“Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it character in action.”
Vince Lombardi was arguably the best coach to ever grace the National Football League in America and left behind a catalogue of quotes for all aspects of life. Indeed, the quote at the beginning of this article is a Lombardi quip and can be applied to all sporting disciplines. Perhaps there are few sporting stars to which these quotes can be better attributed than Bournemouth and England forward Callum Wilson.
Having recently made his debut for the senior England national team, scoring against the USA, Wilson has achieved a goal so many dream of yet so few achieve, and has done so against particularly long odds. Having suffered a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in his right knee in September 2015, an injury that many professional athletes struggle to fully recover from, Wilson was on the road to recovery when he suffered the same fate just 16 months later, this time in his left knee. It was a cruel blow to the forward, one which had the potential to curtail his career for good.
And yet Wilson wasn’t to be denied. The promise he is quoted as saying whilst still playing for his boyhood club Coventry, that he would one day play for England at Wembley, has finally come true and is a testament to the spirit of a player who hasn’t let adversity stand in the way of his dreams.
A decade ago, Wilson was a 16-year-old dreaming of breaking through to senior level football and had begun to turn heads at Coventry. At the start of the 2009/10 season, he was rewarded with a debut for the first team, appearing from the bench in a League Cup defeat to Hartlepool. It was a slow process for Wilson initially at the Sky Blues, spending the majority of the next couple of seasons away on loan at Kettering and Tamworth, although the latter spell only lasted three matches due to injury.
Upon his return to Coventry, he was placed in the development squad and was to be released prior to the 2013/14 season. If it had not been for the arrival of Steven Pressley as manager that season, Wilson’s career may have been destined for the lower reaches of English football. But, as is often the case in sport, one small decision has many ramifications and the appointment of Pressley gave Wilson the opportunity to flourish.
As the former Scottish international defender has since said, Wilson was immediately moved into the first team fold upon his arrival, but there was no innate knowledge that they were looking at a future England goalscorer. Pressley has described Wilson as a player who has “raw and blistering pace to affect any defender at any level but was still very erratic.”
However, a goal in the opening match of the season and playing regularly for a team built around high energy saw confidence grow within the striker, and he performed exceptionally across the season. With Coventry dealing with off-field troubles, having been deducted 10 points for entering administration, Wilson focused on his own form and fired home 22 goals in 41 appearances.
The form that he showed wasn’t going unnoticed, and with Coventry falling deeper into financial trouble, it appeared inevitable that Wilson would leave the Midlands club. It came to fruition when Bournemouth offered him a chance to play in the Championship. The decision to leave wasn’t an easy one, but Bournemouth were a team in a higher division and had one of the game’s brightest young managers at the helm.
During Wilson’s first season with the Cherries, they achieved promotion to the Premier League; the first time that the club had ever reached the top tier of English football. Bourne, but their initial targets purely based on survival, and the goals of Wilson were going to be important. His first league strikes came in a 4-3 victory at West Ham, with the Englishman scoring the first hat-trick of the season for any player. Two goals in the next three matches took his early season total to five in six games, but then came the first injury.
With talk of an England call-up, Wilson headed to play Stoke with the wind beneath his sails, but was forced out of action after just 17 minutes of the match. An innocuous challenge by defender Philipp Wollscheid caused the injury and, despite trying to return to the pitch, the striker was forced off, with scans confirming a torn ligament.
The injury conjured memories of Jay Rodriguez in April 2014, when the Southampton striker was in the form of his life. With a place in England’s World Cup squad looking likely, he suffered a serious knee injury. Since then, Rodriguez has failed to hit the same heights, struggling in the Premier League before finding a semblance of form in the Championship, highlighting the difficulty in recovering from an injury of that severity.
Wilson subsequently missed the majority of Bournemouth’s first top-flight season, making his return as a substitute in the following April. It had been a long road to recovery for the striker, one which was difficult both physically and mentally. There were moments when he wanted to be isolated from his teammates for fear of bringing them down, but he was still determined to be back playing for his side.
After his comeback, it was clear that there was something missing from his game. As is likely upon returning from a serious knee injury, Wilson was lacking the same explosive speed his game had been built on and appeared to be void of confidence. It meant that he lost his regular starting place, watching Joshua King become a key player for the Cherries. This was perhaps best evidenced when his second serious injury, in February 2017, largely slipped under the radar for many outside of the club.
Oddly, Wilson has admitted that his second ACL tear was something of a blessing. He approached his rehab differently this time, acknowledging the anger that he had used to get himself back fit the first time wasn’t enough to help him fully recover and become the player he had once been.
Rather than rushing through every step of his recovery in order to be back on the pitch, as he had done after his first tear, the more mature Wilson decided to take an increasingly measured approach to the comeback, opting for a slow, meticulous building of the strength around his knee. He spent time in Qatar and Philadelphia, keeping his surroundings fresh and focusing on the ultimate goal of playing football again – as the player he once was.
The forward’s considered approach to his recovery, which included taking some of his coaching badges – a sign of his intent after he hands up his boots and a way of improving his knowledge of the game today – saw him make fleeting appearances for Bournemouth’s youth teams and in training matches. His first-team breakthrough, after a few fleeting appearances, came in a match against Huddersfield, the striker scoring a hat-trick as the Cherries eased to a 4-0 win. It was the moment Wilson knew he was back.
Since the beginning of the 2017/18 season, Wilson has re-established himself as a key member of Bournemouth’s side and has made his name one which Gareth Southgate cannot ignore for his England squads. Above his goals and assists, which rank him as high as most in the Premier League, Wilson’s work rate for an overachieving Bournemouth outfit has been a key factor in their recent successes, and his leadership and presence in the changing room has helped unify a gifted squad.
In contrast to previous years, the current England setup is more rewarding of players from outside the traditional powers and a chance was given to Wilson to show what he could offer his country in the recent friend;y against the United States. With Jamie Vardy retiring from international duty, there is a spot for a pacey forward willing to run the selfless yards, a role which Wilson fits perfectly. The US game, in which he missed a couple of chances but persevered to register a maiden Three Lions goal, cemented his status as one of the most complete English strikers around.
Any player who scores on their international debut deserves credit, but one who manages to do so having recovered from two serious knee injuries in just 16 months deserves to be heralded far and wide. For Callum Wilson, it was the culmination of a journey that has seen as many downs as it has ups. Few will doubt that he’s better for it, though.
By Michael Gallwey @michael95angelo