For Millwall midfielder Shaun Williams the road to his first international cap for the Boys in Green was a long and winding one.
From United Park to Morton Stadium, from Stadium:mk to The Den, Williams’ career has frequently been a case of the path less travelled.
A path that eventually led him to the Stade de France in Paris in May, sporting the Irish green (or white in this case) for the first time, at 31 years of age.
“I made my debut against France in the Stade de France just before the World Cup,” Williams told Pundit Arena.
“My second cap was against Wales when I came on and the third one I started against Poland away which I loved as well. I was in a couple of squads after that but I was unfortunate not to play.”
“That’s what you want to play football for, to play for your country and now I’m glad I can say I have.”
For the last five and a half seasons, Williams has been a key cog in a Millwall midfield that has seen its fair share of triumphs and tragedies.
Relegation and a play-off final defeat welcomed the 32-year old in his first two seasons at the club before victory at Wembley in 2016/2017 saw the Lions return to the Championship at the second time of asking.
Last season, Williams and Millwall finished in 8th in the Championship, their highest league position since the 2001/2002 campaign.
While toiling away at the bottom half of the Championship and the top of League One, with both Millwall and MK Dons before that, Williams almost found himself hidden from view, as an Irish cap continued to evade him.
The former Drogheda United man outlined however that, despite others writing him off, he always felt as though the recent improvements in his game would be recognised at international level, before that fateful night in Paris.
“I would’ve never said never, personally I would’ve never written myself off,” he began.
“I think a lot of people might have done that but in my eyes no, I feel like over the last five years my game has improved a hell of a lot and it’s just unfortunate that age goes by as well.
“I would’ve loved it to be five or six years ago because hopefully I would’ve had a lot more caps than I have now but I’m certainly still looking to be involved and I spoke to the manager after he got the job so hopefully I’ll be selected for the squad in March.”
After France, Williams missed the USA game as it clashed with his wedding.
Four months later he found himself on the bench for Ireland’s UEFA Nations League game against Wales, watching on from the dugout in Cardiff with his side four goals to nil down.
With Ireland struggling, O’Neill summoned Williams from the bench in the 58th minute. Eight minutes later, he’d bagged his first international goal in just his second cap.
As he lifted the ball over Wayne Hennessey the 32-year old outlined that he may have let his emotions get the better of him.
“I was actually talking about it with one of the lads, he was on loan this season and he’s just come back now, he said he was watching the game with a few of his mates and they were saying ‘what’s this fella doing celebrating at 4-0 down?!,'” joked Williams.
“He obviously knew the passion and pride that comes with scoring for your country is like no other.
“Obviously it was tough to watch the game and be 4-0 down when you’re coming on but I just made the most of the 15 minutes or so I played but I thoroughly enjoyed it, scoring was an amazing feeling.”
Ireland would go on to lose the game 4-1, but Williams outlined that, despite the slightly bittersweet feeling of defeat when the whistle blew, his goal is something that he will cherish for the rest of his life.
“Words can’t even describe it like. I’ve gone to a lot of Ireland games growing up and even now and I always had the love for watching Ireland and to score for your country you can’t even describe it like, it’s a surreal feeling and one that I’ll cherish.
“It’s something that I’ll have for the rest of my life no one can take it away from me.”
Back at his club Millwall, Williams is joined by another Irish international who also recently broke into the first team in Aiden O’Brien.
The 25-year old frontman, like Williams, was among the goals for Ireland this season scoring in their friendly draw against Poland, meaning that the Millwall duo contributed to half of the goals the Boys in Green scored in 2018.
Williams joked he frequently gives his teammate stick over the competitive nature of his goal but was keen to point out that the pride O’Brien had in scoring for his country was incredibly similar to his.
“Yeah, Aiden’s goal was in the same trip as well!
“He’s over the moon about that, there were tears in his eyes when he scored, similar to myself so that’s how much it meant to the two of us but at least I can say to him mine was in a qualifier and not in a friendly!
“I give him stick a lot I always say to him, ‘who finished top goalscorer for Ireland in the Nations League?’ and he goes mad but yeah he was over the moon.”
At 32 years of age, Williams may not have time necessarily on his side but he’s excited about an international career that is only just beginning.
With the Euro 2020 qualifiers less than two months away, Williams is optimistic about his chances of contributing to the Irish cause, as he did in 2018.
But does he see himself as an inspiration for other players breaking on to the international scene later in their careers?
“Yeah definitely,” explains Williams.
“I looked to people before me like Wes Hoolahan and Keith Andrews who had a late start on the international scene as well, probably not as late as me but still it was late 20s.
“I think it’s a never-say-never kind of attitude that if you want it it will eventually happen for you.”