Booed on his Burnley debut, Gifton Noel-Williams was the centre forward Brighton craved

FOR ALMOST the whole of Championship seasons 2004-05 and 2005-06, Albion manager Mark McGhee had been saying how the side desperately needed an old-fashioned hold-up centre forward.

In the first season, he converted defender Adam Virgo to the role with some degree of success, but after Virgo’s summer 2005 departure to Celtic, the problem returned, in spite of the occasional promise of the inexperienced Colin Kazim-Richards.

It wasn’t until March 2006 that McGhee finally landed his man in the shape of 6’ 3” Gifton Noel-Williams, on loan to the end of the season from Burnley.

The omens were good when he made his debut against Luton on 25 March because he had scored on his debut for both Burnley and previous club Stoke City. Sure enough, he did it again, netting with a brave diving header from an Adam Hinshelwood cross after 18 minutes.

It demonstrated only too emphatically what Albion had been missing for so long.

Unfortunately a glaring miss by midfielder Dean Hammond saw the chance to go 2-0 up squandered and Luton went straight back down the other end and equalised when ‘keeper Wayne Henderson could only parry Warren Feeney’s shot and the rebound went into the open net off on-loan defender Paul McShane running back.

Luton were destined to join Albion and Leeds as the fall-guys from the division but they hung on that afternoon on a quagmire of a pitch to earn a point.

Gary Hart came close to nicking it for the Albion with a volley that struck a post but the points were shared, which was no good for either side.

McGhee was philosophical after the game, recognising it would “take something astonishing” for Albion to stay up with only six games remaining. It would. They didn’t.

Nevertheless, before the inevitable happened, Noel-Williams scored again  – on Easter Saturday 2006.

Brittle old Ipswich, with Joe Royle in charge, stood in the way of Albion notching some desperately needed points, but somehow I just fancied their chances that day and I made a late decision only on the morning of the match to travel up to Ipswich with my son Rhys.

Wearing the all-burgundy away strip, Albion had a new-found confidence in their play thanks to the arrival of Noel-Williams, who, after scoring against Luton, had got an assist by laying on a goal for Paul Reid in a 2-0 win at Millwall two weeks before.

McGhee made an interesting choice in playing Hart at right back rather than Reid, who slotted in ahead instead. The decision was justified when Hart’s strong challenge on Alan Lee midway inside the Albion half enabled Hammond to release Kazim-Richards down the right.

He crossed into the left back area, where the lurking Noel-Williams seemed to have acres of space to turn on the cross and drive the ball home from ten yards.

If that delight was not enough, teenage defender Joel Lynch made sure our trip was a memorable one by scoring his first-ever goal for the club.

Albion, never wanting to make life too easy for themselves or their fans, allowed Ipswich to pull a goal back when Lee flicked on from former Seagull Darren Currie’s cross for substitute Nicky Forster – a future £75,000 signing for Albion – to score. But thankfully it was too late for Ipswich to salvage anything from the game.

It was all to turn pear-shaped on the Easter Monday at home to Sheffield Wednesday, but for a couple of days at least the Great Escape still seemed a possibility.

Nevertheless, Noel-Williams seemed to enjoy his brief time with the Seagulls, telling Andy Naylor in The Argus: “I like the way the team plays football. They play my type of football.

“It is not only in the air for me to flick it on, they get the ball on the deck and want to knock it about a bit as well. That suits me, that’s what I like.

“The manager hasn’t asked me to be tearing around the pitch, he’s asked me just to use my movement and get into the channels when I have to. I appreciate that, so I’m enjoying my football, and, when I’m enjoying my football, I think I’m not a bad player.”

The downside of not having played regularly at Burnley was a lack of match fitness, and he admitted: “I play all right for maybe the first hour and then that’s it, my legs are gone.”

Certainly a fascinating character, Noel-Williams was still only 26 when he pitched up at the Albion, and was already a father of six children.

But how did he end up at Brighton?

An article on the excellent Burnley supporters website, clarets-mad.co.uk, gives a great insight into the background. Published in June 2013, Tony Scholes wrote: “There was heavy criticism of his signing and he was booed by his own fans during his league debut for us at Crewe on the opening day of the 2005-06 season.

“He was one of Steve Cotterill’s five summer signings during that 2005 summer, and the plan was to partner him up front with his old Stoke City team mate Ade Akinbiyi, a partnership people were quick to say hadn’t worked when they had played together for Stoke.”

Scholes continued: “He must have wondered what he’d come to when he was roundly booed in that first match of the season at Crewe. He scored our equaliser, then hit the woodwork in the last minute which would have earned us a point.”

A week later, he missed a penalty against Coventry, and, even though he scored in a home draw against Derby, the poor start to the season saw Cotterill tinker with the line-up, and he lost his place.

He was then a peripheral figure and, just before the end of the loan window in March, Cotterill, who had once been on loan to Brighton himself, loaned him to struggling Albion.

Burnley fans thought they had seen the last of him but, despite being placed on the transfer list, and missing the club’s pre-season trip to Italy, he was still a Burnley player when the season began.

Then, remarkably, he went from zero to hero during the space of a few days in September. When he came on as a substitute against Colchester, yet again he was met by a chorus of boos from the Burnley faithful.

Scholes said: “The booing that greeted him was shameful. How he could go on and play in those circumstances is hard to believe, but he did and by the end of the game he’d turned those boos to cheers. We lost, but he’d played well.

“Three days later we went 2-0 down against Barnsley and he was brought on to replace the injured Alan Mahon. This was without doubt Gifton’s night. He never turned in a better performance for Burnley, and after Jon Harley pulled one back to give us hope, he scored a hat trick as we ran out 4-2 winners.”

Taken off the transfer list, over the next couple of months he became one of the most influential players in the side as Burnley climbed to third in the table.

Sadly, it didn’t last. The team and player’s form dipped from November.

“As the results went against us, the rumblings of discontent about him were being heard in the stands again,” said Scholes.

Meanwhile, Akinbiyi returned to the club which further reduced the chances of his former strike partner getting games. As the January transfer window came to a close, Noel-Williams was sold to Real Murcia in Spain for £50,000.

“Burnley fans will remember him as a player who struggled with pace and movement, a player who didn’t score enough goals, and a player they just loved to criticise,” said Scholes.

How different it all was from the early promise he had shown when blooded in the Watford first team at the tender age of 16.

Born in Islington on 21 January 1980 to Jamaican parents, Watford took him on from an early age and, in 1996, Kenny Jackett gave him his first team debut at just 16.

A serious knee injury sustained in a game against Sunderland in 1999 put him out of the game for the best part of 18 months and he subsequently developed rheumatoid arthritis in both knees.

In an interview with itv.com on 4 April 2016, the striker revealed how he might never have had a career at all if it hadn’t been for former Watford chairman Elton John.

He was told he would have to give up the game, but Watford’s pop icon chairman was living in America at the time and saw an article about a drug that could save his career. He contacted Graham Taylor and they paid for him to get the necessary treatment.

The injury and illness came just as Noel-Williams had received a call-up to the England Under-21 squad. At 18, he had been playing in junior England teams alongside Michael Owen and Michael Bridges.

Noel-Williams told interviewer Will Unwin: “Even though I had rheumatoid arthritis I was still able to play at Championship level and abroad.”

After seven years and 33 goals in 169 appearances for Watford, Noel-Williams signed for Stoke City; Tony Pulis taking him on a Bosman free transfer in 2003.

Across two seasons, he scored 23 goals in 88 games for The Potters banishing all thoughts that he wasn’t fit to play.

Then, in 2005, he joined Burnley because he was encouraged to by his former Stoke teammate, Akinbiyi (another striker who had impressed on loan from Norwich to Brighton earlier in his career, when he scored four times in seven games).

As an aside, Akinbiyi had distinctly mixed fortunes throughout his career and after he completed a £600,000 move to Burnley was sent off on his debut within two minutes for head butting Sunderland’s George McCartney!

But back to Noel-Williams, who told itv.com: “I did not want to go to Burnley, to be honest. What happened was that Tony Pulis left Stoke at the end of the season, he went to Plymouth – so as he was leaving and a new manager coming in, I didn’t want to stay at Stoke.

“Ade Akinbiyi was at Burnley at the time and he was with me at Stoke so he kept phoning me, saying ‘come to Burnley, they want us to play up front together’, so that’s why I went to Burnley, but then six months later Ade left to go to Sheffield United, so my time at Burnley crashed a little bit and that’s why I didn’t stay there for so long.”

Noel-Williams said he didn’t really see eye-to-eye with Cotterill, which hastened his departure.

The Spanish lifestyle suited him but his game time was restricted mainly to substitute appearances and when Real Murcia were promoted he was told he would not be guaranteed a place.

So he switched to Elche, where he said he enjoyed his football but they didn’t pay him for a year because of financial issues. He ended up having to take action via FIFA to get the money he was owed, and left after just one season.

His old Watford mentor, Jackett, gave him a short-term contract with Millwall, but he played just the one game whilst Tresor Kandol and Neil Harris were unavailable. On 5th November 2008, he signed for Yeovil Town on a month’s loan.

He played eight times for Yeovil, the last coming on the Saturday before Christmas. But 2009 saw him once again without a club and on 8th January it was confirmed that he was signing a two-year deal with American USL club Austin Aztex, a club managed by former Burnley boss Adrian Heath.

He was released at the end of the 2009 season and signed for American fourth-tier side DFW Tornados (based in Dallas).

After he packed up playing in 2010, he became a coach at the Brentwood Christian School in Austin, Texas.

He returned to the UK and linked up with his former Watford teammate Allan Smart at Daventry Town and subsequently had various coaching and managing roles with non-league sides – Northwood, Burnham and Codicote. In November 2017, he was sacked after Hertfordshire-based Codicote, who play in the 10th tier of English football, lost 12 of their first 14 league matches.

1 GN-W Argus2 GN-W Argus main3 G N-W PA (watford)

Pictures published by The Argus show THAT diving header to score on his Albion debut, and a study in determination to get to the ball. Also a Press Association image of a youthful Gifton in Watford colours.

More reading

http://www.clarets-mad.co.uk/feat/ed35/gifton_noelwilliamsnbsp_310972/index.shtml

http://www.itv.com/news/2016-04-04/watford-legend-gifton-noel-williams-elton-john-saved-my-career/

 

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