved my time at Sutton but in comparison to league football, 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. The amount of work he put in on the training pitch in terms of how thorough he was. 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 is tough at the time because especially as a young player, you are thinking about why you are doing it, but you are not really understanding the outcomes and the repetition that comes onto the pitch until later on in life. Like me, where I’m luckily now coaching, you then understand the thought process behind it. We wouldn’t have won the league that year if it wasn’t for that level of coaching because that’s what we had against any team that year, we just beat teams, had a philosophy, stuck to it and we knew exactly what our jobs were individually and collectively. We just blew teams away at times because we were that good at doing the same things consistently.

“We’ve got five teams here at Sutton, ranging from U18 to U21 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. We’re a programme – effectively funded by the government – that runs 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.

“People always ask me if I miss football but because of the club I work for, I’m on the training pitch every day, it keeps you around the game, it keeps you young and keeps you fit. In one word no, I don’t miss the game but obviously when you do go and watch your mates play or you do go to bigger games or you watch the first team play, you do miss that matchday feeling.

“I’ve got so much still 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 this. When the moment comes it comes but though I’m not actively looking, management is something that 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 pathway now 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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