When the 2018/19 League Two season kicked off all the way back in early August, a place in the first-team squad, let alone the starting line-up, was a long way from Jay Williams’ mind.
The 18-year-old, a former student at Northampton’s Kingsthorpe College, joined the club aged just 13 and has always held dreams of making it as a professional footballer, ideally for his local team.
It seemed, though, that this year would come a little too soon, particularly after Town started the campaign poorly and were in desperate need of experience, and points, to get away from the relegation zone.
But talent allied to dedication is a potent combination and with Williams’ swift progress through the youth ranks catching the eye of first-team coaches, it wasn’t long until he found his way into the senior side.
His league debut came in the closing stages of Northampton’s 5-0 thrashing of Macclesfield Town but if you thought that was merely a token gesture from manager Keith Curle, you were mistaken.
The teenager, who was handed his first start by Dean Austin in September’s Checkatrade Trophy clash with Wycombe Wanderers, would go on to make another 12 appearances this term, including 10 starts – six of which came in important league fixtures.
“Personally, at the start of the season I didn’t expect to play so many games for the first-team,” admitted Williams.”If anyone from the youth team gets an opportunity, they just have to keep working hard to stay in the team.
“The gaffer gives people opportunities. He’s great because I’m one of the younger players and he’s seen whatever he’s seen in me to play me and hopefully he sees that again next season and I continue to play.”
Williams was one of three homegrown players to feature at Oldham Athletic on the final day of the season, starting at centre-back behind a midfield of Shaun McWilliams and Scott Pollock, both of whom are also academy graduates, as the Cobblers registered an excellent 5-2 victory.
“It was a great performance,” said Williams. “It’s not the best as a defender to concede two goals but we scored five and won the game and it’s a great way to end the season – hopefully we can take that into next season.
Of course there are always areas you can improve and over the summer I’m going to work very hard to do that and hopefully when I come back, I’ll be 10 times the player I am now.
“I think we stretched them well and got in behind early, caused them problems and we were clinical going forward. Every time we attacked I thought we were going to score!”
Williams, whose previous appearances have mostly come in midfield, impressed at centre-back, and was especially strong in one-on-one situations as he stood tall and remained composed to thwart dangerous Oldham attacks.
But the youngster is not getting carried away.
“I think I played well,” he added. “But of course there are always areas you can improve and over the summer I’m going to work every hard to do that and hopefully when I come back, I’ll be 10 times the player I am now and can keep my spot in the team.”
Playing next to the likes of Aaron Pierre and Charlie Goode, who have over 300 senior appearances between them, can surely only be a good thing for his development.
“It’s great playing alongside those players,” continued Williams. “They talk me through the game for the whole 90 minutes, every little bit and all the intricate details and that helps me through the match.
“We did a good job at stopping Oldham. They were very good at passing the ball between our midfield in the first 10 minutes but after that we knuckled down, got onto them and they couldn’t do that.
“They tried to pass it around in there but we won the ball back and obviously got on the attack and scored our goals.”
Williams has caught the eye in both midfield and defence during his maiden campaign as a senior footballer, but where does he see himself playing in the long-term?
“Centre-back is my preferred position,” he explained. “And over the summer I’m going to work on getting a lot bigger because obviously I’m still only 18.
“But I’m going to focus on getting bigger and work on bits of my game that aren’t the best at the moment and hopefully I can get in the team next season and stay in the team.”
With Curle set to overhaul his squad in the summer, opportunity knocks for young players such as Williams, Pollock and Ryan Hughes, who was also handed his debut earlier in the season.
“Everyone in the dressing room, no matter who stays or who goes, they’re going to work their socks off to make sure they’re in the team next season,” said Williams.
“They know the man in their position is going to work very hard as well so we’ll be back and we’ll be raring to go.
“The players whose contracts are running out at the end of the season have been great. They’re professional, they act professionally and whether the stay or go, they’ll get another club or they’ll do well here.”