James Wilson was called the ‘next star’ at Manchester United before injury and anxiety turned the dream into a nightmare … now the 26-year-old striker is enjoying a resurgence in Port Vale and has his eyes set on Wembley
- James Wilson scored two goals in his Manchester United debut in 2014
- The striker was seen as a possible replacement for the aging Robin van Persie
- Now the 26-year-old wants to help Port Vale win promotion to League One
Most kids dream of the Hollywood lifestyle as a football player, but few discuss the emotional scars of being released, career-threatening injuries, and tabloid speculation.
The darker side of the profession – being sent on loan 200 miles away from your family as a teenager or the parasitic anxiety that comes with the pressure of elite football.
James Wilson has lived it all. He scored two goals in his Manchester United debut and heard 75,000 sing his name at the Theater of Dreams. Injuries and anxiety turned those dreams into a nightmare, but Wilson says he has found his top fitness in Port Vale.
Former Manchester United striker James Wilson is enjoying a resurgence in Port Vale
“I’ve had lows and dark times, but they can be offset by the highlights of experiences and people you meet,” says Wilson, now 26.
One of those highlights would be to guide Vale to Wembley and promotion. They start their League Two play-off bid on Sunday in Swindon, with the return leg in Burslem on Thursday.
But let’s rewind to the beginning. “I was scouted when I was seven, playing for a local team in Stoke and ending up at United’s academy from then until my early 20s,” Wilson says.
‘Because I broke through at such an early age, I was naive about it. I did not see the effects of the pressure from so many fans there. ‘
The 26-year-old striker wants to help Port Vale win promotion to League One
Wilson marked his debut as an 18-year-old with a brace against Hull. United fans began to discuss his prospects as ‘the next star’, a replacement for the aging Robin van Persie.
But he only played 19 more appearances and scored twice more. “If people want to say I’m a failure, they can have that opinion,” he adds. “But all I can say is that I work so hard week after week to try to get my career back to what it was.”
He went on loan to Brighton, then in the Championship under Chris Hughton, and got regular football under his belt, including both legs of their play-off semi-final loss.
But Brighton fans’ most important memory of him was New Year’s Day 2016, when he threw up on the pitch live on Sky Sports.
“The pressure and the anxiety came to me and I couldn’t hold it in, I was sick,” he says. ‘It happens to a lot of footballers, especially when they are in front of the cameras.
Wilson marked his debut as an 18-year-old with a finish against Hull in the Premier League
‘It was New Year, which did not help. Fans decided for themselves that I was sick when I was a hangover from New Year’s Eve. I was 18 when I went to Brighton, I had never been away, but it prepared me for what was to come. ‘
What was to come was a series of injuries and eventually being released from United.
“My low point was making my ACL, it was worse than being released – a dark time.”
Wilson is not the only man in Vale who experiences dark times. Boss Darrell Clarke was on compassionate leave for a long period of this season after the death of his daughter.
“For a club and a community, it would be great to have us at Wembley,” Wilson said. ‘The Gaffer is an amazing personality. It was such a boost for us to see him back in the grave.
‘If I could afford my younger self, it would be to enjoy your football. I was not aware of it at the time when I came through so young. ‘