Monday, 3 September 2012

Bernard Williams

1931 - 33 : AS Valentigney (France)
1933 - 47 : Sochaux (France)

A true forgotten legend, Bernard Williams was a highly successful midfielder who played in the 1930s and 1940s. A player of incredible durability and admirable loyalty, Williams spent 14 years with Sochaux.

Born in Dublin in 1908, he played as an amateur in England with Dover Athletic. He signed for Football Club Sochaux-Montbeliard, known commonly as Sochaux, in 1933. 

The town of Montbeliard in Eastern France, has a population of 25,000 citizens. The football club were founded in 1928 and in 1931 they moved into their new ground, the Stade Auguste Bonal which holds 20,000 fans. Sponsored by the Peugeot Motor Company, Sochaux became of one France's first professional clubs, paying their players from the 1929-30 season. These terms were noticed by a host of lower league amateurs in Britain. French wages were capped at about 21 pounds a month, much less than in England's Division One. However, for players below the top flight in England, this was a mouthwatering prospect.

In 1929, Sochaux hired Scotsman Victor Gibson as their manager. Well experienced in France, the 37 year old Gibson had played for and managed Montpellier and Cette, and coached giants Marseille for four years. He signed Englishman Les Miller, an amateur with Northampton Town, in 1931 and Williams in 1933.

William's moved to Montbeliard with Miller in 1931, but rather than move to Sochaux, he signed for local rivals AS Valentigney. Initially an amateur, he was employed at the Peugeot bicycle factory. In 1933, he transferred over to Sochaux, and was given an office-job (though this was not a real job, just an excuse for the club to pay him higher wages). This was the beginning of a long love affair between the player and the club.

Williams signed on for the 1933-34 season, where the club finished in 12th, just five points clear of relegation to Division 2. 

Williams (front-row, far-right) with Sochaux in 1936

In the 1935-35 season, and now led by Uruguayan Conrad Ross, Sochaux won their first ever Ligue 1 title finishing one point ahead of Strasbourg. Along with captain Etienne Mattler and Swiss strikers Roger Curtois and Andre Abegglen, William's helped the club dominate the league for the entire season, as Sochaux only lost four times.

The next year, they failed to maintain their title, finishing in 4th place, 9 points behind champions RC Paris. Another Irishman to play in France that season was Dubliner Tom Davis, who lasted one year with FC Metz. Unlike Davis, Williams was settling well into life in the country. He married a local woman in 1936 and even took French citizenship the following year.

The 1936-37 season was another triumph for Sochaux, but it could have been even better. They finished joint top of the League, but harshly lost out to Marseille on goal difference. They did however win their first ever Coupe de France that year. Williams himself would score the winning goal in the final as Sochaux ran out 2-1 winners over Strasbourg.

Sochaux v, Strasbourg in the 1937 Coupe de France final

A second Ligue 1 medal was bagged in 1938, when Sochaux finished two points ahead of Marseille.

Manager Ross, and the club's foreign players left France in 1939 as World War Two loomed. Williams was the only one to stay, and he enlisted in the French Army at the beginning of the war, determined to fight for his adopted nation. As France entered the war, most of the side's senior players were conscripted to fight for the Free French Army, and football in the country began to fall apart. After France's capitulation, Williams was discharged and returned to the club. Sochaux merged with his old club AS Valentigney and played in the war time leagues from 1942-44. After the war, and with Williams still in their ranks, Sochaux cancelled the merger and again turned professional.

Sadly, due to financial problems, the club were relegated in 1946, and Williams would never play in Ligue 1 again. His last season was in Divsion 2 where, now aged 39, he led the club back to the top flight. With a fourth medal in his pocket Williams retired at the end of the season. He had played 110 times for Le Lionceaux scoring 15 goals. Sadly he was never capped by the Irish Free State side, or his adopted France.

Sochaux have since become a marginal power in French football. They have never managed to win another Ligue 1 title since the 1938 win. They did however, win a second Coupe de France in 2007 but have mainly won minor trophies and lower league crowns. Jumping between the top two divisions, they finally made it back to Ligue 1 ten years ago, and have since remained there.

After he retired, Williams remained in Montbeliard with his wife. He opened a small grocery shop and lived their for the rest of his life. He died in 2004 at the age of 96.

His goals, his longetivity and most of all, his war-time loyalty mark him out at Sochaux. Today he is a member of the club's Hall of Fame

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