How Callum Wilson’s World Cup dream came true with England: Drive, edge and goals

As soon as the 2021-22 season finished, Callum Wilson laid out his “personal agenda” to those closest to him. Returning to the England squad in time — and in form — for Qatar became his “driving force”.

Last year, during an interview with The Athletic, Wilson told Alan Shearer he wanted Gareth Southgate to have him “on speed dial”. In July, he put a reminder in his diary for Sunday, November 13: “Pack for Qatar”. Then, in October, he volunteered to conduct post-match media duties after Newcastle United’s win at Tottenham Hotspur and requested he be asked about England.

He was adamant that, if he excelled for an upwardly mobile Newcastle, he would secure a spot at his first, and likely only, World Cup.

Roma’s Tammy Abraham may have a greater number of England caps (11 to four) and goals (three to one), while Brentford’s Ivan Toney may have scored more Premier League goals this season (10 to six), but it is Wilson who Gareth Southgate has chosen to be Harry Kane’s only out-and-out deputy. It brings to an end what Wilson describes as a “frustrating three years” since his most recent call-up, in November 2019.

“The biggest compliment I can pay is that a fit-and-firing Callum Wilson, other than Harry Kane, is as good as we’ve got in this country,” says Shearer, the former England captain. “He deserves to be in the squad, without doubt.”

Wilson trains at the Al Wakrah Stadium in Doha, Qatar (Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

But why?

Primarily because of his clinical nature in front of goal and the 30-year-old’s experience.

Dan Burn, the Newcastle defender, finds duelling Wilson in training extremely challenging, but the perfect preparation because “he’s so different, so good, and he’s just got that knack of being a great goalscorer”. Eddie Howe, the Newcastle head coach, believes Wilson has “a uniqueness about him, a way of scoring goals” and that he is “at the peak of his powers”.

He is definitely in form, with six goals in 10 starts and, once his two assists are included, a goal contribution every 98.4 minutes. With 0.58 non-penalty goals per 90 this season, only Kane (0.67 per 90) among England-qualified players has a better return than Wilson — who is enjoying his best-ever minutes-per-goal ratio.

“It is not a case where we are three or four weeks away from the first match,” Southgate said last week. “So form could be more important.”

The England manager attended back-to-back Newcastle matches before naming his squad. During the 4-0 victory over Aston Villa, Wilson scored twice and laid on Miguel Almiron’s goal. Then, despite being forced off at half-time of the 4-1 win at Southampton through illness, Wilson played a part in Almiron’s opener.

“I base everything on goals,” Wilson told Shearer. “I live, sleep and eat goals.”

So much so that Wilson is rarely satisfied. He “didn’t want to be associated” with his 12-goal haul during his first Newcastle campaign and he was even more frustrated that he only scored eight last season, although both campaigns were injury-affected.

Often, even after he scores, he laments opportunities spurned — and, privately, Wilson is frustrated that he has yet to score a hat-trick for Newcastle.

According to Burn, Wilson, “just does things by instinct in front of goal”.

When Wilson is fit and enjoying a run of the games, Burn admits that it “gives his team-mates an amazing lift” to know the striker is on the pitch. The statistics support that because Newcastle have won more often (70 per cent compared to 20 per cent), scored more goals (2.5 per game compared to 0.8 per game) and collected significantly more points (2.4 per game compared to 1.2 per game) when Wilson has started this season.

“He just loves scoring goals and he’s good at it,” Shearer says. “His movement around the 18-yard box is very good and he likes to run in behind, which defenders don’t like. He times his runs very well.”

A prime example came against Manchester City in August, with Allan Saint-Maximin picking up possession on the left.

Wilson sprinted through the defence and received a pass.

Having jinked inside two defenders, he used an early outside-of-the-foot finish to score.

“Cal scores all types of goals,” says Charlie Daniels, who played with Wilson at Bournemouth between 2014 and 2020. “I’d never even heard of him when he signed for Bournemouth but, at his first training session, it was like, ‘Wow, he can finish’.

“He loves a ‘bobbler goal’, one where it looks like he’s mishit it, but they always find a way of going in… But he’s got a knack of being in the right position at the right time. His timing is very underrated, the way he gets into the box and scores little flicked goals. That’s down to him reading the play and getting himself into crucial positions.”

Against Nottingham Forest in August, Wilson used an improvised, first-time finish to dink a low cross from Joelinton, looping it over the defender and goalkeeper.

But against Tottenham, he displayed several key traits when scoring, first stretching the defence by running on to a Fabian Schar long ball.

Hugo Lloris rushed out of his goal but, under pressure from Wilson, the pair collided.

Having reacted quickest, Wilson turned and, from 25 yards, curled a left-footed effort over the defenders and into an empty net.

Such conviction has given Wilson a shot-conversion rate of 23.2 per cent since joining Newcastle at the start of 2020-21, the highest among all Premier League players to have scored 20-or-more goals.

His 26 top-flight goals for Newcastle have come from 112 shots, 46 on target.

The vast majority of his efforts originate from inside the box, with an average shot distance of 13.2 yards.

Part of the reason why Wilson is such a dangerous finisher is that he can use both feet and is strong in the air. Of his 105 non-penalty top-flight shots for Newcastle, 42.8 per cent have come via his stronger right foot, 24.7 per cent via his left and 31.4 per cent via his head.

Wilson is also benefitting from Newcastle’s front-foot approach this season. As the graphic below shows, Wilson is having significantly more shots per 90 (3.1) than in each of his previous three top-flight seasons, and from closer to the goal (12 yards on average).

Meanwhile, Kane’s Premier League conversion rate since the start of 2020-21 is lower, at 16 per cent. However, he has scored double the number of goals (52) and has made significantly more starts (86 to Wilson’s 49).

And therein lies the main problem with Wilson; his fitness record.

He has started just 53.8 per cent of Newcastle’s 91 Premier League matches since arriving due to a series of muscular issues, while at Bournemouth he suffered two anterior cruciate knee-ligament injuries.

“The only thing — and it’s a big thing — that’s held Callum back from being in the squad more regularly has been injuries,” Shearer says. “He’s been really unfortunate, but right throughout his career, he’s had one or two per season. Obviously that will have been on Gareth’s mind because, at any given time, he could pull up and be out of the World Cup. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen, because he’s an asset.”

England’s medical staff made regular checks on Wilson’s fitness and training regime at Newcastle to assess his likely durability. Following the hamstring injury that sidelined him for five games in August and September, Newcastle placed the striker on a special sports-science plan and left him to undergo additional sessions by himself, before reintegrating Wilson into group training, to reduce the risk of him breaking down.

“I actually think the injury setbacks have made him the player he is today,” Daniels says. “It’s his mindset, how strong he is mentally. Whenever he gets injured, he has a willingness to battle through it and improve.”

Howe, who also managed Wilson at Bournemouth when he suffered his two ACL injuries, concurs. “His first instinct after an injury was always, ‘I’m going to come back better’,” Howe said. “But then he would put the work into coming back better. It’s not just talk with Callum — he actually delivers.”

Although he contracted COVID-19 earlier this month, Wilson has not had any further muscular injuries and he has been sharp, scoring four goals and providing two assists across seven starts.

Wilson scored inside 11 minutes of his first game back against Fulham, prodding in Joe Willock’s goalbound effort on the line, highlighting his thirst for goals.

But Wilson offers far more to England than goals alone.

“Basically, Cal can do a bit of everything and that’s why he’s pretty much Eddie Howe’s ideal striker,” says Daniels. “Eddie likes to play the ball in behind and stretch the opposition, but he also likes intricate play around the box and in build-up phases. Cal’s got pace and he’s also really strong for his size. Plus he scores goals for fun — it’s quite the package.”

While playing as a left-back this season, Burn has come to value “how good Cal is at dropping in the pocket and providing link-up”.

Against Villa, Burn was able to use Wilson as an out-ball after the striker dropped into the centre-circle.

After turning, Wilson then spread play to Almiron, who cut inside to score.

But there is another side to Wilson, one which he sees him “go to war” with centre-backs, as he terms it.

“I’m always harrying and pressing defenders, not giving them a minute to breathe,” Wilson told Shearer.

Daniels “hated” facing Wilson during training at Bournemouth because of how much the striker “loves a confrontation”. During matches, his combative nature only grows.

“I really like how he works defenders, irritates the life out of them and keeps them busy,” Shearer says. “He never gets bullied. Callum has got an edge to him, a bit of nastiness and you need that. You need that bit of arrogance, that bit of strut and belief in yourself, because if you don’t look after yourself, who is going to look after you? Nobody. I like that about him, I like that he riles defenders. It’s part of his game.”

Wilson’s hold-up play can also help England see out tight matches. After coming on against Chelsea, he received possession on halfway, with little support.

Using his body to shield the ball, he advanced into Chelsea’s half before drawing a foul to ease pressure on his side.

Crucially, Wilson also recognises that, unless Kane succumbs to injury, he is unlikely to start. “I know my role, I’m not deluded enough to think I’m going to be competing and playing every game,” Wilson told the BBC’s Footballer’s Football Podcast. “I feel there’ll be an opportunity there and, when it comes, I’ll be ready to take it with both hands.”

“He could play alongside Harry, but that won’t happen,” Shearer says. “He won’t start. He might play with him if we’re chasing a game, but he’s there primarily as an understudy if Harry gets injured or as an impact player who could change a game.”

Yet, even if Wilson finds himself behind Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford in the striker pecking order, as many suspect, the Newcastle forward believes his “maturity, leadership and willingness to push people in training” will aid England off the field. Howe agrees, stressing that Wilson will be a positive influence within the camp.

“He has an infectious personality,” Daniels says. “He laughs at everything, particularly at things he’s said — he’s the funniest man in the world in his mind! But he’s a really loveable person. He trains properly, will want to drive the team on and is a top character. He’ll be great for England, on and off the pitch.”

Wilson knows he is not going to Qatar as England’s main man, but he is heading to the World Cup genuinely expecting to materially aid his country’s cause. He is confident, fit and in form — and, if called upon, determined to deliver.

“I would back Callum in any situation, that if he entered the pitch he would be able to score the goals England need,” Howe said. “That’s always been in his DNA, the goalscoring ability. More important, the confidence to do it in any arena — that’s his biggest strength.”

(Photo: Mike Hewitt – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)