Johnny Williams: Footballer and Plymouth Argyle stalwart of the 1950s and '60s
Saturday 03 December 2011
Johnny Williams cut a majestic figure as he bestrode the Plymouth Argyle midfield for 11 seasons from the middle 1950s, surging forward with a dignity and style which called to mind some Atlantic-bound ship in full sail departing the city's historic harbour.
It was perceived widely, and by such shrewd judges as the Manchester United manager Matt Busby and his Wolves counterpart Stan Cullis, that the tall, upright Bristolian was tailor-made for the upper echelons of English football, but Williams never tasted life in the top tier, instead remaining loyal to the Pilgrims throughout his prime and later serving Bristol Rovers in the city of his birth.
He was renowned for the power and accuracy of his long-distance shooting, and for all his defensive solidity it was that attacking instinct which made him such a favourite with the Home Park faithful. Indeed, they selected him for Argyle's team of the 20th century, an accolade which his 448 appearances and 55 goals for the club merited.
After leaving Bristol for Plymouth with his family as a boy, Williams began an apprenticeship as an electrical fitter at Devonport dockyard, but his father believed his son had the makings of a footballer so he asked Argyle to give him a trial. Manager Jimmy Rae agreed, was duly delighted by what he saw and Williams left his local works side to make a provisional agreement with Plymouth as a 17- year-old in October 1952.
Soon he turned professional and in September 1955 he made his senior debut at inside-left in a 1-0 home victory over Blackburn Rovers in the old Second Division. Three weeks later he scored his first goal, a consolation effort in a 4-1 defeat by Liverpool at Anfield, and that season he played frequently in various forward positions.
However, Plymouth were a struggling side and they were relegated at season's end, with young Williams having lost his place. He was back in at the outset of 1956-57, only to be axed after Argyle made a dismal start, but that proved to be but a temporary blip in his progress.
During a brief autumn interlude in the reserves, it became evident that Williams' power and the crispness of his tackling made him a natural wing-half and it was in that role in which he made a swift return to first-team duty. Thereafter he never looked back, becoming a fixture in the senior side for the next decade, his athleticism and strength matched by his ease on the ball, his passing and shooting prowess and a calm demeanour which was invaluable in many a defensive crisis as Argyle fought to stave off a second successive demotion in the spring of 1957.
Unlike many promising youngsters, Williams was able to fit his National Service commitments around turning out for his club, and his game improved notably during his army days, when he performed alongside such future luminaries as Manchester United's Bobby Charlton, and Cliff Jones, who would go on to shine for Tottenham Hotspur. The standard of competition was high and Williams rose to the challenge, prompting Busby to remark after watching him in action one night in Scotland that, despite being in the company of several high-profile professionals, Williams was the finest footballer afield.
Soon came his premier tangible achievement when he excelled as the Pilgrims lifted the Third Division title in 1959. He was being monitored by a posse of top-flight clubs, including Cullis's Wolves, then on their way to a second successive League championship. However, Argyle were so desperate to keep their main man that they slapped a reported £40,000 price tag on him, which deterred prospective purchasers at a time when the British transfer record stood at only £45,000.
Undaunted, Williams continued to excel for Argyle as they slid up and down the Second Division table during the first half of the 1960s, with the highlight an appearance in the League Cup semi-final of 1965. They lost to Leicester City over two legs, but Williams had the satisfaction of scoring past Gordon Banks, the goalkeeper who would help England lift the World Cup.
Having reached his 30s, Williams was left out in the cold by the Argyle manager Derek Ufton in 1966 and that December he signed for Bristol Rovers. Though past his peak, he offered valuable experience to the Third Division Pirates, whom he served until 1969, when he left the professional game.
Williams made a fleeting return to Argyle as a coach under Billy Bingham, and enjoyed a stint as player-manager of non-League Bodmin Town. A man of integrity and an approachable individual, he went on to run a successful garage business in Plymouth.
John Stanley James Williams, footballer: born Bristol 16 August 1935; played for Plymouth Argyle 1952-66, Bristol Rovers 1966-69; died Plymouth 24 November 2011.
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