“I broke down in tears and was inconsolable” – Ryan Williamson’s Injury Hell

This is my interview with Ryan Williamson which was published in the Official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme on Saturday the 30th of September, 2017, in their home match versus Dundee United. Thanks to DAFC for allowing me to publish my article on this website.

This is Ryan Williamson’s fifth season at the Pars, but he hasn’t always had the happiness the club has enjoyed over the past few seasons. Opening up about how he wanted to quit the sport, the right-back speaks to us today about his long-hauled recovery from the mental scars he suffered during that fateful night in Forfar.

Williamson is a Fifer and grew up with a former Pars favourite, Andy Williamson, as his father.

“Ever since I was 5 or 6 I went along to the local sports centre and I got involved playing football – it was 5-a-sides on a Saturday morning; it was like a soccer school. After a few years there, I joined my local Boys Club, Glenrothes Juniors and ironically my dad had just started coaching the team. From a young age, my dad was a major influence on my career and always had a ball at my feet, encouraging me and helping me as I grew up over the years. I have always wanted to be a footballer, from a very young age, and I am grateful that I have had the chance to fulfil that.”

“With my dad also having played professionally, it had its good and bad points when growing up! Due to playing with big clubs like Dunfermline, he knew what it was like to get to that level. If I wasn’t doing as good as I should have been, he would let me know all about it. It is fair to say we had our fall-outs over football but when I look back on it now, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. At the time, I didn’t realise it but he was putting pressure on me because he wanted me to do well and I can’t thank him enough as I don’t think I would be sitting here today if it wasn’t for his support and his assistance.”

Williamson was exposed to East End Park and Dunfermline at an early age.

“My grandad, my dad’s dad, was always showing me old videos of my dad playing against Celtic and Rangers or old ticket stubs he had kept of games my dad had played in. I also got taken along to Pars matches when I was just getting into football so I was someone who knew a lot about the club as my dad always spoke highly of them when I was younger. When I left Celtic as a youngster and I had the opportunity to come here, it was a no-brainer. I would say myself and my dad are very different players, though. Obviously, I am an attacking full-back; one of the things he is better in though is winning the ball in the air and he always has a joke with me saying I will never be half the player he is but I would like to think I am better than him! I used to watch him near the end of his career when he played amateur and believe it or not he scored the winning goal in the last minute in one of the games: he was a good centre-half, but don’t tell him I said that though as he gets a bit big-headed!”

Right-Back wasn’t the natural position for Ryan as he grew up.

“Believe it or not, I actually used to play up-front for my Boys Club team. This was 7-a-side right enough, but I did score a few goals! When I got scouted by Celtic, their Under-13’s were needing a right-back so I started playing there – I didn’t really enjoy it that much and after a couple of years I left Celtic to come here. I was adamant I wanted to be a winger. Then I realised that this position was probably right for me as, even though I didn’t really enjoy it at the time, what I did enjoy was the going forward part and linking up with the play: I realised my best attributes evolved round me getting the ball at my feet with the whole game in front of me where I can overlap. I started playing regularly in that role from Under-15’s level.”

Ryan joined the Pars at Under-14’s level and has made his way through the ranks and into the first-team.

“Don’t get me wrong, I done well at school but all I wanted to do was be a professional footballer. I got offered a full-time apprenticeship deal at the end of my 5th year and I spoke to my dad; he wanted me to do it, my family wanted me to do it and I wanted to do it so it was an easy decision for me to join the club as a full-time pro. I went away that summer and done lots of running to be ready for pre-season and I was thrown straight into the first-team; I wasn’t expecting it that quickly but I haven’t really looked back since.”

How big an influence was Jim Jefferies on the then teenager?

“He was massive – he showed a lot of faith in me and I thought his man-management was different class. When he gave me my starting debut against Brechin, he could’ve done a lot more than just throw me in; he could’ve moved Geggs [Andy Geggan] to right-back, for example, but he had trust in me and genuinely can’t thank him enough. I was at such a young age and had no pressure on me so I was playing without fear. I just wanted to show people what I can do and I ended up setting up a goal and winning Man of the Match – from there on in I felt it was all down to me to show I was good enough to remain in the side.”

“I didn’t actually find out I was going to be playing until I arrived at the stadium that day,” continues Williamson. “I was told Ross Millen was struggling on the Friday and I was told to be ready but I didn’t get confirmation until I arrived that I would be starting. I feel that helped me though as I didn’t have time to think about anything; my sole focus was on getting ready for the match. I think, to date, that is probably my best season in the senior ranks. I made so many [22] appearances that term and it was totally unexpected on my part – I had just signed a 2-year apprenticeship deal so I thought I would be spending at least the first year of that in the Under-20’s, so, from a collective point of view I was delighted with the way the season went but as a group, it was disappointing to miss out on promotion.”

“You have to be mentally tough to deal with the different occasions which come your way during a season: I think there was a game one night here at East End against Rangers and it was on the TV and there was a near sell-out crowd and that was all new for me. Playing at Ibrox, as well…  I wouldn’t have had it any other way as I learnt a lot. You just had to stick to your normal game and forget everything else but as a young player, that is easier said than done. I was also part of the squad that lost in the play-off against Cowdenbeath and that was another match that didn’t go to plan but, again, I learnt so much and it has shown me the mental toughness required to be able to play and win in these scenarios.”

The following year, Ryan suffered his first horrendous injury.

“With Rangers not being in the league, we knew we were favourites and we started the season flying. We were so confident, I thought we had a strong enough squad to do it too, but, all of a sudden, it all went wrong collectively and personally. When you look at my injury, and I can still picture it now, it was a great performance and result that day against Stirling and I remember I had been on the bench the previous week against Stenhousemuir, we had gotten beat and I had now got my chance to prove my worth again; Jim Jefferies had made a lot of changes and it was a chance for all the boys to go and impress – it got to the last 30 seconds, I have bombed forward, got the ball at the edge of the box, cut-inside and tried to hit a shot with my left foot and then it is the moment I will never forget, where I sclaffed my shot but got slide-tackled from behind and then all I remember is the pain. In fact, when I looked down, my first thought was “something isn’t right here!”. Everything after that is pretty much a blur. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have tried to impress that much and instead just kept it simple and saw the game out.”

“It was mentally tough, but, because what I had been through already the previous season, it had already prepared me in a way. I hadn’t had an injury as such before but I was so determined to get back fit: I was so positive and everybody was so encouraging with me to make sure I got back to fitness again as quickly as possible. I felt so mentally strong, I put in a lot of work and a lot of credit goes to Kenny Murray as he was brilliant through that injury (and my second also). Once my knee was put back into place, I got a full leg brace for 4 weeks. Although I didn’t have much muscle in my legs at that time anyways, I had lost all of what muscle I did have so the next stage of my rehab was to work hard in the gym every single day – leg circuits, squats and lots of other things to make sure the strength in my knee was stronger than what it was before. Once that was stronger, it was running, ball work and then being back and getting ready to go again. I was out for 3 months I think it was and the end of that season was just a blur as I couldn’t really get going again – I just wanted the season over and done with, go for my summer, work hard and come back stronger.”

“Potts [John Potter] put me in but it wasn’t until that game that I realised how much more work I still had to do to get back to the required levels to play in a first-team. All I was focused on was being physically and mentally ready for the start of the following season with the work I done over the summer, so, from a personal point of view I just wanted to make a fresh start as that was a nightmare of a season all round!”

The following season, now gaffer Allan Johnston was appointed as manager and Williamson saw this as a perfect opportunity to kick-on once more.

“I was really looking forward to working under the manager; I was raring to go come pre-season to show him I was back to fitness and I was the type of player he was looking for in his squad as I felt I suited the way he wants us to play. We started that season on fire with the scorelines we were getting – 4-1, 5-1, 6-1 and then 7-1 and when Cowdenbeath scored, we could see the fans celebrating and hear the fans laughing when they scored but we were gutted about not getting the clean-sheet as we hadn’t got one yet. Then, we managed to get a clean sheet, but it was a night to forget for myself.”

Another injury was to face Ryan despite him only being in the infancy of his footballing career.

“I thought I was playing the best football I had ever played and mentally I was in a good place so when that injury at Forfar arose, it knocked all the steam out of me. It was a nightmare and such a difficult time in terms of what I went through. Again, it was all down to youthful enthusiasm – when you think about it, both injuries have happened in injury time when the matches are already won due to the margin of the scoreline. As much as I like to beat myself up about it, I just need to accept it is another part of the learning curve for myself; I have watched the video back and even though I have tried to show my dad the video he refuses to watch it and says he will never view It, but, I have watched it back so many times and every time I question “what was going through your head?!”. I shouldn’t have done it, it has happened now but it was difficult at the time as it took everything out of me as I questioned if my bad luck would ever end.”

“For me, to have two serious injuries before I was 20, there was so many thoughts running through my head. They took me for an x-ray as soon as I got to the hospital, even though I knew something was broken. I remember when they told me it was a double break and I was half-dozed as I was on so much pain-relieving drugs all I could think was “oh wow!”. I didn’t know what the rehab was at that time but Kenny Murray and Allan Johnston were both brilliant with me; they came with me to the hospital and sat with my family. Once I got back to my bed, I broke down in tears and I was inconsolable. Kenny [Murray] came over to me and told me it is time to go again and we will just need to smash the rehab once more. All I wanted to know was time-limits and things like that but at that point he couldn’t really answer them.”

Despite managing to work his way back for the final few games and picking up a winners medal for being a part of the League One winning side, Williamson felt miles apart from his team-mates at that time.

“It is hard to explain – mentally, I was in a bad place. I am not scared to admit it that I considered quitting the game as at that time it had knocked my enjoyment out of playing football after going so well at the start of the season but then missing the majority of a League Championship winning season. I told the manager I wasn’t enjoying it, I didn’t want to be here but he wanted to keep me and he done so much for me. He set me up a meeting with Kevin Thomson [ex-Hibs, Rangers, Middlesbrough and Dundee midfielder]. I also went and saw psychologists and I told my dad that if I was patient, I would recover mentally over time and thankfully that is what has happened.”

“The manager set me up with Alan Freeburn, a Dunfermline-based psychologist, and I had a few meetings with him. He gave me lots of techniques to try and work on about blanking everything out, believing in myself, That was my biggest issue when trying to return was my confidence as I had every ounce of enthusiasm knocked out of my body. For him to help, it was really good. I keep in regular contact with him to keep on top of things. I done these meetings at night after training at Pitreavie and he would just help me think about living in the moment and not looking too far ahead. He also got me to try different things with my body posture – about sticking my chest out and showing off how confident I really am. It was an up-and-down season for me last year as I felt I started and ended well but took a dip in the middle of the campaign but I felt I still wasn’t 100% mentally, despite being in a better place. I went away, I am feeling better than ever now and I am in the last year of my contract too. This is the biggest season of my career – I need to try get back to what I was doing when I was 17 and if things don’t work out then fair enough. Hopefully I can keep on impressing.”

Williamson has played in every match so far this season and he hopes to finally kick-on and meet his potential over the course of this season.

“The coaching staff have been putting on specific drills to help players like myself who have areas to work on – Potts [John Potter] is great with the defenders, he usually takes us all away and works on things specifically, while I have benefited from the crossing and finishing drills the gaffer has been putting on too, I feel. I knew the hard work would finally pay off and I am a firm believer that good things come to those who wait. As long as I keep a good attitude, keep working hard and do the right things away from the club then I know things will continue working out well. I have absolutely loved my time at the club so far and I am so grateful the chances that the club have given me, the faith shown in me by all my managers and coaches and the support the fans have given me too. I am enjoying it so much – hopefully I can keep doing well for the club and we can have a long and successful few years to come!”

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