In May, it will be five years since James Wilson, 18 at the time, stunned Old Trafford with two goals on his debut against Hull City. But this summer it is likely the striker will leave Manchester United, ending an association with the club that began when he was a young boy.
Wilson was plucked from the academy by Ryan Giggs after the Welshman was named caretaker-manager in the wake of David Moyes’ sacking in 2014. Two weeks later, he was thrown in at the deep end against Hull and it took him just 31 minutes to become the fourth-youngest United player to score in the Premier League. By the time he was substituted for Robin van Persie just after the hour mark he had scored another, this time in front of the Stretford End, in a 3-1 win.
“It was a surprise,” Wilson told ESPN FC by telephone of his debut call. “I’d only been training with the first team for two weeks. I’d had a good season prior to that, scoring for the Under-18s, the U-19s in the Champions League and I’d scored for the U-23s, so I had made all the steps in one year.
“I was surprised to get the nod but I stepped up to the plate and did my bit for the team on the night.”
A few months later, Wilson signed a four-year contract, with new manager Louis van Gaal branding the striker “one of the brightest young English prospects.” That contract is due to expire on June 30, 2019 and after a series of injuries and loan moves, Wilson, now 23, is set to leave the club he joined at the age of seven.
“I think I’ve come to terms with it,” says Wilson, on the prospect of finding a new home in the summer. “I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent certain I’m going to leave. There’s still a slight chance I might get a contract but I think I’m edging towards leaving in the summer.
“I’ll come to terms with it more when it actually happens. I think it might be tougher than perhaps I thought. My focus is one the next step, wherever that might be.”
The bright side for Wilson, looking forward, is that he is enjoying his football again. On loan at Aberdeen since August, he has scored three times — including a stunning 30-yard strike in a 3-0 win over Hamilton in October — and played in a narrow Scottish League Cup final defeat to Celtic in December. He’d chosen Aberdeen, currently third in the Scottish Premiership behind Celtic and Rangers, to “get out of his comfort zone” and put himself in the shop window ahead of a possible permanent move in the summer.
“I wanted a little bit of a change,” says the former England Under-21 international. “Scottish football has been getting a lot more coverage over the last few seasons as the quality has improved. I wanted to move away from home. I’m originally from Stoke and Aberdeen is 400 miles away from there.
“My first loan move was to Brighton, which was kind of the same thing. The last few loan moves have been closer to home: Derby and Sheffield United. I thought the most successful loan was the Brighton one and I was trying to get as many similarities with this move. Being so far away from home, I have to think more about what I’m going to eat and the rest time I get between training and games. All things considered, I think it’s been a good move.”
The most important thing for Wilson has been staying fit. Two years ago, his spell at Derby County was cut short because of a knee ligament injury and he’s had to contend with persistent niggles and knocks that have made it difficult to break through at Old Trafford.
“I’m in a much happier place with regards to football,” he says. “The fitness comes with games. The more games I play, the fitter I’m going to get. In the short-term, I just want to perform as best as I can.
“The whole point of the loan move was to put myself in the shop window and see what options come available.”
Had it not been for injuries, things may have been different for Wilson at United. Or if Van Gaal had stayed rather than being sacked after winning the FA Cup in 2016. When Jose Mourinho took over that summer, he inherited another teenager academy striker who had scored twice on his United debut. His name? Marcus Rashford.
“Louis van Gaal believed in me and played me as much as he could,” says Wilson. “I was training with the first team every day and thought I was progressing well. As far as opportunities, you go into training and you do your best and the team gets picked. If you’re not in the squad, you have to deal with it.
“I wanted to get out of my comfort zone on loan at Brighton [during the 2015-16 season] and while I was there, Rashford came through. I came back and never really got that chance again. Injuries were a big thing. Constant ankle injuries is a big one and my ACL two years ago.
“Looking back, if anything, it would be that which has held me back but it happens for a reason and I believe that. This is where I am. I’m supposed to be here and I’m enjoying my football at the moment. I can’t complain.”
If Wilson does leave United for the final time this summer, he will go with those vivid memories of that night against Hull in May 2014.
“It was an amazing experience to go through,” he says. “It was a childhood dream to play for United and score on my debut. Scoring goals is what I love doing and I’m try to do that as much as possible.
“You get that same feeling every time — every goal that goes in, you get it. Whether it’s in a reserves game for the U23s or in the league, I’m just trying to feel that feeling more.”