Brandon Williams: The boy who has no fear
Ahead of the 2019/20 season, Brandon Williams was literally miles away from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first team.
After the seniors returned from the Far East later that month, Williams was again missing as a 26-man party flew to face Kristiansund in Norway. Instead, the left-back remained with Neil Wood’s U23s, competing in a 4-3 win over Ballymena in Northern Ireland while Solskjaer’s squad were en route to Scandinavia.
By the end of September, Solskjaer’s stock of full-backs had dwindled following injuries to Luke Shaw and Diogo Dalot, while Williams’s early-season displays for the U23s – in which he usually wore the captain’s armband – had earned him a nomination for the division’s Player of the Month award, plus a first England U20 cap.
Within a week of being put forward for the award, the 19-year-old had been called up to the first-team squad and left the bench to make his senior debut in United’s Carabao Cup shoot-out win over Rochdale. Less than four months on, the Crumpsall-born full-back has provided one of the more eye-catching subplots of the Reds’ season to date. Williams showcased his wares with a thrilling display in last Wednesday’s FA Cup victory over Wolves, defensively dominating both Pedro Neto and Adama Traore – both of whom were substituted – and regularly lending breathless support in attack.
“He’s come from nowhere, really,”says former United defender Wes Brown.
“At the start of the season, a lot of attention was on Mason Greenwood as the next young player to come through because everyone in youth football knew about him. His goalscoring record was fantastic at all levels, plus he had a bit of a taste of the first team last season, so there was an expectation that he’d do well this season. Brandon, though, has come in and hit his stride from the first game he played.
“He was straight into it. Not many people knew who he was, but he’s put in fantastic performances every time he’s played. It’s like he’s been playing at this level for a long time. I remember speaking to someone at the U23s and there were other players who were standing out more, but sometimes that happens. You get a break, you get on the big stage and you perform better because of the demands. You almost fall into the first team and you just push on.”
“He gets stuck in and every challenge, he accepts,”continues Brown, renowned as one of United’s toughest defenders.
“He doesn’t try to shy away from anything. He won’t back down. Some managers, when you come up against a young lad, they’re telling you that he’s only young, only had a few games, try to get at him a little bit. I’m sure that will have happened with Brandon, but he accepts the challenge every time.
“As a defender, it’s always important to win your first couple of challenges in a game. If you do that, then your opponents have to rethink what they’re going to do. If he’s handling every situation they put him in, it becomes difficult for them. Before the game the experienced pros will be trying to get at him, but it seems like he likes that. He accepts the challenge and takes it on, which is very important.
“What I like about him is that he doesn’t seem to be fazed. He basically plays his own game. I think Ole has seen what he can do, he knows he gets forward and can do it comfortably, and he’s happy to let Brandon play his own game. It’s very exciting.”
While Brandon wasn’t born when his current manager settled the 1999 Champions League final, he does recall pleading with his grandmother to let him watch in 2008 as the Reds reigned in Moscow.
“She kept telling me to go to bed but I told her I needed to watch it,”he revealed.
At that time in his fledgling career, Williams operated as a winger. Though he gradually moved further back down the pitch and specialised in defending, ultimately settling as a full-back on either side, his natural wanderlust remains an exhilarating part of his approach on the pitch. He cites Real Madrid legend Marcelo as a shining example of an attacking left-back and, having already won penalties against Partizan Belgrade and Norwich City this season with his driving runs, the teenager opened his goalscoring account with a flawless half-volley at Bramall Lane in November to kickstart the Reds’ Premier League fightback against Sheffield United.
“Attacking is a big part of my game,”he said.
“In the position I play in, you need that energy and to be strong on the physical side of the game to get up and down the pitch, and also make sure I can defend and attack. I love driving forward and giving energy to the team and helping with our attacks. When I make those runs, you might make a run for yourself with the ball or you might make a run for someone else by creating space for somebody like Marcus, or whoever is on the wing, to go inside and do their magic.”
Williams has impressed all onlookers with the level and consistency of his performances from the second he took to the senior scene.
“You won’t see a better full debut from a full-back anywhere,”Solskjaer beamed after a maiden start in October’s draw at AZ Alkmaar. Then, after Williams won the decisive penalty in his next outing, in Belgrade, the Norwegian stressed:
“The boy has no fear, he is as brave as a lion and he got us the win. Brandon has an absolutely great attitude. The boy is going to be a top, top player.”
While the defender’s emergence has provided Solskjaer with a short-term solution to the problem of Shaw’s injury-enforced absence, it also breeds the culture of competition which the Norwegian has been striving to instil in his squad.
“We want to get to a place where players understand that if they play well, they will keep their place, and if they don’t, there’s competition behind them,” said the manager.
“And we’ve got good competition there now. Brandon’s never ever let us down and he’s definitely a lesson for everyone who wants to be a professional footballer; the attitude he’s showing. It’ll be up to him, me and the club to keep up that hunger. But I don’t expect Brandon to change, he’s got the heart for it and when you have it, you have it.”
“Luke is coming back and there’s competition there now,” echoes Brown.
“Honestly, I think that’s the best thing for both players and the club. These battles, you want them in every position. The standards all over the pitch get better when you have that.”
Brandon Williams has come a long way in a short space of time, but is only at the start of his journey. Battles aplenty lie ahead but, since the teak-tough youngster has already shown that he will stare down any challenge, there’s no telling how far he can go from here.
This feature originally appeared in the 22 January edition of United Review, which is still available to order online.