One of the country’s top knee surgeons is not expecting a restful Christmas with a packed festive football schedule ahead of him.
Specialist Andy Williams is on speed dial for most of the Premier League, helping to care for players at five of the Big Six clubs, a further ten top-flight outfits and a clutch of teams in the football league.
And he knows there is a high chance he’ll be in action with 10 top-tier teams in action on Boxing Day alone, during a particularly congested season.
Williams won’t even consider popping a cork on one of his favourite Aussie reds until long after the final whistles blow up and down the country and the softly-spoken 56-year-old will be glued to the action.
Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been treated by knee specialist Andy Williams
Williams treated Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is now ready to return to Liverpool’s first team
‘I listen to BBC 5Live, I see things on TV,’ Williams told Sportsmail. ‘I have a very high awareness of what is going on in the games and I am aware of an injury before I get the call.
‘I have been driving down the motorway listening to a game, a player goes off injured and five minutes later the phone rings. I have a phone on me all the time, burning my ear.’
But in truth, it’s not just Christmas. Williams’ phone buzzes into life each morning with WhatsApp messages from 6.30am and he receives his last phone call at 10.30 at night.
Often, it is anxious players seeking reassurance after treatment for a career-threatening injury, or an agent checking up on their prized asset.
Sometimes it’s a club doctor getting his argument straight before facing an apoplectic manager to explain why the star turn will be out longer than expected.
First XI: Selection of top players who have been restored to full fitness with Williams’ help
Second XI: Williams has helped hundreds of footballers recover from injury during his career
In 20 years at the top of his profession, Williams, who is founder of Fortius Clinic, has treated hundreds of footballers, as well as international rugby players and elite athletes.
There are highly impressive XIs of former patients he has restored to the pitch, as well as full benches of perfectly healthy substitutes, plus managers.
In Williams’ first XI, there is a forward line of Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, 28, and Southampton’s Danny Ings, 28, who has suffered a number of serious injuries but is back to his lethal best.
The midfield is pretty good, too. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 27, who is coming back to bolster Liverpool’s depleted resources, lines up alongside, Brighton’s Adam Lallana 32, who is rejuvenated on the south coast after suffering injuries at Liverpool.
Williams is treating Virgil van Dijk after he was injured in a collision with Jordan Pickford
Southampton’s Danny Ings has returned to action after an operation on his knee
Southampton’s Theo Walcott, 31, and Brighton’s Danny Welbeck, 30, are now, thanks to Williams, as sharp as ever on the wings.
In the surgeon’s’ back line, Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings, 27, pitches in next Virgil van Dijk, 29, who Williams is guiding back to full fitness after that desperate lunge from Jordan Pickford in the Merseyside derby caused an injury to the Dutchman’s anterior cruciate ligament, which needed surgery.
Arsenal’s Rob Holding, 25, can do a job at left back and Nathaniel Clyne, 29, of Crystal Palace slots in at right back. Aston Villa’s Tom Heaton, 34, who is back after a nasty knee injury he received playing at Burnley, is in goal.
Sadio Mane had surgery on his left knee in April 2017 after being injured against Everton
Williams even has a former patient as a budding young manager in John Terry, who is currently assistant to Dean Smith at Aston Villa.
Treating top players is unlike any other form of medicine, says the specialist, who clearly cares deeply for the people he sees.
‘They are super-human,’ he says. ‘They are special. They are warriors, they are so brave.
‘They have an absolute desire to win. They do pain and they can get over operations like no one else. They test you to the limits. If you do an operation, they are going to test it.’
Aston Villa’s Tom Heaton suffered a knee injury in January on his return to former club Burnley
Williams offers a different perspective to the cliched image of footloose footballers chasing money and fame.
His patients’ lives have been built around their sport and a serious injury threatens not just their livelihood, but their whole existence.
‘You have to gain their faith,’ says Williams. ‘They are under a lot of pressure. They are terrified of losing their place in the team. There is the next big game or contract.
‘All they want to do is play football or pursue their sport.A lot of them would do it for nothing.’
Gaining the faith of footballers sounds like hard work. On one occasion, Williams took a call from a club doctor early on a Saturday afternoon about a player who had injured his knee in a match that day.
Arsenal’s Rob Holding suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in a 2-2 draw with Manchester United in December 2018, while Theo Walcott suffered an ACL injury in 2014 while playing for the Gunners
By mid afternoon, the doctor had secured an MRI scan, space in the operating theatre, transport for the footballer and even left his own credit card at the front desk so the player would not have to show proof of payment.
The whole thing was finished by 6pm, in time for the second reading of the Classified Football Results. Williams had made 30 phone calls to make it all happen.
And then there is the physiology of top players, which clearly fascinates the surgeon.
‘Even when I put a knife in these people, it is different, it is extraordinary,’ he adds. ‘They are just better built than any of us. Their bone is harder. Sometimes I have to change drills.
Nathaniel Clyne, now at Crystal Palace, damaged knee ligaments in a pre-season for Liverpool
In addition, sport, and in particular football, which is influenced by the extraordinary amounts of money at play, can be a cut-throat world in which vested interests circle around the injured player.
‘It does attract some difficult individuals,’ says Williams, who has been on the end of the ‘hairdryer treatment’, himself.
‘It can be exhausting when the player’s manager tells you what the treatment should be or the agent.
‘I have had managers go nuts, shouting and screaming’ admits Williams. ‘They are under so much pressure and there is a terrible blame culture in football. The level of stress is so high, but because of that we all perform out of our skins.’
Villa’s Tyrone Mings was out for a year when he suffered a knee ligament injury on his debut for Bournemouth against Leicester City after an £8m move from Ipswich Town
As a doctor in professional sport, the pressure to rush a player back must be hard to bear, but Williams is well grounded.
His mum and dad ran a small building company in Exeter and he was destined for the family firm until his parents persuaded him to study medicine after teachers had spotted his talent.
The surgeon, who still speaks with a detectable west country burr, credits his steady hand in theatre to his upbringing, because he’s been holding a saw since he was aged nine.
And in addition, he feels comfortable making ‘big ballsy calls’, which often involves not doing an operation because that is best for the player, even if everyone else is demanding one.
Adam Lallana and Danny Welbeck have both suffered serious injuries but they have returned and are making a positive impact on the south coast with Brighton and Hove Albion
Williams does not strike you as a man who would ever duck a decision, or fail to take responsibility for it.
And yet his work is imbued with risk.
Footballers have earned in a morning what he has charged for the treatment to put them back in the game and in an increasingly litigious society, Williams feels the chill of vulnerability.
If he is ever unable to save a career, or makes a mistake, the consequences could be financially crippling should a valuable player, or their club, succeed in seeking redress in the courts.
Lukasz Fabianski has been cared for by Andy Williams and is now on top form at West Ham
As a medic in private practice, (he has done a full career in the NHS), even £40,000-a-year in insurance premiums does not necessarily offer complete protection from a lawsuit as player valuations spiral towards £100m and beyond.
‘People tend to go for what they can on the insurance,’ said Williams. ‘But they could have my house and children’s education.’
And still, speaking to Williams it is clear he loves his work, sport and sports people.
Everton’s Yannick Bolasie, who suffered a knee injury against Manchester United in 2016, is a former patient of surgeon Andy Williams
His conversation is littered with references to extraordinary men and women, almost always unnamed, who have embraced treatment and recovery, often overcome extreme pain, to keep on following their dreams.
And while there is no shortage of sharks and charlatans, Williams also appreciates the kindness and generosity of those in the beautiful game, telling tales of ex-pros who have used their personal wealth to pay the rehabilitation bills of those further down the football pyramid to help them recover and play again.
In many ways Williams is similar to those he treats.
‘I like to win,’ he says. ‘My win is getting them back on the pitch and happy. That is extraordinary.’