Stuart Williams: Footballer whose sterling World Cup service in the Welsh defence elicited a glowing tribute from Pele
Friday 10 January 2014
When Stuart Williams was confronted by the emerging genius of Pele in a quarter-final of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the classy and constructive Welsh full-back responded with the performance of his life. That day in Gothenburg, the teenager who would soon be hailed as the greatest footballer of all time, scored the only goal of the game to eliminate valiant opponents who had upset the odds by reaching the last eight. Though deprived of their own star, John Charles, through injury, the scarlet-shirted heroes held out for more than 70 minutes against a sumptuously talented Brazilian attack, in which the prodigy combined to compelling effect with the likes of Garrincha, Didi and Zagalo.
West Bromwich Albion's Williams stood superbly defiant on the right flank of the Welsh rearguard and deserved far better than to deflect Pele's scuffed shot past goalkeeper Jack Kelsey for the decisive score. Many years later, Pele paid glowing tribute to Jimmy Murphy's vanquished team, describing Williams and his defensive comrades as excellent, and citing that goal as the most important of his career.
The Baggies' right-back played in all five of the Welshmen's matches in the tournament, including a rousing victory over the powerful Hungarians in the play-off for a place in the last eight. He went on to collect 43 full caps in an international career stretching from 1954 – he debuted in a 2-0 friendly defeat by Austria in Vienna – to 1965.
Club-wise, too, the unflappable Williams achieved plenty, his dozen years at the Hawthorns encompassing one of the headiest periods in Albion's history, before a four-term stint with Southampton climaxed with the club's promotion to the top flight for the first time.
As a boy, he had entered senior football with Wrexham, his home-town club of which his father was a director, enlisting with the Robins as an amateur in the summer of 1947. A handful of games didn't produce a breakthrough, though, so he moved to the Midlands to work in insurance, which took him into Albion's ambit. A year after signing as a professional in February 1951, Williams made his First Division entrance as a centre-forward in a 3-0 defeat at Huddersfield, then was deployed at wing-half and centre-half before he settled as a full-back during 1953-54, in which the Baggies finished as runners-up to local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers in the title race and won the FA Cup.
At that point, the Welshman was still on the periphery of Vic Buckingham's free-flowing side and narrowly missed out on a championship gong. However, he was expected to face Preston North End at Wembley after deputising for the injured right-back Stan Rickaby during a sequence of League games, only to be disappointed when Buckingham went for the more experienced Joe Kennedy, essentially a central defender, out of position on the big day. Undeterred, Williams proved a key squad member in several roles for the next few seasons, then earned a regular place at left-back in 1957-58, thereafter demonstrating his versatility and proving his worth in two polished full-back partnerships: he appeared on the left flank when Don Howe was on the right, and vice-versa when his namesake and fellow Welsh international, Graham Williams, was on the left.
Muscular and decisive yet surprisingly adroit with the ball at his feet, Williams was a lovely passer who relished surging forward to join the attack. He was a major influence as West Bromwich finished fourth in the table, then fifth and fourth again as the decade closed.
In September 1962, aged 32, after making nearly 250 senior appearances plus some 180 for the reserves, Williams was sold to second-tier Southampton for £15,000. By then he was the Baggies' most capped footballer, having enjoyed 33 outings for Wales, a record he retained until it was beaten by the Hungarian Zoltan Gera in recent times.
At the Dell, he flourished anew under the Saints' manager Ted Bates, helping Southampton reach the FA Cup semi-finals in his first season – the Saints lost 1-0 to Manchester United at Villa Park – and continuing to perform with polished aplomb as they were elevated to the First Division as runners-up to Manchester City in 1965-66.
That summer, Williams retired as a player and soon returned to the Hawthorns as a trainer, helping manager Alan Ashman prepare the side for their 1968 FA Cup triumph over Everton. He left again in 1969, then took a succession of coaching jobs, serving Aston Villa, Paykan of Iran and Morton before, in 1971, going back to the Dell as assistant manager to Bates. He didn't linger, though, leaving in 1973, and going on to brief assignments scouting for Carlisle United and coaching Norwegian club Viking Stavanger in 1974. He later worked as a tyre salesman, and then as a financial controller for a transport firm, but he was never forgotten by fans of the Baggies and the Saints – or by Pele.
Stuart Grenville Williams, footballer: born Wrexham 9 July 1930; played for Wrexham 1947-50, West Bromwich Albion 1950-62, Southampton 1962-66; capped 43 times by Wales 1954-65; died Southampton 5 November 2013.
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