Scottish football may be all new to Ben Williams, but two familiar faces jumped from the murals of former stars which adorn the corridors of Hibs’ East Mains Training Centre – those of legendary goalkeepers Andy Goram and Jim Leighton.
Immediately he realised comparisons will inevitably be drawn but, he insisted, he will be inspired rather than haunted by the daily reminder of two stars idolised to this day by the Easter Road support, many of whom still wonder if they will ever see their like again between the sticks for the Hibees.
It may be many years since Goram and Leighton did so, but Williams, Hibs boss Pat Fenlon’s latest summer signing, is well aware of the standing the pair have, not just in the east end of Edinburgh but in world football. And he has, at least, one thing in common with them – they’ve all been signed by Manchester United.
Leighton may have long departed Old Trafford by the time Williams arrived as a youngster, spending four years under Sir Alex Ferguson, the first at the age of 17 as he completed his A levels, but he did meet “The Goalie” when Goram spent an unexpected six months on loan with the Red Devils.
Today 29-year-old Williams said: “Those guys are legends as goalkeepers, but you have to look to emulate them. That’s what you have to look for, to be held in the same esteem.
“Fans will compare you to the greatest players, of course they will. No matter what player you are, you will be compared to the best player that’s played in that position. If you can come close, you are going about it the right way.”
However, a goalkeeper is put under the microscope possibly more than any other player and most definitely so at Easter Road, where gaffes and howlers have been highlighted for a number of years, rather than great saves.
Again, though, Williams is phlegmatic, saying: “It can be a lonely position, but you are in charge of your own destiny. It’s entirely up to you. There’s always expectation and pressure in football. No matter what club you play for they will have had some sort of success over time and you will always get compared. It will happen, you have to expect it and deal with it. It should never hinder you, it should always bring you on as a player.”
Williams walked into Easter Road well aware the Capital outfit are at a low ebb, an 11th place finish last season following tenth the previous year, but, he argued, it is also an exciting time to be at the club as Fenlon sets about rebuilding his squad and restoring HIbs to where he and all their supporters believe they should be.
He said: “In all honesty, it’s been plain to see the last 18 months have been below the standard of what the club and the supporters expect and the manager is going about it the right way in turning it round and pushing them to where they should be in the League, nearer to Europe rather than England.
“It’s your chance to be part of a team that might turn things around. You might go and win a trophy, you might get into Europe and then your face gets painted on the mural on the way to the changing room. That’s what you are looking to do. There’s already a few faces familiar to me. The goalkeepers stick out of course, but there’s Steven Fletcher and Derek Riordan – players of that ilk, who have gone on to have very successful careers in football both domestically and internationally.
“That’s the position playing for a team like Hibs can put you in. That’s what we are all here for.”
Fenlon, naturally, was delighted to see Williams agree a two-year deal, the Hibs boss having made no secret that, with Graham Stack having left the club and talks with Mark Brown regarding a contract extension dragging on, signing a goalkeeper was a priority. Although Williams seemed to arrive in Edinburgh in something of a rush, he had, Fenlon revealed, been on his radar for a time with Hibs keeping tabs on him as he played for Colchester United last season.
Williams said: “It was all done fairly quickly. I spoke to the manager a couple of weeks ago and he outlined everything he wants to do with the club and the team in pushing us forward, but he did not have to sell it very hard.”
Nevertheless, Williams did seek the counsel of Scotland captain Darren Fletcher and former Hibs star John Rankin, friends from their days together as kids at Manchester United. He said: “To be honest, it didn’t take too much due diligence, but a little insider knowledge never goes amiss.
“They said this was a fantastic club, the ground, the training ground and the history of the club, that everything was geared up for Hibs to be a top four side at least. Darren, of course, is from round these parts and we share the same agent and he spoke very highly of the club.”
Even so, Williams admitted he was somewhat taken aback by what he found when he arrived in Edinburgh. He said: “From what Darren said it was fantastic, but it was a surprise when I got here, the size of the club and, I know it sounds like a cliché, the passion of the fans and the potential of the club.”
Having played for Crewe Alexandra, Carlisle United and Colchester United since moving on from United – with Sir Alex’s blessing – Williams did have interest from Championship clubs in England but, while insisting that being handed the No. 1 shirt is no assurance he’s actually first choice, he believes playing in the SPL represented the best option for him at this stage in his career.
He said: “I was at United for four years, three of them as a professional, and left at the age of 21 in search of regular football. We had goalkeepers like Fabien Barthez, Tim Howard, Mark Bosnich and Roy Carroll and in the last couple of years I was third choice to Howard and Carroll.
“Being on the bench for a couple of Champions League matches and a few Premier League games home and away at 19 or 20 stood me in good stead, sampling the atmosphere of such occasions.
“However, I spoke to the manager and we agreed it was best that I get my career started rather than just watching. Sir Alex was fantastic, there was never a problem with him. You could knock on the door and ask for advice or help, whatever it was. and when it came to it he was open and felt it was the best thing for me to do.
“It was a fast learning curve – amazing, fantastic, to go from doing my A Levels at 17 to being on the bench for the Champions League. There was no-one better to learn from than Sir Alex and being at Manchester United, given the fantastic success they have had over the past 15 years.”