Callum Wilson Exclusive: I Didn't Let ACL Injuries Derail My Career, Now I Want To Play For England At Euro 2020
"When you go through hard times it can be difficult to see when you'll be back doing what you love again," Callum Wilson tells SPORTbible. "Having come out the other side, I see every day on the training field as a blessing. I take nothing for granted."
Almost three years have passed since the Bournemouth striker suffered his second anterior cruciate ligament injury in the space of 16 months. It's a topic he can't avoid during any interview. Nor his time in non-league. The underdog story never tires and Wilson's is exceptional. The fact he's risen from the lower echelons of the football pyramid and twice recovered from major injury make his particular tale even more compelling.
But for all his gratitude, Wilson is ready to add another chapter to his story - one where he plays for England at Euro 2020. Right now, this narrative arc is taking shape with the Three Lions on the verge of qualification and Wilson earning regular international call-ups. He's in the squad for the final round of qualifiers that sees England host Montenegro tonight and travel to Kosovo on Sunday.
With first-hand experience of just how fragile a career in professional football can be the 27-year-old is determined to make the most of this opportunity. "This could be the only chance I get to be involved in an international tournament," he says. "I've gotta grasp it with both hands."
Wilson has a proven track record in seizing the moment. When he arrived in the Premier League with Bournemouth in 2015, via Coventry City and loan spells at Conference clubs Kettering Town and Tamworth, he wasted no time in showcasing his firepower. Five goals in his first seven games grabbed the headlines, before he ruptured the ACL in his right knee and missed the next six months.
Wilson, by his own admission, rushed his comeback and in February 2017 he ruptured the ACL in his left knee. Nine months of rehabilitation followed. Fast-forward to present day and he's scored 38 Premier League goals in 103 appearances, including the five he has registered this term. England manager Gareth Southgate has been suitably impressed and rewarded Wilson with a call-up to the national squad for the game against the United States in November 2018.
And, in typical Wilson fashion, he seized it. The boy from Coventry converted Fabian Delph's cross to become the first Bournemouth player to score for England. VAR wiped out his second goal - a late winner against Switzerland in this summer's Nations League third-place play-off. Wilson celebrated wildly before it was ruled out for a foul in the build-up. The nitpicking system is yet to erase one of his goals in the Premier League, but the chaos it has introduced to the game has added caution to his netbusting revelry.
"It hasn't changed the way I play, but it's changed the way I celebrate," he admits. "You don't want to get too over excited when you're celebrating because if it gets canceled out, you look a bit silly." Let's see if he can keep a lid on his emotions should he add to his tally in tonight's clash with Montenegro - England's 1,000th international game. That feeling of goalscoring euphoria is one he hasn't experienced since the end of September.
"Sometimes as a striker you go through patches and you can forget what got you here," he says, speaking at the London launch of Need For Speed Heat. "You can doubt yourself and forget that you're a top player. You have to trust the process and believe."
The process at St George's Park this week will have included demanding finishing sessions with England's most lethal marksmen, accompanied by a hypnotic soundtrack. Coaches barking instructions. Shouts for the ball. Boots connecting with leather. Leather rustling nets. Goalkeepers sighing with disappointment. That's all you hear during the high-tempo drills. No banter, no laughing, no chit-chat. It's all business when you're training with the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford.
"The training sessions are intense," observes Wilson. "You have to make sure you're fully focused and switched on. You don't want to be the one who misses the most. When you're training with such great, technical finishers you're going to improve. It's always good to see where you're at and compare yourself against others."
The drills are designed by specialist striker coach Allan Russell, who developed the Superior Striker training programme after retiring from the pro game in 2014. By uploading clips from his training sessions with top strikers, including Andre Gray and Aleksandar Mitrovic, Russell grew his Instagram following to 130,000 and stable of A-list clients. Now he's part of Southgate's coaching staff and helping the likes of Wilson add those marginal gains.
"His coaching is high level," says Wilson. "The sessions are very detailed and specific. They've taught me to always be available for a first time finish in the box. You don't want to have your feet tangled up when the ball's coming at you, you want to make sure that you're ready, with a good solid base.
"It's also about timing. You don't want to arrive in the box too early and snatch at the ball. You need to have patience." Since his first call-up a year ago Wilson has been an ever-present in Southgate's squads, earning four caps in the process. Some players would take this as confirmation they're firmly in the manager's plans. Not Wilson. He doesn't see it that way.
"I don't feel established," he says. "There are so many great players in the squad, everyone's place is up for grabs from camp to camp. I just have to focus on my club football and hopefully that will keep getting me into the squad. Every time you're in camp, you have to work hard, be patient, be happy and make sure you're showing your qualities on the training field."
Wilson's humility is well-placed. Competition for a starting berth in England's frontline is fierce. Captain Kane, Rashford and Tammy Abraham are all vying for that No.9 role. His pragmatism goes deeper than that. Injury is a humbling experience. One minute you're an indestructible athlete, the next you're in a hospital gown with marker pen all over your knee. Rehab challenges its participants to repair the body and face the darkest corners of their mind. Many players come back with reduced powers. They're slower, weaker, stiffer. This chips away at their confidence. Performances deteriorate.
Before they know it they're being labelled a "spent force" and dropping down the leagues. In most cases, two devastating knee injuries would trigger a downward spiral, in Wilson's they sparked an upward trajectory. Does he think his suffering has been the making of him?
"Yeah, I guess so," he responds, reluctantly. "You've got to look at the positives during negative times. I'm grateful for those hard times because they made me a stronger character, they made me the person I am." Rather than sit back and feel sorry for himself, wondering where he would be now had it not been for the setbacks, Wilson got in the mind gym and weaponised his mentality.
"I watch Eric Thomas' (preacher and author) motivational videos on YouTube and I've read David Goggins' book (retired Navy Seal, endurance athlete and motivational speaker)," he says. "Reading things like that and listening to people like Eric shows that you've got no time to feel sorry for yourself.
"Everybody goes through hard times so don't feel like, 'Oh, it's me again. Why does that happen to me?'. There's no time for that, you got to just get on with it and turn it into a positive as quick as you can."
Chatting to Wilson you realise his experiences have irrevocably shaped the player he has become: A top Premier League striker and maturing international who has pushed past pain and fear to come within touching distance of his dream. His injuries, for better or worse, inspired a shift within him - he knows better than anyone that there's no time to waste and this week's internationals are another opportunity to remind Southgate why he should be included in the Euro 2020 squad. Kane is going to start. That's not up for debate. But should Wilson get a chance to shine, he'll draw on his struggles to fuel his impact.
"I always had that belief and to realise that vision after everything I've been through... to maybe play in the Euro 2020 games at Wembley in front of the home fans... I guess," he pauses. "It's once in a lifetime."
Callum Wilson was speaking at the London launch of Need For Speed Heat. Need For Speed Heat is OUT NOW for Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC. To pre-order your copy, CLICK HERE.