THERE was great excitement back in the early 1980s when Newport-born Gareth Williams signed as an apprentice professional for Southend United Football Club.

The Shrimpers had an iconic manager in England’s 1966 World Cup winning captain, Bobby Moore.

Sadly, the Isle of Wight teenager couldn’t settle and became homesick.

It had also happened to George Best when he first joined Manchester United.

Luckily, Best was tempted back to Old Trafford by Sir Matt Busby.

In Gareth’s case, not even the legendary Moore could change his mind.

Isle of Wight County Press: World Cup 1966 winning skipper Bobby Moore, right, was Southend United manager when Gareth Williams joined them at 16 years old.World Cup 1966 winning skipper Bobby Moore, right, was Southend United manager when Gareth Williams joined them at 16 years old.

Gareth, who was at Southend for a month, did not have the best of times at the Essex club.

“I was only 16 or 17 and was only there for a month,” said Gareth,a former postman.

“Bobby was taking training and we were doing long passing. He focussed on passing with the weak foot, and my right foot was for standing on.

“Anyway, the ball got pinged to me, I played it off to him and he laid it back onto my right foot.

“I daren’t put it back on my left, so I took a gamble with my right, and as he turned to run to get the lay off from who I was passing too, I hit him squarely on the back of the head.

“I nearly died. I got a rollicking. I was only young and felt like crying.”

Isle of Wight County Press:

Gareth had been such a star in local youth football and he came back to play for Whitecroft Barton in the Island League.

Thankfully, their very canny manager, Jock Horne, realised he had real potential and persuaded him he did have a chance of making the professional game.

That firstly led to him signing for Hampshire League champions, East Cowes Vics.

They were then the top team on the Island and had a fearsome front three of Steve Greening, Mark Deacon and Gareth.

In one of his first games, they trounced Winchester Castle 9-2.

Gareth scored twice and for his second, he went on a dazzling run to beat three defenders before hammering home the team’s ninth goal.

The Vics’ brilliant team always attracted the scouts, so it was no real surprise when Southern League Gosport came in for him, with a signing on fee.

At Whippingham, there had been no money — and the players actually paid to play.

With Gosport playing in a higher grade of football and going further afield, Gareth was spotted by several scouts.

Aston Villa won his signature and he jumped at his second chance of Football League soccer.

Isle of Wight County Press: Gareth Williams proudly wearing the claret and blue of Aston Villa.Gareth Williams proudly wearing the claret and blue of Aston Villa.

Both Southampton and Portsmouth had also shown an interest, as had Liverpool and Leicester City.

How times had changed for him. His attitude was completely different.

When he returned to the Isle of Wight during a summer break he said: “It’s my home up there now.

“Playing for Graham Taylor was another bonus.”

Isle of Wight County Press: Gareth in Villa colours.Gareth in Villa colours.

He joined Villa in January 1988 and hit nine goals in 15 reserve appearances in the Central League.

They gave him a first team chance in a televised friendly against French champions Monaco — a team which contained the likes of Glenn Hoddle and former Pompey striker, Mark Hately.

Villa won and he scored in front of millions of viewers.

Gareth’s Football League debut was against Crystal Palace in front of 19,000 at Selhurst Park.

His appearances were a little limited due to a few injury problems.

Graham Taylor played Gareth as a full back in the old First Division — today’s equivalent of the Premier League.

Back in non-league football, Gareth had primarily been used as a striker.

Boxing Day 1989 was a milestone in Gareth’s career.

He still fondly remembers that occasion.

“We were training on Christmas night when Chris Price pulled a muscle,” explained Gareth.

“Graham told me I was in if he wasn’t fit. At 11am on Boxing Day I was told I was in against Manchester United at noon.

“There were 42,000 in the ground and I had barely time to get nervous.”

Aston Villa gave Alex Ferguson a bloody nose by winning 3-0, with Gareth voted man of the match.

Isle of Wight County Press: Today, in 2020, Gareth Williams relaxing with his wife, Natalie, at their Peak District homeToday, in 2020, Gareth Williams relaxing with his wife, Natalie, at their Peak District home

It was a far cry from the clock tower at Whitecroft Barton FC.

The wily old Jock Horne was proved right.

Our local boy also played against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.

“I loved those days at Villa. Better than walking the Newport streets delivering the post,” he said.

Sadly Gareth’s injury problems and a change of manager eventually put an end to his Villa career.

He was sold to Barnsley for £150,000.

During that spell, Gareth scored a hat-trick against his former club, Southend United.

What might have happened if he had stayed in Essex?

Gareth went on to play for Hull City, Northampton Town and Scarborough to notch up another 200 Football League games.

His career goal tally was 40.

Isle of Wight County Press: Gareth Williams during his spell with Northampton Town towards the end of his playing career.Gareth Williams during his spell with Northampton Town towards the end of his playing career.

Gareth moved into non-league football for a few years and then went on to manage Matlock Town.

He has always been so grateful for several Island people who were key figures in his football life — Jock Horne, Guiseppe Cretella, Peter Holmes, Roger McCormack, Peter Groves, Keith Amey, Graham Daish and John Carragher.

“As a teenager playing football on the Island, I couldn’t wait for training and to play on a Saturday,” said Gareth.

“For me, playing pro football took the edge off the excitement.

“Don’t get me wrong, playing with players like Paul McGrath, David Platt, Gordon Cowans and many more I could mention, was a dream come true.

“Of course, socialising with them was equally a dream, as we did a lot in those days — ending up at the Bel Air Night Club in Sutton Coldfield most nights.

“For me when my career came to an end at 35, it was a shock for a bit, but I love what I do now with my personal training, fitness classes and working with kids (not football related) and I don’t regret a single moment of it.

Isle of Wight County Press: Gareth now runs online fitness classes through Zoom.Gareth now runs online fitness classes through Zoom.

“Now, with all this going off with coronavirus, I’m online doing fitness classes through Zoom, so I’m keeping busy.

“It’s nice to remember. I was lucky to get the chance, although maybe I could have done better had I not had six hernia ops that kept me sidelined for a fair bit of my career.”

Gareth, 53, of Ashbourne, Derbyshire, is in a select band of Island-born professional footballers who have made over 200 appearances in the Football League.

Others include Roy Shiner, Keith Allen, Kieron Baker, Lee Bradbury, James Hayter, Lewis Buxton, Aaron Martin, Dan Butler and Bromsgrove-born Gary Rowett, now the Millwall manager, who grew up in Cowes, played in the Premiership for Derby County, Everton, Leicester City and Charlton.