George Williams: From Euro 2016 semi-finals to searching for a new club

Footballer George Williams on his uncertain future in the game.

This time four years ago George Williams was hoping to face Cristiano Ronaldo in the Euro 2016 semi-final.

Now the Wales international is just hoping he can find a club.

From the last four in France in 2016 to League Two Forest Green, Williams was last week told he would not be getting a new deal.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit scared,” the 24-year-old says as he joins scores of players with uncertain futures in the age of coronavirus.

With the first signs of the pandemic’s financial implications for football starting to show, it is estimated more than a thousand players across the EFL and non-league will be without a club this summer.

While the Premier League and the Championship seasons continue, the shutdown below the second tier has had a significant impact on the budgets of clubs.

With no start date set for the new campaign, not to mention no idea when fans – and the funds they bring – may return, last week’s retained lists were unnerving evidence of what may lie ahead.

“I’ve found that a lot of clubs are saying ‘we’re interested, but we can’t do anything at the moment’, and they’re not going to be able to do anything until they know where they stand, what the budget is going to be, when they can start training again, when the league’s going to start,” Williams, a substitute in that semi-final defeat to Portugal, told BBC Sport Wales.

“So there’s going to be a lot of players in the same position as me that find themselves in limbo waiting for these decisions.”

The only certainty for the seven-cap international – the youngest member of Chris Coleman’s Euro 2016 squad – is that he is no longer a Forest Green player.

George Williams made his Wales debut in 2014 and has seven senior caps

It has been particularly tough on the former Fulham youngster, who had been tipped for an exciting future when he broke through, winning his first Wales cap against the Netherlands in 2014 and almost marking his debut with a spectacular goal.

After injury problems, he dropped into League Two in 2018 as he sought regular game time and a springboard back to the upper levels.

However, after reaching the play-off semi-finals last year, he broke his leg three minutes into the new season. Months of post-surgery recovery were rewarded with a comeback in February, only for sport and society to be locked down three games later.

Williams bears no grudges. The attacking talent says he had been “optimistic” of a new deal at Forest Green, that he had been given positive vibes but, as the suspension dragged on, he had started “to prepare for the inevitable”.

The search for a new club has begun, but even if there are offers, the lower league financial landscape suggests they would not be on similar wages.

“I don’t think that goes just for football, I think money could be tight for everyone the next year or two,” Williams adds.

“But I think the average wage will come down dramatically for League One and League Two and they’re even talking about it in the Championship.”

The recent news of Championship Wigan’s move into administration will only add to fears about football’s financial outlook.

Williams says that during the crisis, information made its way from the Professional Footballers’ Association to players likely to be affected.

But he says it is talking to team-mates and players in similar positions that has really helped in times that appear a world away from the glamour normally associated with the game.

George Williams joined Forest Green after leaving Fulham in 2018 having previously played on loan for MK Dons, Gillingham and St Johnstone

“It’s the uncertainty isn’t it,” he says. “It’s almost out of your control and you’re relying on other things to get sorted. I think there’s going to be so many people – in the game and out – where they’re fearful of financial costs as well as the health side of things.”

Footballers at Williams’ level do not make the kind of money on offer at the top of the game.

Williams’ landlord wants to move back to the property he is currently renting, meaning he, his fiancĂ©e and two young children must find a new place to live while not knowing where offers could come from.

Reliving Wales’ 2016 achievements during this summer’s televised reruns has only heightened Williams’ desire to start afresh.

“I know where I’ve been before and what I can get back to, and I just needed a nice little run and a club that’s willing to give me the opportunity to do that,” he says.

While dreams of a Wales recall are alive, there is a harsh reality too that has seen Williams plan for a possible future without football.

“When it all started the first thing I did was start studying a degree in sports management because you have to think what if the worst situation happened?” he says.

“And I think with a lot of players, especially the older ones who may have been considering retiring anyway, this might be the thing that pushes them in that direction because clubs’ squads are going to be smaller.

“There’s going to be a lot of players that filter down the leagues and maybe look at the part-time option of playing football in non-league.”

It is a world away from what he calls “pinch-yourself moments” alongside Gareth Bale in France, where Williams was part of a side that made history.

Now, like so many others, he is simply looking for a future.