For Callum Wilson the scent of non-league football came from the fast-food vans at pitchside. “You could smell burger and chips when you’re running up and down the line,” the Bournemouth striker says with a smile.
It was at the start of his career that he had loan spells from Coventry City at Kettering and Tamworth in the Conference and, as the 27-year-old looks forward to playing his part for England in the Euro 2020 qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, it is easy to reflect on how far he has come.
Wilson does not see it quite this way. Yes, non-league toughened him, preparing him for his rise up the divisions, and he can tell the stories of rollickings he received from managers, of how people’s livelihoods were riding on win bonuses. But to him, playing for England was always going to happen. It was his destiny and it has not mattered that he has needed to take a circuitous route to the top.
“When I was on loan at Kettering and Tamworth, I said I will play for England one day. Everyone calls me self-confident. If you don’t believe you can get somewhere you will never get there and it was always the aim to play for the national team and to play in the Premier League. When I got there, I felt I had been there before because in my head I had been there.”
Wilson was smart enough not to tell his non-league teammates of what he was about to do. “They would think: ‘Young, little whippersnapper – coming in and saying he’s going to play for England – get out of here,’” Wilson says. “But I told family, friends and they all said: ‘Yes, go for it.’ Some games, you would be playing terribly and I’d think: ‘No, it’s never going to happen.’ But you have to keep that belief there and here I am.”
Wilson has endured dark times, specifically those imposed by serious injury. In 2015-16, having started his first Premier League season at Bournemouth with five goals in six games, he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and was out for six months. Then, in February 2017, he ruptured the ACL in his other knee. This time he missed nine months of football.
But it does not take long in Wilson’s company to realise he is made of stern stuff; that the setbacks have only hardened his motivation and conviction, and now he faces his latest obstacle, a peculiar challenge that adds up to a test of his mindset. England play with one centre-forward and everybody knows who that is. So, if Harry Kane is certain to monopolise the minutes – when fit – how does Wilson approach international duty?
The answer is with patience and focus. If Wilson were to come on even for one minute, he knows he could make the difference. “Harry is a great player, I’m not saying I want to kick him out of the team,” Wilson says. “But with injuries and things that happen along the way, you have to be ready to grasp the opportunity – whether it is one minute, 20 minutes or from the opening whistle. It’s not just thinking: ‘Harry is going to play.’
“I like to think I can make an impact. In cup games, I tend to come on for Bournemouth as a sub and you get quite a few goals from that. Defences get a bit tired, you run in behind and that’s the last thing they want to be up against. It has its pros and cons. No professional footballer will say they want to be on the bench. I keep working hard at club level to try to eventually get a starting place.”
Wilson has won three England caps, the first as a starter in the 3-0 friendly win against USA last November, when he scored the third goal. He came on for Kane in the other two – against Montenegro in Euro 2020 qualifying and Switzerland in the Nations League third-place play-off.
“You watch how clinical Harry is in training, in the finishing sessions and there is no laughing and joking, just pure concentration,” Wilson says. “Sometimes in club football – and I’ve been guilty of this myself – you’ll be doing a finishing session but having a bit of banter with the lads; having competition, laughing and joking at people missing but in a game, that is not what happens.
“You have to be focused. Harry is in that frame of mind and I have taken that into my own training at Bournemouth. When I’m working on my finishing there is no need to be laughing and joking. You can have banter in the changing room.”
Wilson has scored five goals in his last five league matches and his growing maturity is evident in his assessment of the season. “I am still missing a few chances. It’s about being consistent. I always like to score in the first few games and I didn’t do that but I didn’t get too agitated. “Now, after a few goals back to back, I am in a good place. I’m confident and I feel I will score all the time.”