Wilson on Champions League dreams after post-World Cup dip

Daily News
13 Min Read

“With one game to tick off to get us there, I’ll be running around like a mad man trying to do everything I can to achieve that!”

Callum Wilson and his Newcastle team-mates are riding a crest of a wave. The ambition, drive and desire is infectious. Champions League football is within touching distance and the whole city is buzzing about the possibilities ahead.

One win from their final two Premier League matches is all that’s now required – and it could come at home against relegation-threatened Leicester on Monday Night Football with over 50,000 Geordies there to see it, urging their side on.

The celebrations inside St James’ Park after the 4-1 win over Brighton on Thursday night were emphatic. The atmosphere will go to another level on Monday. To say everyone connected to the club is fired up would be an understatement.

“It was unbelievable,” Wilson tells Sky Sports with a beaming smile, the morning after the night before, when his converted one-on-one chance helped Newcastle to a key victory in their pursuit of a return to the Champions League after two decades.

“We know what the atmosphere is like here. In a game of the magnitude it was, the fans really gave us a lift and it was nice to give them something back. At the end, as we were walking round, as we always do, celebrating with them, it meant a little bit more.

“We now have an amazing opportunity in front of our home fans to potentially achieve something that’s not been done in 20 years. That would be unreal for the fans, for the city, for ourselves, for the manager, for everyone associated with the club. It’s something that’s been a long time coming so hopefully we can achieve that on Monday night.”

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the Premier League match between Newcastle and Brighton

But what would it mean to Wilson himself? A player who had loan spells with Kettering Town and Tamworth in non-league in the early days of his career. A player who made his name in League One and then the Championship before eventually reaching the Premier League.

“I’ll be sitting at home sometimes, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, watching Champions League football thinking about walking out to that anthem, standing there playing against the best teams in the world, the best defenders, and seeing where you really stack up,” he says.

“But also to fulfil a childhood dream. When you’re a kid you want to play as high as you can and reach the pinnacle. Representing your country is that and at club level Champions League is that. To be able to do that here at Newcastle together would be unreal.”

It would mark an incredible transformation for a club that was battling relegation last season. Wilson has been an important figure in the turnaround and his 18 Premier League goals have helped fire the club to the brink of this unlikely achievement this time around.

Only Man City's Erling Haaland has a better strike rate than Callum Wilson among players who've scored at least six times this season

Image: Only Man City’s Erling Haaland has a better strike rate than Callum Wilson among players who’ve scored at least six times this season

It is his career-best tally but this season hasn’t all been plain sailing for the 31-year-old. After an early season burst which earned him a place in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the World Cup, Wilson scored just one goal in 13 games upon returning from Qatar. He lost his place and had his future questioned.

His return to form – 11 goals in 10 games – makes him the most in-form forward in the country and it has come at the right time for Newcastle. But Wilson is open and honest about how tough he found it to recover his early season momentum after coming back from his first major international tournament.

“You give so much at the beginning of the season, you want to achieve your childhood dream of playing in a World Cup, you get there and once you’re there you have to reset your goals quickly and be mentally and physically and emotionally ready to give your all for Newcastle,” he said.

Callum Wilson represented England at a major tournament for the first time at the 2022 World Cup

Image: Callum Wilson represented England at a major tournament for the first time at the 2022 World Cup

“I think coming straight back without any break didn’t do me any good really. We had cup games we needed to be involved in straight away. You try to hit the ground running but I found it difficult to find that form that I had previously.

“A bit of fatigue, a bit of complacency, the motivation had come down a little bit because it’s mid-season, I’d played at the World Cup, it was my first tournament for my country, so it was a new experience for me and one where there’s a few things I’d change now. But I definitely felt I had to get my act together again and start performing for Newcastle.”

So how did he recover that lost spark? A jolt from manager Eddie Howe and the form of team-mate Alexander Isak helped.

“I found myself sitting on the bench which was an unusual experience,” he says. “One I’d not had to do so much in my career, really.

Alexander Isak and Callum Wilson have been key goal scorers for Newcastle this season

Image: Alexander Isak and Callum Wilson have been key goal scorers for Newcastle this season

“Then you start to see the player playing in your position doing well and it’s amazing for the team. People are writing you off and you have to remind them you’re still here and who Callum Wilson is.

“That friendly competition helped elevate my performances in a positive way for the team, for myself. Me and Alex are pushing each other and then eventually playing together to try and build that relationship also.”

“It’s an opportunity I’ve been waiting for throughout my career”

Indeed, now it is Howe’s preference to get both Wilson and Isak in the same XI together, rather than vying for one place between them. But the competition has pushed Wilson to new levels.

Howe described his performance against Brighton as one of the best of his career. Wilson is convinced he’s still getting better.

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Eddie Howe speaks to Sky Sports after Newcastle United beat Brighton 4-1 at home, calling Callum Wilson’s display one of his best under his management

An opponent he’ll come up against on Monday night is Jamie Vardy, who is still scoring at this top level at the age of 36 and who has been prolific since passing 30. He’s given Wilson encouragement with those numbers.

“I’m in my prime,” he says confidently. “Injuries haven’t helped along the way but I probably haven’t played as much football as I should have so it’s not taken its toll on my body as such.

“This is the first season in a long time I’ve played close to 30 games, playing with better players now – no disrespect to the players I’ve played with before – but if you add in more quality around me my numbers are going up.

“It’s an opportunity I’ve been waiting for throughout my career, to be in a team full of stars, full of fantastic people and players and I’m trying to give back

“You have to give credit to Jamie. Since turning 30 he’s scored 100 Premier League goals. That was something that definitely sprung to mind when you turn 30 and people say you could be on the decline now. No, people have scored 100 goals since turning 30!

“For me that was always a positive thing to take away from that. I’m in the scoring form of my life in the Premier League so long may it continue.”

Discussing his improvement as a player, Wilson says it is his all-round contribution which has gone up a level. “I’m more of a team player,” he says. “I get involved in the build-up play a little bit more at times. Solely before I’d be like, ‘feed me in behind, I’m not coming to feet, I only want the ball to score goals’.

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“Now I’m looking for team-mates in better positions. I play in a different formation to what I was used to for the last eight years, so for me you have to evolve your game, adapt it, drop a little bit deeper and become a No 10 at times. It’s something that’s new, something I’m embracing and something that helps the team to improve.

“I don’t think you can ever stop improving and learning so for me all the time I’m trying to keep building on that and adding more strings to my bow.”

But of course, goals are still his currency and he doesn’t need reminding he’s two strikes away from hitting that significant 20-goal landmark. In fact it’s the one-on-one he missed against Brighton which is foremost in his thoughts this morning.

Unsurprisingly, he says he’d trade hitting that goals target for Newcastle sealing Champions League football. But really, he wants both.

“I know as a striker, my goals are going to be important to help the team achieve what we want to do,” he says, adding that an early one against Leicester could set the stage for a memorable night at St James’ Park.

“It will be electric, just like it was against Brighton,” said Wilson. “It’s going to be even bigger now on Monday with the fans knowing what’s at stake. The first goal is always important in a game like that, if we score early in the first five to 10 minutes then it could be a good night…”

Expect Wilson, with the bit back between his teeth, to come flying out of the blocks to fire Newcastle to where they want to be and get those celebrations going again.

Watch Newcastle vs Leicester live on Sky Sports Premier League from 7pm on Monday Night Football, kick-off 8pm.

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