The Gryphon sat down with Englishman Ryan Williams and talked all things football and adapting to life across the pond.
When picturing those from our tiny island travelling internationally, the image conjured is often that of “Brits Abroad”. This image may often be associated with a sun-kissed beach, drinking a cocktail or beer and most likely, sunburnt skin. Something that one would not often think of upon hearing those words is British footballers plying their trade abroad, particularly Englishmen.
Ottawa Fury FC, who compete in the United Soccer League’s (USL) Eastern Conference (after leaving the North American Soccer League (NASL) at the end of 2016) have just finished their campaign, unfortunately narrowly missing out on the end of season playoffs by 6 points, finishing 10th in a 15 team league. Ending with a record of 8 wins, 10 defeats and 14 ties (or draws as us ‘Brits’ like to call them), the team set a USL record for the number of ties in one season.
Ottawa have four Englishmen among their camp; Onua Obasi, a left-sided defender, Jonathan Barden, a right-sided defender or midfielder, Serge Manesio (formerly of both Tottenham and West Brom’s youth teams), a defensive midfielder/centre-back and Ryan Williams, a creative midfielder and the only one of them to have played professionally in the UK. Tampa Bay Rowdies also feature in the USL Eastern Conference where former England international Joe Cole now plays.
I sat down with Williams, the Fans Player of the Year in 2016, having struck four goals in the 2016 Fall Season, yards from Ottawa’s home, Lansdowne Park (TD Place Stadium). We discussed all things football, life in Canada and how his footballing journey ended up across the pond in Canada’s capital city.
Williams, aged 26, made 16 appearances this season providing 3 goals and 2 assists for the team and his footballing career is a fascinating journey. Starting in the youth ranks at Chester City, he managed to make the match day squad on several occasions before torn ankle ligaments scuppered his chances of earning a professional deal at the club. He dropped into part-time football with Colwyn Bay before joining Welsh Clubs Llandudno and Rhyl, where he scored 16 times in 35 games during the 2011-12 season, which grabbed the attention of English side Morecambe. Williams enjoyed a successful time at Morecambe for over two and a half years, which included a trial with Stoke City. A spell at Brentford followed, which yielded only one appearance before signing for Inverness Caledonian Thistle for the second half of the 2015-16 season. He has also represented England at Fustal and featured in the 2010 Four Nations Tournament alongside Ottawa teammate Obasi. In the summer of 2016 he received a call from Paul Dalglish, son of Kenny, the then manager of Ottawa Fury, about a potential opportunity abroad.
“It was a crazy experience really”, Williams recalls; “I was meant to sign for a team in Portugal, but the move fell through in the first week in July. At this point teams are going back for pre-season and I had never been in this situation before. Strangely enough, I’m at Vauxhall watching my friend play and I get a phone call and it’s a scouser; ‘Ryan, its Paul Dalglish, I’ve heard you’re available, would you be interested in coming out to Ottawa?’” Not easily persuaded by just a phone call and worrying that it could be his friends playing a prank on him, he tells the ‘scouser’ on the other end to FaceTime him. Funnily enough five minutes later Williams receives a FaceTime from the same number and its Dalglish on the other end of the phone. “I think you’d be perfect for the way we play and the system we are trying to play, do you fancy it?” Williams jumped at the opportunity and a week later he was out training in Canada. He describes to me how it was a step into the unknown not really knowing anything about Ottawa, but he took Dalglish’s word for it and saw straight away what a beautiful city it was.
His former England Futsal teammate Obasi was already at Ottawa when he arrived and Williams was excited to meet his old friend in the locker room. However, there were a variety of other English and well-known players already at the club: “It was a great locker room to walk in to. I met some other guys from England like James Bailey, who played for Derby and is now the captain of Yeovil. There were some real good guys in the team such as Julian De Guzman, who was the Canadian captain at the time and Romauld Peiser, who had played in the Portuguese league”. Asking if his previous relationship with Obasi made it easier adapting to the club, “Absolutely, but football is a universal language. Whenever you walk into a locker room, whether you know someone or not, it takes a week or so to get settled, then they’re pretty much your family from then on.”
The 11 different nationalities in the current squad suggests a cultured side and it is something that Williams revels in and has provided opportunities that he never thought he would get. “It is fascinating how a sport like soccer can bring everyone together. Last year there were three or four Brazilians in the team and I’ve never played with Brazilians before. They were brilliant; a completely different approach to anything I’ve ever come across, being so relaxed and having fun all the time, but when it came to a Saturday they delivered. That is ultimately the most important thing and it was a really good experience to play with them.”
“Absolutely fantastic!” is how Williams describes his Canadian journey so far and winning the Fans Player of the year (despite only being at the club for four months last season) is not his only highlight. He also made the league team of the week four times, but this year they even managed to beat the MLS side Toronto in the Canadian Championship, who have former Italy international Sebastian Giovinco, reportedly on $7 million a year, amongst their ranks. Williams scored a penalty in the victory also.
The round before against Edmonton is something that he fondly remembers, however; “I scored a 90th minute winner and my mum was here and when I was running off celebrating I could see her in the stands. She hadn’t seen me play in two years so that was a pretty special moment”. Family is something that Williams naturally misses being away but it seems he has immersed himself in the different lifestyle in Ottawa. “For me, I love travelling and seeing the world through different perspectives. Ottawa is such a beautiful, nice and safe place. When you walk through the street and see someone on a skateboard or ice-skating down the canal in the winter; that’s something that you wouldn’t see in England, so it is nice to experience this. There is always something going on and the summers are beautiful and the people are so friendly, so the lifestyle is something I really enjoy.”
After a step into the unknown upon joining Ottawa, Williams was instantly impressed with the standard and didn’t expect it to be anywhere near as good as it was. Despite noticing a drop in quality during Ottawa’s switch from the NASL to the USL, he has high praise for football in North America. “I was speaking to Gerardo Bruna (ex-Blackpool and Accrington player and now fellow teammate at Ottawa) about this and he was saying that he would compare the NASL to a high League One. Every team had a couple of internationals and you were going to some teams and they would have a couple of athletes, some experienced lads and some players who had been at the top level. We had De Guzman for example, Gerardo Tordado (the most capped ever Mexican) was playing for Indy Eleven and Amauri for Fort Lauderdale, having played for Juventus a couple of years back. I thought it was a good league personally”. Throughout my interview with Williams, it starts to resonate that there is some extremely good quality in North American football and that there are perhaps more Brits plying their trade abroad than one may realise.
In my few games of watching the Fury, I have been impressed with the quality of some players and among mentioning a few, one that Williams gives high praise to is Onua Obasi. Describing him as “big and strong”, he also pays tribute to his technical ability, which included a fantastic goal from outside the area in the 4-0 victory over FC Cincinnati. Having completed his college studies out here and now being married to an American wife with two kids, his story is not your usual one of a promising English defender. Williams adds, “It’s funny as he’s probably developed away from the limelight out here. If he were to go back home everyone would question as to where he’s been”.
In terms of the season gone by, I ask if the amount of draws during the season is something that the team sees as a missed opportunity. “Absolutely a missed opportunity”, Williams responds, “If we were being totally honest we have to look back on this year as a failure. Ultimately, with some of the talent we had in the locker room we should have been at the very least been looking at the top four let alone making the playoffs. It would have been unthinkable at the start of the year to not have made the playoffs”, he adds. Williams looks at the situation with a determined attitude nevertheless, which exemplifies the player that he is; “We have to take those lessons and use to our advantage next time. Through every triumph and despair in sport you learn and I think that the locker room, coaching staff and organisation will be better for what we went thorough this year and it is important that we learn from that.”
Two separate managers couldn’t change the fortunes for Ottawa during the season. Unfortunately, Dalglish left the club for personal reasons with 12 games to go and was replaced by De Guzman, but Williams didn’t notice much difference in style between playing under a British manager and De Guzman; “It was difficult to change too much during that time and it seemed a bit of a transition period. I think that the fans will see a different style next year as Jules can mould a team in his shape from pre-season. I wish him all the best and think he will be a very good coach, I really do.” On the subject of fans, he is impressed with their knowledge, but describes the massive differences to British fans, which he puts down to culture. “In England people live and die by football, but in Canada it is more of a social affair. They mimic the culture and are very friendly. It is more about camaraderie and the social aspect compared to the massive attachments in England, which does create a slightly different atmosphere”. Despite this, he notes a particular experience of playing in front of 30,000 people in Cincinnati, where the atmosphere was electric, and although he was often playing in front of 2000-3,000 fans making a lot of noise during his time at Morecambe, Ottawa can often rack up to 9,000 fans, which he labels as a great experience.
The surface at Lansdowne Park is artificial, a new experience for Williams who hadn’t played on such a surface since he was 13. It is something that he has relished and if this was an option back home he says he “would probably prefer to play on turf as supposed to a battered pitch in England in January, but there is nothing better than a grass pitch”, pointing to the fantastic playing surface at Tampa.
In terms of other British footballers abroad, during the past 10-15 years, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Owen Hargreaves and Gareth Bale are the only real so called big-name British players to have played abroad in the pomp of their career. Williams attributes this to the bubble that you get caught in back home. “It is seen as the be all and end all, whereas there are so many different cultures and styles to go around and experience. For me coming over here, in England I would never have had the experience of playing with Brazilians, Argentinians, Mexicans, seeing the work rate of Canadians and Americans. In terms of athleticism over here, I’ve never seen athletes like it. It is a tremendous experience for me in adapting my game to that style and it helps me to develop different aspects of my game. If someone asked me if I recommended going to a different country I would absolutely say yes. You don’t only grow as a person off the field by looking after yourself in a new culture, but you also grow on the field too for similar reasons”. In terms of growing on the field, with long-distances to travel to games, there is huge variety in playing conditions.
He recounts his debut in Jacksonville, Florida, in 38 degrees heat; “I couldn’t breathe! Naturally in that game you have to slow your game down as you can’t run blood and thunder like you can in England. After 5 minutes I had a stitch and realised I needed to think more and needed to process the game rather than go on instinct. You can go to different parts of the States where the altitude may be really high and then you have to adapt your game to that again. The challenges on a weekly basis vary so much and for me that has been a fantastic learning experience”. He has clearly experienced many alien things to his British football upbringing and it is to two promising youngsters that the conversation moves onto next; Ravel Morrison and Jaden Sancho.
With Morrison, once the next big thing at Manchester United, having more downs than ups in his career so far, many hope that his career will be revived with Atlas in Mexico, something that Williams thinks will suit him due to the very technical nature of the league. Sancho, having signed for Borussia Dortmund for £10 million in the summer after being the player of the tournament at the U17 European Championship this summer, is clearly someone he rates highly. “I think he is a phenomenal footballer, he doesn’t play like an Englishman. If his name was Sanchinho people would probably be trying to buy him for £30-40 million. The move will be fantastic for him, he will grow up off the pitch and mature a lot and as a player he will get tremendous coaching. I’d like to believe that in the next year or two we’re going to see an English player playing for Borussia Dortmund.” When asked if he believes these two youngsters moving abroad will set a trend for young Brits, Williams agrees, stating the extremely high quality of the Premier League makes it so difficult for young Brits to break through. It is evident the huge passion that he has for young footballers going abroad and emphasises the tremendous befits that they would bring which is refreshing to see.
We round off the conversation with questions about Williams’ future and whether he sees that being in North America or with unfinished business back home. “I definitely feel like I have unfinished business in England. I’ll take stock over next few weeks, see what opportunities come from North America, Europe and England and take it from there. A lot of it boils down to finding a coach who really believes in you and says, “You’re going to suit my system, my style, you’re my guy”, and then that’s the first priority as ultimately you want to be on the field week in, week out and show people what you can do. As I said I do feel like I have unfinished business in England, but also unfinished business in North America. It is a very exciting time and I’m looking forward to what the future holds.”
Williams is clearly as determined as he is talented on and off the pitch, and his football journey is fascinating. Not just a classy footballer, he sounds very impressive and it is evident that he has much to give to a side whether that is over in North America or back in Europe. His experience with Ottawa should be of great interest to many other British players back home questioning whether it is worth going abroad for a period which he strongly advocates and surely stands him in good stead for the rest of his career.
If you would like to follow Ryan’s journey, follow him on twitter at @RyanWilliams91.
By William Pickworth