By Will Unwin
Gifton Noel-Williams was set for great things after bursting onto the scene at Watford in the late 1990s but if it wasn’t for the intervention of former owner Elton John, the striker may not have had a career at all.
At just 19 the London-born striker was a key component in a season that saw them promoted to the Premier League, but in January 1999 he suffered an injury during a clash with Sunderland that resulted in him being plagued with rheumatoid arthritis, something that he was told would force him to hang up his boots prematurely.
“It’s not so much that it upset me, it was just unfortunate. Football is full of challenges and a challenge is a challenge, but I think what happened afterwards was unfortunate, as because of the challenge, I don’t why, but my whole body got taken over by rheumatoid arthritis.
“I got told at the time I wouldn’t be able to play no more. I was lucky enough that Elton John was living in America and saw an article about a drug that could save my career and he contacted Graham Taylor and they paid for me to get my treatment and stuff like that."
On the day of the game Noel-Williams had received a call-up to the England Under-21 squad - a sign of his rise in the game - and was being scouted by a number of Premier League clubs who recognised his talents.
Despite being limited by the arthritis, Noel-Williams had another decade as a professional footballer at Stoke, Burnley and abroad, something the former striker is grateful for.
“If I look at my career and where I wanted it to go, I could say it wasn’t good but if I look at it as 15 or 16-year-old kid and say I could have the career I had or no career, then I thank God for my career, because even though I had rheumatoid arthritis I was still able to play at Championship level and abroad.
“When I was 18 I was playing upfront with Michael Owen and Michael Bridges for England. I had just been called up for England Under-21s to play France when I got injured.”
If it wasn’t for the injury Noel-Williams could have left Vicarage Road for some of the biggest clubs in the country but he doesn’t resent his lot.
“At the time Newcastle and Wimbledon were watching and I know Arsene Wenger was very interested in young English players at the time and Arsenal had been at a lot of my games so there was a lot of speculation about what could happen with my career.
"The injury happened so I just thank God for my career, it could have been better. I am thankful that my boys play football so hopefully one of them will be able to live the dream that maybe I wasn’t able to live.”
As a youth he shone and was pushed into Watford’s first team as a teenager as the club looked to give a dynamic edge to their side, which grew thanks to the star striker.
It was almost very different for the young Noel-Williams who thought he was on his way out of Watford as a kid, something his mentor Kenny Jackett put a stop to.
“For me, it was one of the best times of my life, I was young, the club were going places, we had people in control of the club that wanted to bring the youth through and give them experience, but they wanted to win games as well. So I learnt the development side of things but that we had to win games and we did.
“It was a really, really exciting time for me, I learnt the most during that period of time because I had Graham Taylor there, Kenny Jackett – he’s like my daddy – he brought me through; I was going to get released from Watford when I was about 14 and he saw me and he couldn’t believe they were going to release me.
“He took me under his wing and from there he gave me my youth team debut, my first-team debut and it gave me someone who really believed in me and when Graham took over I was lucky enough that he believed in me as well and just let me play. We had the great experience of winning League One and then getting promoted to the Premier League, even though there is a bit of sour in that it was a really good time.”
After a number of years struggling on with the after effects of his injury in 1999, Noel-Williams left Watford for Stoke, thinking the change of environment would be the suitable boost he needed.
The striker enjoyed his time away from his native south, and was then given the opportunity to head further north to join Burnley, something he did with plenty of trepidation but he was convinced by a former team-mate.
“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 upfront 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.
“I did enjoy my time at Burnley and I scored my only hat-trick there. My time was cut short as me and Steve Cotterill didn’t see eye-to-eye on certain things, then the chance came that I could go to Spain, so I jumped on it.”
Already thankful for being able to continue playing the game he loves, Noel-Williams was offered the opportunity to move to Real Murcia in Spain, a chance he wasn't willing to pass up.
“The Spanish club came in for me a couple of years before, but I wasn’t ready to leave the country. When they came in again for me, I thought I couldn’t turn them down a second time.
“They had a brand new stadium, they were near the top of the Spanish second division, they looked like they would get promoted, so it looked like a good move. I don’t mind going to learn another language or live in another culture, let my kids experience something new, so that’s why I went to Murcia, which was a good move.
“The problem I had was the language barrier – sometimes the manager would speak to you directly and then someone would translate, but they wouldn’t speak great English, so the manager was saying one thing but you weren’t fully understanding.
“I think no matter how you train or what you do, once you’re on the pitch you just react and do what you do. I threw myself into it; I had a teacher who came to my house four times a week, I threw myself into the lifestyle and I just thought I would learn the language. I was lucky enough to pick enough up to get by and by the time I left Spain I was speaking Spanish 95% of the time.
“I don’t speak proper Spanish, I speak ‘dirty’ Spanish, as after three months I told my teacher to concentrate on the kids, so I just learnt from the guys, as the language she was teaching me wasn’t working in the changing room. So I started learning from the other players and once they knew I was trying to learn, they would talk English more.
“They first thought I was a typical English person who wouldn’t want to learn the language, but as I tried to talk to them in their language and immerse myself into their culture, they started talking to me more in English and it started to be a thing where I would correct their English and them my Spanish. It came to be a joke in the end.”
Upon promotion to the top flight Real Murcia told Noel-Williams he would struggle to get a game for them, so the Englishman, not knowing how long his career would be, knew he had to leave to carry on playing.
Elche, who had Manchester City goalkeeper Willy Caballero at this point, came in for Gifton-Williams meaning he wouldn’t have to uproot his family but financial matters made the move sour off the pitch.
“I had the option to come back to England but at the time I didn’t want to come back. I loved the Spanish lifestyle. I had one year left on my contract but they spent a lot on new signings for La Liga. The manager explained if I stayed I would have to fight for a place on the bench, but if I go there was a club I could and play.
“Malaga and Elche came in for me. Elche was very close to where I lived so I didn’t have to move home and I’d had a bit of a racial experience against Malaga the season before so I chose Elche. It went badly as they ran out of money so I didn’t get paid for the year and had to take it to Fifa to get my money from them. I still enjoyed the football but it left a bad taste in my mouth, the way things were done behind the scenes.”
Upon his departure from Spain Noel-Williams moved back to England for brief spells with Millwall and Yeovil but the colder climate didn’t help his joint pain so he headed to the US for a period knowing that he didn’t have long left on the pitch, eventually ending his playing career in 2010. With the ex-striker now working towards his dream of becoming a manager.
For those away from Watford Noel-Williams is a cult figure for his efforts on Championship Manager. He did heroics, suitably aided by a name that rolled off the tongue and turned a generation of desktop tacticians into part-time Watford fans. Sadly for those, now adults, the man himself never actually managed himself on the game.
"My friends at the time were always tell me at the time 'Gif, you score some goals on Championship Manager' and I laugh but they kept telling me I was the man on it and I scored goals for fun," Noel-Williams explained while laughing. "They would tell me my stats on it. I don't play myself as I'm not a computer person but I have heard from many that I used to do quite well for them."
Noel-Williams had little time for technology as he was too busy making sure he was outside with a ball at his feet making the most of his ailing body before it inevitably gave up.
Although he only managed five Premier League appearances when he looked destined for hundreds more, there's no bitterness in Noel-Williams and he always looks back on what he had, not what he missed out on.