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A tribute to a true Newcastle cult hero

Centre back Mike Williamson joined Wolves on a month’s loan from Newcastle recently, and spoke about “proving himself” at Molineux

Newcastle United fans are known for worshipping goalscoring number nines, yet a less well-known phenomenon is Geordie fans’ love of a scapegoat – that one player blamed for everything wrong at the club and team. My current choice is Vurnon Anita.

As far as scapegoats go, Mike Williamson is right up there with the best, taking more than his fair share of blame for the recent travails of Newcastle United, taking over from Shola Ameobi as the irrational figure for the boo boys.

Yet all stories have two sides and Mike Williamson, the English centre back who stopped Luis Suarez from scoring – twice – in 2013/14, something England defenders Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka failed to do at the World Cup in Brazil, there’s always a minority report, another version of events.

In 171 games for Newcastle, ‘Iron Mike’ as he became known to those with an appreciation of a no-nonsense defender, kept an impressive 44 clean sheets and 38 of those were in 150 Premier League games, or just over one in four top flight appearances.

Chris Hughton brought him to St James’ in January 2010 and typically the 6ft 4in defender kicked off Tyneside life with a clean sheet against Crystal Palace, one of six he kept in 16 games as Newcastle swept to the 2009/10 Championship title.

Leadership and aerial dominance at the back was soon translated into the Premier League when Newcastle beat Aston Villa 6-0 in their first home game back in the top flight. More clean sheets followed – at Everton away in a game won by the brilliance of Hatem Ben Arfa on his debut then against Arsenal at the Emirates – as Williamson underlined his credentials as a genuine top flight stopper.

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Although displaced from the team when Alan Pardew took the reins in favour of Sol Campbell and Steven Taylor, Williamson’s development continued as it often would – when he was turned to in an injury and suspension crisis and, without fuss, he would dependably step in and do his job. A clean sheet in a 5-0 win over West Ham marked his first start for Pardew in January 2011.

While critics would point to a lack of real pace, an intelligent sense of positioning meant he would often be in the right place at the right time to stop attacks.

At his best against the best, Williamson kept two consecutive home clean sheets against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man United in 2011 and 2012, nullifying Wayne Rooney twice. In the second half of the 2011/12 season as Newcastle roared towards Europe, Williamson again replaced an injured Steven Taylor and formed a solid partnership alongside Coloccini shutting out 11 teams in Iron Mike’s 25 Premier League appearances, including Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba prior to the pair lifting the UEFA Champions League.

A season later and he was named in the WhoScored.com’s Premier League Team of the Year for 2012/13 after some typically mature performances, especially in Europe against Bordeaux as he topped the European Aerial Duels table.

Luis Suarez was a favourite opponent – three times he kept the Uruguayan in his English back pocket, twice in the 2013/14 season as a ‘Get Mike to Brazil’ campaign buzzed around social media. Sadly for England, club form didn’t translate into a deserved call-up by Roy Hodgson and Suarez had the freedom of Brazil to knock The Three Lions out of the tournament.

Undeterred by the vicissitudes of football fortune out of his hands, Williamson kicked on into 2014/15 and his cult hero status peaked with his own song – a rendition of Mrs. Robinson.

The roll call of strikers shut out by Iron Mike and his best defensive partner Fabricio Coloccini – whom both he and Steven Taylor can play adeptly with but not with each other – is immensely impressive.

Including clean sheets against Chelsea, Arsenal, Man Utd and Liverpool, it ranges from Robin Van Persie to Theo Walcott, Didier Drogba to Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge to Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll. Notably for Newcastle fans sick of losing derbies, it includes Sunderland and the names of Stephane Sessegnon, Connor Wickham and Asamoah Gyan from 2011.

Twice he played in do-or-die relegation survival scraps on the last days of the season in 2012/13 away to QPR and against West Ham in 2014/15 at St James’ Park with another blank. As well as the clean sheets came the magic moments – the Cruyff turn at West Ham, the ‘None Shall Pass’ challenge versus Aston Villa and ‘The Knee of God’ tackle against Hull – that typified the man.

Wolves are getting an influential and steady professional, a committed player with vast Premier League experience that John Carver was so wrong to accuse of being deliberately sent off against Leicester last season. He never hid on or off the pitch, always amenable to the press facing up to the TV cameras after heavy defeats, a trait in common with fellow scapegoat Shola Ameobi, perhaps unconsciously their image becoming associated with losses.

We may not have seen the last of Iron Mike in a Newcastle shirt, yet a goal against Northampton in the League Cup before narrow defeat versus Sheffield Wednesday means he can hold his head up this season. He could certainly have been useful in the air in early Premier League games as Graziano Pelle and Andre Ayew scored easy headers.

One of football’s good guys and both a stalwart defender and stable influence in any dressing room, his true value may only be realised when he’s gone, so I’ll end this tribute with a song…

“Here’s to you Mike Williamson, Geordies love you more than you will know. Owowo ”

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Article title: A tribute to a true Newcastle cult hero

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