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Interviews

History Boys: James Wilson

Ten years on from Brentford’s League Two title triumph, we speak to James Wilson who recently repeated the feat with Lincoln City

31 May 2019

Andy Scott’s talent for plucking gems from the rough served Brentford well during his four-year tenure, with the likes of Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny, Crystal Palace’s Jeffrey Schlupp and current Colorado Rapids defender Tommy Smith all having gained experience at Griffin Park.

It’s testament to Scott’s ability to recognise a player that he’s gone on to hold senior recruitment posts with The Bees and current employers Watford, where he was elevated to Sporting Director in November 2018, having been UK Football Recruitment Director for 12 months.

One of the first loanees to be signed by Scott as he shaped his squad during his inaugural pre-season was 18-year-old Welsh defender James Wilson, who joined on an initial three-month loan contract from Championship club Bristol City.

A tall, athletic centre-back with capabilities at right-back, James – despite no previous senior experience - partnered Alan Bennett in the heart of defence and earned rave reviews. In an exclusive interview with BEES, he reveals, despite some difficulty moving away from home for the first time, just how highly he values his time in West London.

 

 “I USED TO HAVE PRE-MATCH AT TESCO”

“I think Gary Johnson was my manager at the time and he knew someone at Brentford,” says James.

“I actually played a pre-season game on trial, to see if they wanted to take me on loan – I think it was Woking we played. They signed two of us that year, a guy called Frankie Artus as well, but he didn’t stay with the Club for more than a month or two.

“It was mad. I was staying in a hotel on my own most of the time and I used to have pre-match at Tesco before the games, which was crazy looking back on it now. I was only a teenager so it was a completely different experience to what I was used to.

“It was the best thing I did, though. It was pointless me sitting at Bristol playing Reserve Team football - it was a great learning curve in the grand scheme of things.”

 

A PERFECT PARTNERSHIP

The aforementioned partnership with Bennett was somewhat born out of an injury to fellow defender Mark Phillips.  

He too had joined the Club in the summer but was initially restricted to appearances from the bench having been sidelined by a cruciate ligament injury for the best part of a year.

It was a partnership that developed rapidly. Fittingly, James – Newport-born, contrary to his Wikipedia page - made his competitive debut against Swansea City in a 2-0 League Cup defeat on 12 August 2008, before going to appear in the next nine successive games.

Over that ten-game spell, the pair helped the side to six clean sheets and James admits that the Irishman – now captain of League of Ireland Premier Division side Cork City – was the ideal centre-back to learn his trade alongside.

“Benno was great,” he continues. “He was perfect and exactly what I needed at that time in my career. He’d literally talk me through games. He’d be the aggressive one trying to win every header and I’d sweep round him and look after him, in that respect.

“He was the perfect centre-back to play alongside at that time in my career. He’s another great lad who I wish I still spoke to but I haven’t in years. Mark Phillips was a similar kind of character.”

 

PLAYING WITH FREEDOM

James was the provider of cult hero Charlie MacDonald’s first of 45 goals for the Club.

It took Andy Scott’s men 27 minutes to register against Grimsby Town on 16 August, and when the first goal came, the floodgates opened, leading to an eventual 4-0 victory in front of a delighted Griffin Park crowd. James surged through midfield and slipped a ball through to MacDonald, who took the ball in his stride and plundered past goalkeeper Phil Barnes.

“That was class and I’ve still got pictures of the team celebrating that day,” he says. “It’s very rare that I go that far up the pitch unless I’m playing right-back nowadays. It says a lot for what Andy was like as a manager.

“He let us go out and play with freedom. We were never worried about going out and making a mistake or doing anything wrong, he just encouraged us to enjoy ourselves and that was the best thing he did. We obviously worked on our shape and set-pieces and all that sort of stuff, but for the most part there was emphasis on enjoying and expressing ourselves.

“I think that’s the best way to be. If your players are confident enough to express themselves, then you are always going to do well.

“It was such a good team to be part of; there were no egos in the dressing room, it was brilliant. I’d barely been in a First Team dressing room before making my debut so I wasn’t really sure whether there was a vibe of success.

“What I know is that I was really enjoying it and I really liking it, but I didn’t know that it was any different. Looking back I can tell there was something different about it, but at the time I didn’t really realise, I just thought that was how every dressing room operated.”

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RETURN TO THE ROBINS

Having sat out the 2-2 draw, and eventual 4-3 shootout defeat, to Luton Town in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on 7 October, James was restored to the starting XI for the six remaining games of his loan spell.

The Robins opted not to allow James to extend his loan, meaning he returned to Ashton Gate.

The Bees, as we all know, went on to secure the league title at Darlington later that season. Due to his early involvement, James had passed the threshold to be awarded a League Two winners medal after the final-day victory over Luton. It wasn’t long before he was back again in a playing capacity, either.

“I got a medal, yes! Ten years on, it’s still a massive achievement and it was brilliant for me.

“The Club invited me back for the celebrations on the final day and they took us all to Las Vegas as well. There were an extra five or six boys that joined after I left, all on loan - Jordan Rhodes and Billy Clarke being two of them. There was a different atmosphere to when I’d been there, but Andy brought in the right type of people to get the team over the line.

“It was a bit surreal because I hadn’t actually played in the game, I’d just come down to watch like a fan. It was a great atmosphere; the fans were so excited that day.”

 

A FOOTBALLING EDUCATION

On 30 August 2009, James signed a one-month loan deal in TW8, which was later extended to New Year’s Day 2010. Naturally, he was thrilled to return as The Bees began life in League One.

“It was brilliant to be back,” he says. “We’d discussed a second loan over the summer because it wasn’t looking like I was going to play at Bristol City again. It was a step up in leagues, too, which was just what I needed. There was a massive turnaround in terms of players, with a lot of new boys that weren’t there in the first season I was at Brentford.

“I think we did alright; we didn’t struggle, although we had up and down results. It was a different atmosphere and I don’t think we started as great as we had done the season before, so there was a bit of pressure that affected us going forward.”

Shunted out wide to play at right-back this time around, with Bennett and Phillips the two established central defenders, Brentford won just two of the 14 games he played in. The first spell may have resulted in a league winner’s medal, but the second ended in ignominious circumstances as he was sent off during a 1-0 defeat to Wycombe Wanderers on 24 November 2009.

“I’m not sure if a permanent deal was considered, to be honest, and if so, it wasn’t discussed with me. Bristol City wanted me to go back after the second loan ended. I think I would’ve been interested in joining permanently because I was playing and enjoying my football and knew I was going back to Ashton Gate to try and fight to get into the team.

“That was a tough ask because they were in the Championship at the time. Both years I wanted to stay for the whole season but Bristol kept calling me back.

“Playing for Brentford on loan was the best thing I ever did because it set me up for my whole career, really. I had a contract until I was 22 at Bristol, so if I hadn’t gone out and played games, I probably would’ve got to that age without playing a First Team game, like a lot of boys are doing now. I think it’s harder when you get to that age to step up and play First Team football.”

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Early bath: James leaves the field having been sent off against Wycombe Wanderers  

 

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

James’ struggles continued at Bristol City. There were cup games here and league fixtures there, but it wasn’t until the 2011/12 season he finally got the break he’d been chasing.

“When I kept returning to Bristol after a few months out on loan, I felt really hard done by; they were in the Championship while I was there and it’s such a hard league. Looking back, I can see why I never really played, but at the time it was really frustrating.

“There were always three or four boys in front of me. I was never first choice, apart from the season where I played most of my games there. Even then, that was only up until January 2013 - a change of manager and that was the end of that. It was always hard because we were never really doing well in the league. They always wanted experience and that wasn’t me; they had to get people who had Championship experience and I couldn’t offer that. At the same time, they weren’t willing to let me go so I was caught between a rock and a hard place, which was frustrating.”

 

 “I PICKED UP WHERE I LEFT OFF AT BRENTFORD”

It was at Oldham Athletic where James really made a name for himself, having left Ashton Gate for the final time on 31 January 2014.

At Boundary Park there was no real expectation to challenge for promotion to the Championship and, in a less pressurised environment, he flourished, registering 109 appearances in two-and-a-half seasons, as well as making his senior international debut for Wales.

“At Oldham, I feel like I just picked up where I left off at Brentford in many ways,” he explains. “My time at Bristol City was so stop-start and I had an 18-month injury there too as I did my tendon in my knee - I was out for two seasons, pretty much. It was a big risk [to leave Bristol City] because I still had six months left on my contract; I walked away from it to go and play football. Luckily, they let me do that and it was great up there to be fair, I really enjoyed my time at Oldham.

“That said, the last six months at Oldham were hard. We either weren’t getting paid or  were getting paid late and it was a frustrating time. It’s about football, but at the same time you have to be getting paid on time because you’ve got bills to pay like everyone else. I decided that I wasn’t going to stay and sign another contract there and a lot of the boys I was with did the same. There was a massive turnaround in players at the end of the season, so most of my mates there went elsewhere, too.”

 

BACK ON THE PROMOTION TRAIL

To the dismay of his Sheffield Wednesday-supporting dad, James left for the red-and-white half of the Steel City in July 2016.

After an injury-hit debut season at Bramall Lane, he spent the first half of last term on loan with Walsall, before signing a two-and-a-half-year deal with Danny Cowley’s Lincoln City last January.

Ten years on from his first League Two triumph, he’s part of another squad currently leading the promotion pack with just over a quarter of the season to play.*

“Lincoln came to a few of my games and they were asking me to sign for them and it sounded like a really good opportunity. They’ve got really good fans and really good players; it hasn’t quite worked out for me, but it’s great to be part of a team that wants to achieve something rather than just going through games trying to avoid relegation.

“From my time getting promoted with Brentford, I guess I was just really enjoying football and enjoying day-to-day with a great bunch of boys. I’ve still got most of them on my Instagram so I keep up to date with what they are doing. It would be great to have a get-together with all of them one day. It was an amazing season.”

 

*Interview conducted before the end of the 2018/19 season 


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