James Wilson joined United when he was seven and impressed at youth level, earning praise from those who regularly watched our U-21s.
Former United defender Clayton Blackmore, who coached the youth teams, claimed that Wilson was the best he had seen at 15-years-old and would be a better striker than Jamie Vardy one day, who became a decent Premier League forward later in to his career.
Ryan Giggs threw him straight in to the first team when he was appointed interim manager following the sacking of David Moyes. With just half an hour on the clock, Wilson scored against Hull, becoming the fourth youngest player to score for United in the Premier League.
“He’s a goalscorer – a natural goalscorer; but he’s got more to his game than just that,” Giggs said after the game. “He can turn and run and he’s a very clever player. I was delighted for him that he got two goals and I think he wanted to stay on for his hat-trick when I took him off.”
Wilson scored two goals that day and was replaced by Robin van Persie for the final half an hour, with the Dutchman impressed with the youngster’s composure.
“James played really well,” he told MUTV. “I know how hard it is to make your United debut – I made mine when I was about 29! I know how special it can be. He made it very special for himself and for everyone tonight. To score two goals is really special.”
He was handed the shirt number 49 at the start of the 2014-15 season, with Louis van Gaal insisting that he should have the number nine on his jersey.
He went on to make 17 appearances for the first team under Van Gaal, with 13 of them coming in the league, and scored two goals. The manager allowed Danny Welbeck to leave for Arsenal, having faith that Wilson would be the better player. By January, he had risen above loan signing Radamel Falcao in pecking order, leading agent Jorge Mendes to speculate that the Colombian would leave United at the end of the season.
Van Gaal was a big fan and had high hopes for his future at the club, taking him on the pre-season tour at the end of that campaign.
Following his performance in the 3-1 win over Barcelona on tour, Van Gaal sung the praises of Wilson, with the belief that he could become an important player for the club.
At the start of the next season he made his debut for England U-21s and scored the winning goal, with then manager Gareth Southgate impressed with the direction Wilson was heading in.
“Wilson is a work in progress and still has some filling out to do, but he has shown he can score goals,” he said. “He is at a club with a history of developing young players and I am sure they will make the right decision with him. Manchester United is one of the best football clubs in the world for nurturing players and what happens is for him and his club to decide.”
He also earned the praise of Michael Carrick who was impressed with his performances for the U-21s and in training with the first team.
“He is just a goal machine,” he told MUTV. “He’s like that in training and scores all the time. It’s a great habit to have, something I wish I had! He’s just a natural.”
Wilson’s potential was rewarded with a new four year deal, with Van Gaal describing him as “one of the brightest young English prospects.”
Wilson was full of hope for his future at his boyhood club after agreeing, what would become, his last contract with United.
“I have been at United since I was seven years old and have thoroughly enjoyed my time here so far,” he said. “Growing up at the club has been an incredible experience and I feel it stands me in good stead for continuing my development as a Manchester United player.”
Two months later he joined Championship side Brighton on loan and scored a great solo goal in his first start as his side came back from 2-0 down against Charlton to win 3-2.
There were some highs in his time on the south coast, including his 95th minute equaliser against Derby which put them in touching distance of promotion. But largely it was a disappointing time for the striker, scoring just five goals in 28 appearances as Brighton missed out on promotion.
Wilson joined Derby on loan the following season but a couple of months in suffered a serious knee injury, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, which kept him off the pitch for a year, with him returning to United for treatment.
He returned to action for United’s U-23s the following season and midway through that campaign he signed for Sheffield United on loan with the hope this would kickstart his career.
“It’s difficult going in to any injury but especially a long-term injury,” he said. “You need to show a lot of character. Personally, I think I’ve done quite well to come back from that. I’m very confident now. I’m in no doubt that I’m back stronger. I think it’s a good thing for me to get out and play the games and test it out. A lot has happened since I made my debut for United four years ago. I want to get my career back on track now. It was a big backward step as far as my career was concerned but I’m back on the up now, so hopefully this will help me jumpstart my career again.”
Things started off so well for him, with Wilson scoring his first goal for the club six minutes in to his first start, as Sheffield United went on to beat Norwich 2-1.
However, that would be the only goal he scored for them in just eight appearances.
Last season, the final year of his contract, he wasn’t given a squad number at United and was sent to Aberdeen on loan. He went on to score four goals in 32 appearances, with him acknowledging a few months ago that his United career would soon be coming to an end.
“I think I’ve come to terms with it,” he told ESPN. “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.”
We’ll never know what sort of player he would have become without that injury but can only hope that he rediscovers his goalscoring form elsewhere next season. Good luck, James.