Exclusive Interview: Darren Williams

James Rowe for The Secret Footballer

James Rowe spoke with Darren Williams. The defender played for ten club across England and Scotland, including 200 caps for Sunderland. Williams also turned manager, taking up the role at Whitby Town between 2011-2015.

(image source: The FA)

JR ''You retired from professional football in 2015. How are enjoying retirement and how is life for you these days?''

DW ''I think when you have been in an industry for so long with your daily routine and how you go about things and what you do on a weekly basis you miss it as a player. I have great memories and unfortunately we cannot all keep playing for the rest of our lives so for me I do miss the day to day banter of the dressing room and I shared a dressing room with some amazing people the likes of Niall Quinn, Kevin Phillips and Stefan Schwarz the list is endless. Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton were fantastic with me at Sunderland AFC especially on match days. I have now moved into the coaching side of things I am working for an international academy called eye to eye and I am now based in Northumbria having starting in York and we have students who come from all over the world to study and we coach them every afternoon and they playing in a university league and we also play showcase games and because of the connections that we have in the game we play showcase games against professional clubs. We do not only give these guys an opportunity for a good education we also give them the opportunity to showcase themselves against professional footballers because these guys obviously want to be professional footballers and the one thing that I did not have personally when I was coming through my career was an educational background so we really stress to them that it is really important to get an educational background because not all football works out for everybody.''

JR ''You came through the youth setup and went on to make first team appearances for the York City. How do you look back on your time at the club and do you have any highlights or special memories?''

DW ''Yes, York City was my starting ground. I was originally at Middlesbrough FC and I was offered an extended contract at the club however at the time I did not feel comfortable with the amount of players that were there and from a personal point of view I wanted an opportunity of first team football as early as possible and I did not feel that I would get that opportunity at Middlesbrough FC. I left the club and fortunately enough for me at the time Ricky Sbragia who is a fantastic guy and went on to do great things with Manchester United and he came back to Sunderland AFC. Ricky recommended me to Sunderland AFC and from my point of view starting off at York City. A lot of people were scratching their head and saying why has he left Middlesbrough FC and gone to York City but I felt comfortable at York City and I managed to go on to play first team football pretty early. I made my debut as a substitute in a Boxing Day away game at Blackpool FC and we won 4-0 and then weirdly enough I finished the game and as a first team player in the first team squad you would expect to then go take a shower or a bath I was in the midst of getting changed and Ricky Sbragia came in and got me out and told told me to clean the dressing room while I was still in my kit, in the modern day game now things like that would not happen however that was Ricky's way of keeping my grounded as a player and not letting you get ahead of yourself too much. He said to me '' I knew that you had something and I did not want it to go to waste by you getting a little bit carried away because you are in the first team early in your career '' It kept me grounded which I really appreciated and Ricky Sbragia had a good influence on my career, not only that at the time I was also in the team that beat Manchester United at Old Trafford 3-0 in the Coca Cola Cup although we lost the second leg at home we went through on aggregate.''

JR ''You played eight seasons for Sunderland AFC going on to make many appearances for the club. How do you look back on your time at the club and do you have any special memories or highlights? ''

DW ''To be fair my move to Sunderland AFC came out of the blue really. I was not aware at the time although I knew that Ricky Sbragia had gone there as youth team manager and he recommended me to Peter Reid and what had happened is that I was at York City and the new contracts had been offered and mine was the same as the other guys and I just felt that I had done more, had the opportunity to play in the first team and played regularly games too and I have never been a greedy person in the game. It was not about money for me it was about playing and the opportunity to live out my dreams. I felt that I deserved a little bit more with what I had done but York City did not see it that way and we had a falling out and I subsequently turned down a new contract with the manager and the chairman did not take too lightly to and they told me that I would not go anywhere and that nobody has been interested in me and I just stated from a personal point of view that was a risk that I was willing to take. I ended up training and traveling in on my own and I got a phone call when I was driving down the A19 so I pulled over and answered the call and I thought it was the guys at training taking the mick out of my by saying '' Hi Darren, It's Paul Bracewell from Sunderland AFC '' I played along and told them I was on my way into training, let's not joke about and I hung up. About ten seconds after that my Mum rang me to say '' Dad says to say make sure you have got your phone on because Paul Bracewell from Sunderland AFC is going to ring you '' I was obviously embarrassed and I phoned him back and Paul's reply was '' It's a good job I am a patient man isn't it '' I explained that I really apologize and I thought it was the guys at training taking the mick so from my point of you I could have absolutely scuppered the whole thing with a stupid phone call. They wanted me to come and play in a pre season friendly game so I went up to Sunderland to play and I sat and looking around the dressing room where there was the likes of Niall Quinn , Paul Stewart, Kevin Ball and Alex Rae and I was thinking to myself I am going to play with these guys out on the pitch having previously watched them on television, It was a bit surreal. Peter Reid sat next to me in the dressing room and said '' Are you alright son, Are you nervous? '' I replied '' yes a little bit '' He then said '' I tell you what the best thing for you to do is to run around and when you get the ball just give it to me, I thought wow this guy is on a different level.''

JR ''You played one season for Dundee FC. How do you look back on your time at the club and how do you reflect on your time playing professional football in Scotland?''

DW ''The season as a whole started off really great and it was against a transfer that came from nothing at the time. Fortunately enough for me the manager was my former teammate Alex Rae and after getting a phone call and inviting me to come up to Scotland and stating how much they wanted me in the team. I was unsure at the time what I was going to do and I was debating on whether to drop doing to non league level at that point and I was not sure how I was going to pursue the rest of my career. It was a quick transition after not really having a pre-season as such as I went away with the first team for the first game of the season after only having done a light session when I arrived in Scotland. During my career I prided myself on keeping myself fit regardless of where I was or what I was doing even in the close season I would keep fit. After a good start to the season we suffered a bout of injuries which included a lot of the first eleven including myself who were picking up niggles and knocks and unfortunately. Alex did not have the resources to keep a big squad and he would play some younger lads and we went from the top two to dropping down the table very quickly and the club took a real sharp decision to get rid of Alex. I remember we were sitting in the dressing room and the Chief Executive came in and told us that they have unfortunately made a decision to let Alex go. I was kind of shell shocked and he asked if anybody had any issues or problems and I raised my hand because I felt it was harsh to be honest and I told them that I did not agree with it and if you look at the situation Alex is working under extreme pressure with a lot of first team players that are out though injury he responded with '' We understand that but we are dropping down the table '' I said we just need to get those players back on the pitch and things will change again but the board made that decision and out of respect for Alex and the fact that he gave me an opportunity to go and play in Scotland I just felt that somebody needed to speak up and voice their opinion and I didn't do it in a bad way but I felt the need to say something as I felt it was very harsh they way they treated Alex.''

JR ''You mentioned earlier in the interview about playing with the likes of Niall Quinn, Kevin Phillips and Stefan Schwarz, when you look back on your career could you say who were among the best players you played alongside during your professional career?''

DW ''Yes, I struck up a good relationship with Jody Cradock when I first arrived at Sunderland AFC I was a young player as was Jody and initially I did not join the club as a centre half. When I was at York City I played wide right or centre midfield and then basically Bobby Saxton and Peter Reid called us into the office having had their heads together and '' ask me when was the last time you played centre half? '' to which my reply was '' when I was ten I think '' They proceeded to tell me that we are going to try you and Jody there and I said '' Are you sure? '' Jody and I had a good friendship off the pitch and think that Bobby Saxton and Peter Reid touched upon that and they decided to put us there and the good think about it was that I always liked a challenge and I think Jody was exactly the same so we had this opportunity and challenge to go in there and at the time we are trying to dislodge Richard Ord and Andy Melville who were great centre halves for Sunderland AFC so it was a bit of a shock to us and I am sure it was a bit of a shock to them as well. The opportunity arose and we were also roommates at away games and our partnership then developed on the pitch and it was a genius piece of work by them both to see that we could play alongside each other and play off each other and it worked and all credit to Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton because our good friendship sparked that and I think having the chance to develop in training coming up against the likes of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips and Danny Dichio at the time you are putting yourself up against very good strikers and to have the opportunity to test yourself as a defender against strikers like that only improved me as a player and we went on to do good things in the Premier League and to finish 7th two seasons in a row with a Sunderland AFC side that was put together on a shoestring budget really.''

JR ''Finally Darren, you mentioned Ricky Sbragia and Peter Reid, could you say who were the coaches and managers who meant a lot to you and played a key role in your development as a professional footballer?''

DW ''Yes, From a development point of view and the initial outset Ricky Sbragia was massive in that he was my youth manager and the one who kept me grounded at the start. Things developed on from there and then going onto senior level Peter Reid is a fantastic guy and he along with Bobby Saxton had the vision to see me in a different position and one that I had not played since I was a child. They man managed their players. I had a real bad situation we were away at a hotel on a Monday night getting ready to play Manchester City on the Tuesday and unfortunately for me my Dad passed away on the Monday night and I received the news via phone call so I went down to see Peter Reid and he asked me if I was ok as he thought I was ill. I explained everything and he dealt with that situation in an unbelievable way both he and Bobby Saxton were fantastic at that time and it was a very tough time for me and I think in that situation I could have gone either way to be fair I could have kept my career going and developed or I could have gone in completely the opposite way and had it not been for Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton I probably would have went the wrong way because it hit me hard at first but they made me see a way past it and a way out of it and they were desperate to get me back into training and playing again as quickly as possible and as much as I did not want too those two guys brought me back and I appreciate all the time they spent with me and they could man manage their players extremely well and they put a great team together. I always say it is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together in the way they did it because they did not go for the best players around the Premier League because they did not have the budget they went for players they recognized and they made it a jigsaw puzzle where they put the pieces together and for a club like Sunderland AFC to finish 7th twice in the Premier League and just miss out on Europe on a small budget meant that they did a fantastic job and I appreciate the opportunity that they gave me to be a part of that successful time.''


James Rowe is a Dutch Football expert based in the Netherlands, professional writer and translator for The Secret Footballer. He has featured on talkSPORT and regularly features on talkSPORT 2 and Love Sport Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here.