At St. James’ Park recently, there was a ripple of excitement before a ball had even been kicked.
James Wilson had been part of the larger matchday squad for the Aston Villa fixture but, with Wayne Rooney joining Robin van Persie on the sidelines, it was logical to assume he had a real chance of being on the bench at Newcastle.
When Danny Welbeck was still dressed in his club suit some half-an-hour after Wilson had made his entrance to the home of the Magpies with the rest of the players, it appeared inevitable the teenager would receive a taste of senior football, becoming the first youngster to make a debut appearance in the 18-man squad since David Moyes took charge. After this fact was confirmed by media manager Karen Shotbolt handing me the teamsheet, the response on Twitter was telling. There was a buzz around Wilson’s selection that only occurs when a homegrown youngster makes his breakthrough.
For all the global appeal of the Barclays Premier League, and the ability of the clubs to invest millions of pounds in ready-made first-teamers from all over the world, there is something that resonates with all supporters in a youthful prodigy taking those first tentative steps to stardom. There is a sense of satisfaction that a player nurtured since a schoolboy has overcome the giant hurdle of making the first-team squad, gaining a shirt number and seeing his name printed on the back of the official programme.
I watched Wilson from close quarters as he warmed up beforehand. Club captain Nemanja Vidic, another of the substitutes, appeared keen to help make him feel at home as they practised short, sharp passes. As things transpired, it was the only time he got onto the pitch, with injuries helping to prevent Moyes from giving the 18-year-old rookie his debut despite a convincing lead.
As Reserves coach Warren Joyce stressed to me, the hard work starts here for Wilson. After being set a target of scoring in each of the remaining Under-21 games, the Biddulph-born striker drilled a glorious goal against Villa that generated awe around Old Trafford and, arguably, gets better with every viewing, courtesy of MUTV’s replays. It took me a few seconds to realise I had broken into spontaneous applause