Newcastle United's training ground set for familiar arrival
Mike Williamson will walk through the doors of Newcastle United’s training ground on Saturday, just as he did hundreds of times earlier in his career.
This time, however, he’ll have a team with him. Williamson will bring the Gateshead side he guided to promotion last season, plus a couple of familiar additions, with him for a behind-closed-doors friendly against Eddie Howe’s side.
Aged 38, Williamson – who spent almost six years at St James’s Park – is still going strong.
And the defender, player-manager at the National League club, is likely to feature against his old club.
“I still feel like I’m enjoying it,” said Williamson. “I love training, I love playing. I love the preparation, the challenge. I still feel like I’ve got something to give, so I’m just going to carry on and try and help the team on the pitch as much as possible.”
Williamson initially joined Gateshead as a player in 2018, and he took on the managerial role at the club, demoted to National League North, following a takeover the following summer.
And three years of hard work culminated in promotion last season.
“I certainly wouldn’t compare it with anything I’ve achieved as a player, but what a phenomenal effort by a group of unbelievably humble, hard-working and talented lads,” said Williamson, signed by Chris Hughton midway through United's 2009/10 Championship-winning campaign.
“Of course, it’s certainly up there. Yeah, just to see lads prospering, and the enjoyment that it brought, is certainly up there.”
Williamson has had a baptism of fire in management given the many challenges the past few years have thrown up. Yet he’s enjoying his football as much as ever.
“Ultimately, the difference between now and my (earlier playing) career, is I feel like I’ve lost fear,” said Williamson.
“You speak to any players, and we all get into football because of the passion and enjoyment. We love the purity and beauty of the game, but when it turns into an actual job and a career, and you’ve got standards and pressures to maintain, it can sometimes feel like a real battle internally and externally.
“But I feel like, getting older and more experienced, and being lucky enough to experience all the different leagues and managers, and lots of highs and lows, I can really see why I got into it and the beauty of it.
“That, essentially, is why I am enjoying it so much. What we’ve got going on at Gateshead is good people all trying to pull in the same direction with limited resources and big hearts.”
Williamson is preparing for a challenging campaign in the National League, while Howe, backed by Newcastle’s new owners, is looking to guide the club further up the Premier League table following last season’s 11th-placed finish.
“We’re really excited,” said Williamson. “We’ve got a lot of ex-Newcastle players that have been released, so they’re looking forward to it. Obviously, we’re testing ourselves against some of the best players in the world, and that’s always exciting. We’re looking forward to it.
“They’ll be looking at the load, distances and fitness, and just integrating patterns in the new players is what we’re both trying to achieve.”
Williamson has signed goalkeeper Dan Langley on loan from Newcastle, while forward Tom Allan has joined following his summer release from the club.
“Tommy wants to come in and play games. Ian (Watson) said he reminds him a bit of Macaulay Langstaff when he came in,” said Williamson. “He’s young, hungry, lots of pace, technically very good.
"He’s a great lad, good attitude, wants to come in and get his head down and develop.
“Dan’s come in on loan. I know he’s really highly thought of at Newcastle. He’s an absolute man mountain.
“We can already see how good he is, and he’s here for his development. He’s here to enjoy it, make mistakes, to learn and to grow. Hopefully, we can help with his growth and development.”
It’s always been important for Gateshead managers to forge good relations with United, and Williamson is well connected at the club from his playing career.
However, Williamson feels that he and his staff have also created the right culture to develop young players at the International Stadium.
“It’s all well and good having personal relationships or ties to a club, but we’ve had to prove ourselves in the substance and the culture and the environment that we’ve got here,” said Williamson.
“As much as you can have an affinity and relationships, if you’re working in a place which isn’t going to be good for a club like Newcastle to send their lads to, it won’t happen.
“I feel, off the back of us coming in and developing a method, a style of play, an environment and culture, we’ve learnt the right to be able to take these lads and have the honour of trying to help them develop. I think Newcastle will benefit from that as well.”
Howe established a clear identity on the pitch following his appointment as Steve Bruce’s successor late last season.
“I like watching teams with an identity when you can see a clear way they’re trying to play – and that’s what I saw,” said Williamson.
“I don’t watch too much Premier League football. I only watch certain clubs which play certain styles, and Newcastle will certainly be one of them under Eddie. They’ve recruited very, very well. They’re taking things to another level.
“For me, I just like the style and who he is as a person. I’ve not met him personally, but I’ve heard many, many good things about him and his honesty and hard work. I’m delighted for him at the club.”
Will Williamson, approaching his 40s, regret playing himself if that means facing the likes of Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin?
He said: “Possibly, yeah! That could be the final straw! I might not be as young, but I’m older and wiser.”