Where next for Joniesta?
With Jonny Williams crocked yet again, Russell Todd looks at his career date and ponders, where next for ‘Joniesta’?
At the time of writing Jonny Williams has just signed on loan for Ipswich for a fourth time, despite having an injury which also served to remove him from the squad for Wales’s qualifier against Moldova. Hopefully this spell will go better than previous loan spells which have largely been either interrupted or curtailed by injury.
Already, I’ve used the word ‘injury’ twice. It’s hard not to when writing about Williams. Injury defines his career to date.
Most Wales fans will have become aware of him when he came on for his international debut as a half-time replacement for an unwell Gareth Bale at Hampden Park in March 2013. Spritely, energetic and with no little invention he helped turn the game. Like Bale had done 6 months earlier in Cardiff, Williams ghosted past a leaden-footed Charlie Adam – which always makes these things sweeter – and, as he did all half, infiltrated the space between midfield and defence to feed fellow substitute Andy King to cross for Hal Robson-Kanu’s now iconic winner in the snow.
The more obsessive of us fans had already been made aware of his talent and promise in the Wales age grade set-up. An impressive haul of twenty one U17 and U19 caps had already been earned by this Kentish lad with a dad from Môn by the time he won his first U21 cap, and as the second ever youngest player to do so to boot. Gary Speed was alert to his talent and called him up as a replacement for the double header against Switzerland and Bulgaria in October 2011.
Williams had started the season in Crystal Palace’s first team and on the cusp of perhaps taking the next step to full honours – remember, Andrew Crofts was still in the side at this point and Joe Allen had only just made his full debut – injury struck. A broken fibula incurred on Wales U21 duty kept him out for over four months; and though he returned to make five appearances for Palace at the end of that season, he failed to complete 90 minutes in any of them.
2012-13 was Williams’s breakthrough season; but sadly, four seasons on it remains his most productive. He played 37 games in all competitions, though he missed the first four games of the season due to, yes, injury, as Palace won promotion to the EPL. Four days after his Hampden cameo he dazzled as the best midfielder on show against Croatia, Modric and all, at the Liberty Stadium. At least he did for an hour or so at which point he ‘hit the wall’. Wales were still leading at this point. I still maintain, as impressive as he was playing, he was so clearly exhausted the extra space he was leaving was exploited by Croatia for Lovren’s equaliser. By the time he was replaced by Simon Church in the 83rd minute the momentum had swung Croatia’s way who went to gain a fortuitous win.
“Who the fucking hell are you?” sang the Scottish fans when he came on in Hampden. Well now we fucking knew, if we didn’t already. A week later he was being linked with moves to Arsenal, Manchester City and the elite end of the EPL.
I was fortunate to watch the squad train pre-Euros in the Vale of Glamorgan and remarked at the time that his touch and poise stood out. With a low centre of gravity, impeccable control and the ability to run – to float, drift even – with the ball at his feet he is the first Welsh player with the ability to beat a man with such deft and effortless efficiency since Jason Koumas. Even better than Aaron Ramsey, and only Bale can be more devastating; though where Bale uses pace and power, Williams has the guile to befuddle and bewitch. He’s a joy to watch…
When he’s fit.
In an interview with Golwg at the end of 2014 he stated that his biggest challenge that year had been staying fit.
“Mae’n siŵr mai cadw’n ffit fydd yr her fwyaf flwyddyn nesaf hefyd!”
His gallows humour here – in expecting it be his biggest challenge in 2015 too – will be apparent only to Welsh speakers. The disappointment that it proved prophetic will be shared by all Welsh fans though.
His current injury was caused in pre-season by a Farnborough player with what Chris Coleman called a “cowardly tackle”. Three years earlier against Macedonia he was kicked out of the game by what then Eagles manager, Ian Holloway, also called a cowardly tackle. He was kicked out of the home game against Bosnia too. The question about whether he receives enough protection from referees is a legitimate one. As an aside, his treatment against Bosnia, and by Miralem Pjanić in particular, seems a landmark moment. Because, combined with the Cypriots’ overly-robust approach three days later to coping with Gareth Bale, it served to engender a steelier resolve and confrontational approach by the Wales team, led assertively by Joe Ledley and Ashley Williams. Ultimately a greater good, perhaps. But it was Joniesta’s last contribution to the successful campaign until the final game against Andorra, missing games in which his ability to stand-in for Ramsey as playmaker might have been more thoroughly tested and evaluated. Instead, Coleman has drawn on Andy King’s endeavour and industry when Ramsey has been unavailable.
His loan spell at Nottingham Forest, where he was sent in September 2015, was cut short due to injuries at his parent club. Intended to help get Williams back to fitness in the Championship, in his ten appearances (only four starts) he “failed to rip up the place” according to Alan Pardew. Pardew also claimed to have seen “zero of him” (which probably reflects as much on Pardew as it does on Williams), and tellingly farmed him out on loan to MK Dons on yet another loan spell. Though he played and started more games, he was on the winning side only once in three months.
Four seasons on from his breakthrough he’s played only a further 63 games at club level and – I was shocked to find out – is yet to start an EPL game. It is a poor return and as he turns 23 finds his career is at a crossroads. It’s becoming a perfect storm for Williams: the Palace first team appearances are drying up; the loan spells are increasingly less productive; and the injuries frustratingly persist.
Williams’s tight control invites crude challenges from opponents. Moreover, his slight build invites opponents to bully and physically impose themselves on him. Whereas Joe Allen, for instance, is able to withstand this treatment, Williams all too often succumbs to it. It is credit to Williams that whenever I have seen him for Wales he continues to seek out the ball, make himself available to his teammates and doesn’t shirk his responsibilities.
However, not content with being stifled by fair means or foul, there is the increasingly annoying tendency in his game to look to draw fouls, sometimes crumpling under the merest of challenges. This is not without merit of course. Bale’s potent set-piece prowess has seen Wales profit from numerous free kicks of late; and lest we forget it was a foul on Williams that served to set us on our way in Bordeaux against Slovakia.
But in the pre-Euros friendly in Kiev, Williams was looking to draw fouls too often, and not always in areas that posed much danger; while on other occasions promising attacks floundered as he almost appeared to seek out opponents. Should this persist there is a danger that his game becomes predictable and, worse, that by going to ground all too easily he risks getting even less protection from referees.
In one of our early blogs I reflected on Robert Earnshaw’s Wales career and how I will always remember fondly the enthusiasm with which Earnie played the game and his infectious smile. Williams has a similar approach. I can’t think of a player, perhaps other than Bale, who receives in the press as many positive comments about his character and personality. Even when hammering Williams, Pardew can’t help also gush:
“He’s a favourite player here…I love him, as we all do here. He’s got a fantastic personality, so the fans love him too”
Maybe Pardew’s trying some of the tough love that Harry Redknapp employed with Gareth Bale. In fact, in the way in which a promising teenage career has been hampered with injury there is more than a little coincidence between Bale and Williams’ career. Perhaps that is where the comparisons begin but must also end. After all, he has just signed, yet again, for Ipswich, rather than being lined up as a replacement for Luka Modric. Chris Coleman and Osian Roberts have been effusive in their praise for Joniesta too; not least his enthusiasm at squad get-togethers, which Williams has attended on occasions even when injured and certain not to play.
I have heard it often said that Williams’s more refined skills and build are not suited for the cut ‘n’ thrust of English football with its emphasis on physicality. Perhaps he would thrive in a Continental environment? But that brings with it different challenges; of a cultural and linguistic kind. My Podcast Pêl-droed colleague Leon has suggested that Williams might be one of those players whose career at international level will forever overshadow his club achievements, like a Welsh David Healy or Kyle Lafferty.
I have an alternative theory: if he were to embrace his premature baldness and swap his mad scientist hair for a cropped-to-the-bone look, his career would begin to look up again. It worked for me; since I went short, Mick McCarthy has not once tried to sign me…
This is unfair. Big Mick clearly rates Williams highly both as a player and as a person. Palace fans adore Williams too. There can’t be many players who get their name chanted by fans even though all they muster all season for the club is a meagre 10 minutes of football. Palace fans I met on the ferry to France rated him highly and bemoaned his rotten luck. Coleman has spoken of entrusting Williams with a freedom to play with expression. It would take a cold heart not to want Williams to succeed; everyone seems to be rooting for him. And, if nothing else, who doesn’t enjoy his cameos in the FAWTV in-camp clips?
Like Simon Church, and unlike Wayne Rooney, Williams has played in a tournament semi-final so life is not all bad. But for now he finds himself, yet again, at Portman Road, recuperating, as another start to the season is delayed.