One tough month
The month of January was a very tough month for Brighton and Hove Albion, and also for the development of James Wilson. December had crashed at the midway point and January started with another poor home defeat to Wolves before an inevitable defeat away to Hull in the FA Cup third round. A midweek trip to Rotherham followed and was a defeat so miserable, manager Chris Hughton was heard screaming at the players in the dressing room post match. It probably wasn’t comparable to the famous hair dryer, but I’m sure it was something of a shock for Wilson, and the rest of the players. No club wants to go to Rotherham, generally, but if you do have to – you don’t want to lose. Especially when the team is on a bad run and fading badly in the league table.
It was a bad month for player as well as for club. Wilson started against Wolves on New Year’s Day and showed his class with one mazy dribble but that really was his only input in the match. It was a tough end to December for Wilson, he was struggling with an illness but with Sam Baldock (arguably a striker, although proof is not forthcoming) out injured and Tomer Hemed having left his confidence in August, we needed Wilson and we needed young Bobby Zamora to step up to the plate. Unfortunately for them, our entire midfield went off the boil so they were on their own up top and it showed, badly. We lost the game with a whimper before heading to Hull Reserves in the Cup, which Wilson was not called upon for.
While this is a tough run for the club and for Wilson, without a goal since 12 December at Derby, it’s an important run for him. A loan spell for a young player like James Wilson is intended to benefit both parties and right now Manchester United are benefitting longer term through Wilson experiencing a dry spell. Harry Kane went out on loan from Tottenham repeatedly and he never found any form. He went to Leyton Orient and Millwall (forgive him, I doubt it was his decision), Leicester and to Norwich and nobody noticed. But those loan spells will have toughened him up, it would have been like dangling a carrot in front of him and then swiping it away. Here’s professional football, big stadiums, passionate fans, your name on the shirt. But Kane made almost no impact at all, with no goals for Norwich in three games and just two goals in thirteen games for Leicester.
James Wilson has every bit as much potential as Harry Kane at the same age, he’s already made an impact in the Manchester United first team and he’s come to a Championship club at the top end of the league to see what he can make happen. He needed experience to round out his education and he will be gaining a lot from his struggles here which will benefit the player and his club.
For Brighton, we have a player with obvious talent and skill. He has had a difficult period, potentially not helped by his team mates who have also struggled recently. But January also means the transfer window, which doesn’t just mean Jim White and his loudest, most excited voice. For Brighton, it means signing Anthony Knockaert for a significant fee. If you’re remembering the name but you’re not too sure why, he was the fella who fell over for a penalty in the play-off semi final for Leicester away at Watford to give them a chance to settle the tie and send them to Wembley. He himself took the penalty, which was saved and then about 3 seconds later, Troy Deeney slammed in an outrageous volley to send Watford to Wembley instead. Signings like Knockaert invigorate a squad which needed some fresh momentum and fresh impetus.
Wilson himself was needing something to change and to find his own momentum. Still no goal since 12 December and struggling for game time, this had become a crucial spell in his development. How was he going to recover his form? Where was the next goal going to come from? Roll on Huddersfield at the Amex, another appearance from the bench but all of a sudden it was the James Wilson from the start of the spell. Pace, skill and purpose was all back in his game and he scored his goal within ten minutes of coming off the bench to replace a shattered Bobby Zamora. Wizard Knockaert went down the right and cut the ball back for Wilson to temporarily dislocate his head and angle the ball into the back of the net. Once he’d put himself back together he wheeled away to celebrate and the relief was plain on his face.
It’s only a matter of time before we can say he’s come through the difficult spell, which coincided with the collapse in form from the whole squad, but the signs are positive in early February that this loan spell isn’t going to go the way of Harry Kane’s at Norwich or Leicester, where he struggled to make an impact and struggled even more to find the occasional goal. All of football knows that James Wilson is a talent, he has all the attributes he needs to become a real player for Manchester United and England and a tough spell at Brighton will only aid his development, which is why he’s here and not being coddled at Carrington. The true value of this month in this loan spell will only be obvious in a few years time, and by then all but James Wilson will have forgotten it.