Last season was supposed to be the one for Newcastle United’s fringe men.
Without the extra signings needed to cope with the ludicrous demands of the Europa League, Alan Pardew’s hope was those beyond the first team would blossom – but things did not quite turn out as planned.
Twelve months later, the Magpies manager is getting his wish.
While Tim Krul, Yohan Cabaye and Loic Remy have played starring roles in a pleasantly surprising first half of the season, Vurnon Anita has upped his game, Shola Ameobi has moved above Papiss Cisse in the pecking order, Yoan Gouffran has kept Hatem Ben Arfa out of the side – and Mike Williamson is established as a first-choice centre-back.
Next month will be the fourth anniversary of Williamson’sunheralded arrival from Portsmouth. Finally, he is starting to beappreciated.
It is easy to see why Williamson has never figured highly in any St James’ Park popularity contests. Players like the 30-year-old are most comfortable when not seen and not heard.
He is no ball-playing libero nor a bullying aggressor. He lacks Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa’s elegance and Steven Taylor’s dramatics. He may be the Magpies’ only English starter at home to Arsenal tomorrow, but coming from Stoke he is no local hero.
Yet after three months of understated performances lifting him from fourth to second in the pecking order of Newcastle centre-backs, Williamson is acquiring a cult status.
In the last week a new song, to the tune of “Mrs Robinson”, has been heard from the terraces.
“Here’s to you Mike Williamson,
“Geordies love you more than you will know.”
Williamson also now has a tongue-in-cheek Twitter account set up to lobby for his inclusion in England’s 2014 World Cup squad. The Mike Brazilliamson account (@getmike2brazil) was just shy of 1,600 followers by mid-afternoon yesterday.
Williamson said: “I’ve seen the chants and the campaign on Twitter,.
“I got a lot of text messages from friends over Christmas and they were nearly all talking about the song. It’s fantastic.
“The supporters here are so passionate and it’s great they’ve taken me to their heart.
“I’m relishing the chance to play in front of them. I’ve watched the clip over Christmas and it made me laugh.
“It was great to see and hopefully they’ll continue to sing it for the rest of the season because that’ll mean I’m in the side playing well.”
It is not just Williamson who is performing well.
Two years ago Newcastle were heading for Europe on solid defensive foundations. This Christmas things are starting to feel a bit 2011.
Williamson added after seven wins and a draw from nine games: “We’re on a real roll at the moment.
“When you’re down at the bottom scrapping, decisions don’t go your way, but when you’re in good form everything seems to fall into place. You get your luck from the hard work you put into it.
“We do deserve a bit along the way because the lads have been fantastic.
“We needed it a bit against Stoke (in Thursday’s 5-1 win) and it helped in the end. I think you can safely say the sendings-off had a huge impact on the game, even though the referee got both of them right.
“I thought we were a bit sluggish getting out of the traps, but everything hinged on the sendings-off and with our offensive players on the field we were always confident we would break them down.”
In the first post-Sir Alex Ferguson season, the Premier League is in flux and Newcastle are as well placed as most to upgrade their status.
On Christmas Day people were starting to get excited at Liverpool’s position at the top of the tree.
By Boxing Day evening, Newcastle were just three points behind them. With games tomorrow and on Wednesday, this is the most magical time of year to be in form.
Williamson said: “It’s a very busy period at the moment so there’s not that much time for reflection.
“It’s hard to talk about targets – the main thing is to keep our momentum going. The lads don’t want to look too far ahead, we’re just happy for the games to be coming thick and fast while we’re in a confident frame of mind. It’s about getting as many points as you can.”
With Southampton’s form dipping as the midway point approaches, Arsenal have arguably been the team of the first half of the season.
Yet with the Gunners themselves starting to stumble after a difficult run of fixtures – the Boxing Day win at West Ham United was their first in five games – tomorrow’s televised match is delicately poised.
As Williamson points out: “We’ve beaten Chelsea and Man United so there’s no reason why we should fear Arsenal. We’ve proved we can mix it with the best in the Premier League.
“It’s a big ask to beat Arsenal, but if we work hard and make sure we’re spot on we can take the points.
“We couldn’t be in any better shape to face Arsenal. All you can ask for is the momentum we have and the confidence is flowing through the squad.
“We might need a bit of luck again, but we know we’ll be going out there with a team full of fantastic ability which is willing to work hard.
“We can think about getting three points from a fantastic team like Arsenal, and that’s a great position to be in.
“It will be two offensive teams looking to get the ball down.
“People have been speaking about the strength of Arsenal’s attack and midfield, but we look at what’s in our dressing room and we are every bit as happy. The manager has complete faith in the squad and we have fantastic players.
“It’s a squad effort as we have fantastic talent all over the pitch.
“It’s nice to watch us at the moment. I was a spectator for most of the second half against Stoke and was able to watch our attacking players tear them to shreds.
“It’s a great place to be at the moment and it’s difficult for the manager to pick his starting XI.”
Not at centre-back. For that Williamson deserves immense credit.