This exclusive interview with Callum Wilson first appeared in the July 2021 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now!
Callum Wilson closes his eyes, imagines the scenes and smiles. It’s the opening day of the new season and Newcastle’s striker has just scored his first goal in front of 52,000 adoring fans at St James’ Park.
Suddenly, everything makes sense. The noise, the adulation, the crowd worship. At long last, Wilson can feel like a fully-fledged Geordie icon, emulating such legends as Jackie Milburn, Malcolm Macdonald, Les Ferdinand and, of course, Alan Shearer.
The Toon Army burst into song, raucously hailing Tyneside’s latest assassin. Wilson is already their hero, but only a TV one up to now; a digital god, a 3D black-and-white warrior whose achievements last season helped to secure Premier League survival.
But this is for real, and the 29-year-old can hardly wait. “Wow, it will be special,” he tells FourFourTwo. “It’s something I’ve been waiting for ever since I joined the club, and a reason why I signed for Newcastle – to feel what all those great names before me felt when they scored in front of that crowd.”
Wilson netted 12 Premier League goals in an injury-hit, fluctuating and surreal season after leaving relegated Bournemouth for £20 million last summer. He scored on his debut at West Ham last September, but admits his next goal will feel even better.
“Fortunately, I’ve got a good relationship with the fans without having any personal interaction with the vast majority of them,” he says. “Social media is a big thing and you can communicate that way. Of course, I’ve met them when I’ve been in town or at the shops. As a footballer, you get recognised a lot up here. They follow you around, chase you, shout at you and stuff like that, but it’s all been very positive and I appreciate it.”
But the striker knows there’s nothing quite like doing his thing right in front of them.
“Yeah, I need to get to know the fanbase, feed off them and be inspired by them,” he adds. “And when that first goal goes in – and it won’t take long – I want to hear them, see them and take in that unique atmosphere. It will feel like joining a new club and making my debut all over again. I can’t wait.”
Wilson is a man on a mission, intent on joining the illustrious list of strikers who have scored 100 Premier League goals. On 53 at the age of 29, he’s also a man in a hurry.
“I’m desperate to hit three figures,” he admits. “It’s a burning ambition of mine. I know that I’ll get there at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later. Without the setbacks I’ve had, I would have been a lot closer to that target than I am now.”
It’s said without a hint of arrogance – more a statement of fact by a player who has met every challenge confronting him with relish and professionalism. And Wilson has faced some tough ones along the way.
As a youngster at Coventry, he was loaned to fifth-tier outfits Kettering and Tamworth, before establishing himself with his local club. After moving to Bournemouth in 2014, Wilson fired the goals which catapulted the Cherries to promotion in his first season on the south coast, before taking to top-flight football with consummate ease.
But just seven matches and four goals into his first Premier League campaign, a cruel ACL injury forced a six-month lay-off. Worse, Wilson then suffered the same knack again in February 2017 – this time, the other knee – only nine months after his return.
“Injuries are part and parcel of the game and I’ve had my fair share,” reflects Wilson, diplomatically. “But I’ve never felt sorry for myself. The two cruciate injuries were just unlucky, and hamstring injuries are a consequence of being a quick and quite explosive player. When you’re fatigued, sometimes you can break down, so it’s all about staying strong.
“What’s happened to me has shaped me to being the person and footballer I am today. I believe I’m more rounded on and off the pitch, both physically and mentally. I pride myself on my professionalism, and now appreciate all the little things in football like training sessions and gym workouts.”
Recalling his time with Coventry allows FFT to remind Wilson of one of our favourite ever photoshoots in 2014, when he and some of his young Sky Blues team-mates dressed up to recreate the famous self-titled album by the city’s favourite sons, The Specials (below).
“Ah yes, I remember that,” he chuckles. “How could I forget?! Definitely one of the most random things I’ve ever done, but it was really enjoyable. We were all just a bunch of fresh-faced kids and loved getting dressed up in suits and hats for the shoot. And it turned out pretty well, didn’t it?”
Wilson hesitates when it’s put to him that Newcastle could organise a similar stunt, however. “Who are Tyneside’s most famous groups?” he asks, before concluding that the likes of The Animals, Dire Straits and Lindisfarne are a little too much before his time. “I think I’ll have to pass on that one.”
It’s typical of Wilson that his rise up the divisions hasn’t coincided with a change in his personality. There’s genuine affection for each club he’s played for, and the Toon man claims that fame hasn’t changed him.
“I still enjoy meeting fans, talking to them or interacting on social media,” he says. “In my book, it’s a vital part of being a modern footballer. I like to think that I’m a respectful sort of person – there will come a time when no one wants to interview me, photograph me or even talk football, so at this time, if people want to hear my story, I’m all for it.
“I remember those spells at Tamworth and Kettering when some of my team-mates would turn up for games in their work gear. It was a real eye-opener but also a reminder that if I didn’t work hard, then that could be me in a few years – playing part-time football and having to get a job to make ends meet.
“I’ve learned something everywhere I’ve been, and like to think that I left all those clubs on good terms. From the outset, I’ve played with my heart on my sleeve and left everything on the pitch. I’ve never downed tools or been a selfish player, and hopefully supporters see that and appreciate it. At Bournemouth, I even tried to play on after doing my ACL! My former clubs gave me the platform to be where I am now, so I’ll always be grateful and have a soft spot for them.”
As for Newcastle, Wilson believes that better times lie ahead after a campaign he admits didn’t go as smoothly as planned, despite a 12th-place finish.
“No season is ever straightforward, but we encountered more problems than most with Jamaal Lascelles getting injured and Allan Saint-Maximin missing for six weeks with COVID,” he explains. “Other players were affected as well. We picked up quite a few injuries along the way, too – not just me but other key players – so it was never easy, especially when we could barely buy a win.”
Wilson is referring to the grim period from mid-December to early April, when the Magpies won only two matches from 19. At that point, did he fear a second successive relegation after dropping with Bournemouth?
“Not really, although after that 3-0 defeat against Brighton [in March], you could feel the growing tension and anxiety among the fans. I was still out at that stage but always felt that when I was fit, I could help the team.
“It’s no coincidence that when the injuries cleared up and Steve Bruce had virtually everyone fit, results picked up dramatically. Obviously, we’d have preferred to win a few more games earlier on, but the way the lads bounced back from that bad Brighton result showed the character in the dressing room. We beat Leicester and went toe to toe with Man City. If we can carry on where we left off in those games, the future is bright.”
With Wilson leading the line before picking up yet another hamstring problem, and the brilliant Saint-Maximin operating behind him, Newcastle were transformed from being a goal-shy, pedestrian side into one bristling with attacking content. Suffice to say, Wilson is a massive fan of his mercurial sidekick.
“Allan’s a nice guy who keeps himself to himself off the pitch,” he says of a man who donated games consoles to a local group of disadvantaged children in June. “But on it, some of the stuff he does is breathtaking. He’s like a playground footballer when the ball is at his feet, doing all sorts of tricks and taking on two, three and sometimes four opponents. It’s probably only in training that I appreciate how skilful he really is. I guess you’re concentrating so much in games, but there are times during the week in practice matches when you just have to applaud the stepovers and his footwork.”
What a header! 💥The swivel, the power, the precision. All superb from Callum Wilson 🙌A BIG goal for the Toon Army! pic.twitter.com/LoQen5ux4HJanuary 30, 2021
In mid-July, Wilson inherited the mythical Newcastle No.9 shirt – worn by Messrs Milburn, Shearer and, er, Obafemi Martins before him – from Joelinton, who switched to No.7 at Wilson's request. Though the switch was yet to happen when Wilson spoke FFT, the striker was clearly desperate to wear the iconic number over last season's No.13.
“Of course I know what it means at this club,” he says. “If it ever became vacant and was up for grabs, I’d happily wear it. But I’m not particularly superstitious, underlined by the fact I wear 13 which hasn’t served me too badly!
“The bottom line is that I play football for the badge on the front of the shirt, not the number on the back – but that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar or in awe of the history of the No.9 shirt and those who have worn it. It’s very humbling and a huge honour to be mentioned in the same breath as those greats, and if I can achieve just a quarter of what they did at Newcastle, I’ll be delighted.
“Funnily enough, I’m yet to actually meet Alan Shearer face to face, although we have spoken on the phone. With all the COVID restrictions in place, it’s been difficult to do so many of the things we took for granted a couple of years ago. When everything gets back to normal, I’d love the chance to shake him by the hand, chat football and thank him for all the kind things he’s said about me on TV or in the media. It’s very flattering.”
As he edges towards his 30th birthday in February, Wilson is convinced that he is still improving as a footballer and a goalscorer – and he takes inspiration from another striker who learned his trade in the grounding climes of non-league.
“I suppose there are similarities between myself and Jamie Vardy,” he says of the erstwhile Halifax and Fleetwood hitman. “What he’s achieved at Leicester is pretty unbelievable, and credit to him – he always says how proud he is of his background. But the most impressive thing about him is the sheer number of goals he’s scored since he reached 30. For someone in his late-twenties, he’s a terrific role model – living proof that 30 can be the beginning of something in your football career, and not the end.
“It’s the same with Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga. He’s still breaking records at an age that everyone used to say was when a striker starts slowing down. As far as I’m concerned, that’s when you’re quickening up because your football intelligence is so much greater than it was as a kid. At the highest level, scoring goals is as much about what goes on in the head as on the grass.
“So yeah, I do believe that I’m getting better as a striker. I certainly haven’t given up on my England career – I’d love to add to the four caps I won before the pandemic. Lockdown came at the worst possible time for me, but I feel like I have some unfinished business there.”
Wilson will go into the new season needing another 47 goals to join the Premier League 100 club that Vardy became part of last term, the Leicester striker having bagged 84 of his 118 top-flight goals after turning 30 in 2017. Few would bet against Wilson following his counterpart over the next three campaigns.
He might even have a special celebration for that momentous day – not that it’s likely to top the one he’s got planned for scoring that long-awaited 54th in front of an adoring Toon Army at St James’ Park in August.
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