Two-and-a-half years after making his Middlesbrough debut, Luke Williams is still only 19 and has two goals to his name. Chief football writer Paul Fraser chatted with the rising talent this week to find out how he has coped with his rise to prominence
ALMOST four months after becoming the youngest debutant to pull on a Middlesbrough shirt in more than a century, Luke Williams was being lined up to make his first start. Before informing the teenager, Gordon Strachan thought he would seek out the player's mum, Geraldine, first.
Given that Williams was still six weeks shy of his 17th birthday, it would have been understandable had Strachan wanted to ask permission to play the boy in the men's league. Instead it was just to give his family an early warning.
Williams' profile had already risen after appearing as a second half substitute at Barnsley on December 28, 2009, aged just 16 and 200 days. Two further outings from the bench later and Strachan felt it was time for the next step.
Ninety minutes later, having helped Middlesbrough to a 1-1 draw with Coventry City, and Williams was singled out in many quarters, including The Northern Echo, as the man of the match. The teenager from Teesville was on his way.
Fast forward a little over two years and there is a sense that this season could be even bigger for Williams – and a sign of his tender years is that Geraldine is still waking him up so he is not late training and cooking him tea.
“I still live at home, with my mam and nana (Doreen), so they are always on to me about everything, keeping me tip top to make sure I'm grounded and staying in line,” said Williams, who has to get a lift in to training because he is yet to pass his test.
“I'm not the only one. In the reserve team dressing room, like me, most of us in there are still living at home. I get my clothes washed, proper food cooked for me, proper nana’s dinners! I don’t want to go anywhere yet!”
Despite the boy in him, Williams is a young adult that has had to grow up in less than three years since his cameo appearance at Oakwell over Christmas in 2009.
“I have had to realise when to switch on and focus just on football,” he admitted. “It was tough after that game really because I just wanted to play all of the time. It was an honour to play at such a young age, but hard after that to deal with everything.”
Williams was relaxed and smiling throughout the interview at the club's Rockliffe Park training complex this week, where he has been training since he was spotted playing for Sedgefield Under-8s by local scout Tony Armstrong.
After Middlesbrough's head of youth recruitment Ron Bone took him in, the academy system took over and Dave Parnaby has spent the last decade watching Williams develop in to a Championship footballer with real promise.
“At 14 he was the smallest player by a mile, growth and development was a big issue for him,” said Parnaby. “Luke never missed a training session from nine to 16. He just loved football. But he's grown nicely now. He's ready.
“Mam and nana deserve credit. They kept him focused rather than on the thrills and spills of life as a professional footballer. They all found it difficult after his debut. It was all new. Any change is difficult to cope with and he was suddenly on the back pages and that can be difficult to adjust to.”
While Middlesbrough fans will always look to criticise the way Strachan failed to deliver promotion after a summer spending spree and many members of the squad took a dislike to him, Williams will always remember him fondly.
“I had gone on a trip with England Under-17s and Gareth got the sack while I was away. When I returned Gordon Strachan was here and on my first session back I was asked to train with the first team,” recalled Williams.
“Mark Proctor (youth team coach at the time) told me Gordon wanted me and Bruno Pilatos to train with the first team. I struggled to begin with, but I was told just to make sure I relax and enjoy it.”
In his first session, Williams picked up the ball just inside the half way line, darted forward and struck a sweet long range strike beyond “either Jason Steele or Brad Jones ”, he recalled. “After that the manager told me he was going to keep me in and around the squad because he had heard big things about me.”
He added: “I have nothing bad to say about Gordon. He did everything for me. He was the first to put me in to first team training, the first to put me on the bench and he gave me my debut. Everything he did for me, said to me, I took on board. I enjoyed working with him.”
When Strachan left in October 2010, Williams played in the first few matches of the Tony Mowbray era. After that, though, Mowbray pinned his faith in experience in the hope of getting Middlesbrough away from relegation trouble.
Last season Williams' progress was hampered significantly when he suffered a serious ankle ligament injury during a FA Youth Cup tie in January. That prevented him from figuring at all until last month.
Shortly before chatting, Mowbray had a word with the young prospect to outline just how highly he is valued – even when he is left out of the starting line-up – and the Middlesbrough manager thinks Williams has already started to mature as a footballer.
"His talent is undoubtedly there. I wanted him to earn his place. Mentally he had to understand that and the penny has dropped that every game is a step in his career,” said Mowbray. “He had everything come so easy for him so young, so in my mind he didn't have the intensity to be a week in and week out footballer.
“He has had to get the balance between the importance of doing a job for the team and enjoying it. I thought he was fantastic playing on the left like I asked him to do at Preston on Tuesday, he is being a team player. His talent is very exciting.”
If Williams' didn't warm up for this afternoon's visit of Leicester City by playing the newly released Fifa 13 on his Xbox or eating in Nandos he is likely to have been watching a scary movie at the cinema.
But he is certainly not afraid of speaking to those around him at the Riverside, where he has come to terms with the fact that he can't play every game – even if he would like to after having a taste of the action.
“It’s frustrating coming in and out of games but I know the manager knows what is best for me,” said Williams, who followed up his first goal for the club in the win over Burnley on August 21 with a second against Ipswich three weeks later.
“I have to trust the manager. It’s no good sulking about not playing, you have to enjoy what you are doing and I have enjoyed it so far this season.
“I will always remember my first goal. I remember going on, standing on the line and the manager saying to me ‘get your shots away’. As soon as I turned, that was in my head, to get my shot away, and then it just flew in. It was nice.”
His old school friends and teachers at St Peter's College, in South Bank, where Boro great Wilf Mannion once attended, are likely to have celebrated just as much as he did that afternoon. After all, the boy who idolised Stewart Downing when he was growing up only left a few years ago and is doing his old school proud.
Williams said: “I have played football from such a young age. I come from a close-knit family, I have a lot of older cousins who played football, so I used to just play with them when I was kid.
“My mam, who founded Grangetown Netball Club and helped them to where they are now, always says I'd have made a better netball player than a footballer! But it's always been football for me.
“Whether it was with them, at St Peter's where there were pictures of Wilf Mannion hanging on the walls, or at my junior school of St Andrew’s, all I wanted to do was get the ball out and play. I did OK in my GCSEs but it was all about football.
“I wanted nothing more than to be the one of my friends who was at Middlesbrough’s academy. It's been brilliant for me here. All of the staff at Middlesbrough have helped. I take on all of the advice, otherwise you can fall away.”
And slipping off the radar should not happen for Williams with Mowbray, Parnaby, his mum and his nana around to keep him right.