History Boys | James Wilson

Earlier in the season, we explored the extents of Andy Scott’s exploits into the loan market during the title-winning season of 2008/09.

His talent for plucking gems from the rough served Brentford well during his four-year tenure at the helm, with the likes of Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, Leicester’s Jeff Schlupp and current Colorado Rapids defender Tommy Smith all having gained experience at Griffin Park at one point or another.

It’s testament to that ability 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 Andy 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, too, 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 think Gary Johnson was my manager at the time and he knew someone at Brentford,” he says. “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 actually 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.

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“It was mad. I was just 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 so it was a great learning curve in the grand scheme of things.”

The aforementioned partnership with Bennett was somewhat born out of fellow defender Mark Phillips’ injury recovery. He too had joined the club, from Millwall, 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 games in succession.

Over that 10-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 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.

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

One particular game – his league debut, in fact – sticks in his mind during that first run of games, though, and he has the honour of being 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 on 16 August, but when the first goal came, the floodgates opened, leading to an eventual 4-0 victory in front of a delighted Griffin Park crowd of 4,009. James surged through midfield and slipped a ball through to the striker, who took the ball into his stride and plundered past goalkeeper Phil Barnes.

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

“He just 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 go out and 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; everyone was really good lads and there were no egos in the dressing room at all, it was brilliant. I’d barely been in the first team dressing room before making my debut so I wasn’t really sure whether there was a vibe of success.

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“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. Obviously now 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.”

Having sat out the 2-2 draw – and eventual 4-3 shootout defeat – to Luton in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on 7 October, James was restored to the starting 11 for the six remaining games of his loan spell. And after just one victory across that time, the Robins opted not to allow James to extend his loan, meaning he returned to Ashton Gate.

The Bees, as we all know by now, went on to secure the league title at Darlington later that season, but 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! It was a great achievement, but at the time, as a youngster, you don’t really see it like that, but now 10 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 probably an extra maybe five or six boys that were there after I left, all on loan: Jordan Rhodes, Billy Clarke and people like that. There was a different atmosphere to when I’d been there, but Andy brought in all the right type of people to get the team over the line in the end.

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

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.

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“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 I don’t think, though 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 just a bit of pressure which affected us going forward.”

Largely 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 in a 1-0 defeat to Wycombe 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. I would’ve been interested, definitely. Both years I wanted to stay for the whole season but Bristol kept calling me back saying that was enough experience for one season, you can come back to be around the first team now.

“But playing for Brentford on loan was the best thing I ever did because it set me up for my whole career, really. If I hadn’t gone out and got games and first team football, I had a contract until I was 21/22 at Bristol, so I probably would’ve been that age and not played 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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His struggles continued at Bristol City after that. 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, at the time I felt really hard done by, but they were always in the Championship when I was there and it is 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 as a team in the league. They always wanted experience and that wasn’t me; they had to get people who had Championship experience and I wasn’t 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.”

It was at Oldham where he really made a name for himself, having left Ashton Gate for the final time on 31 January 2014. At Boundary Park there was no promotion chase and no real expectation to challenge for promotion to the Championship and in the less pressurised environment, he flourished, making 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 so I was out for two seasons, pretty much. It was a big risk because I still had six months left on my contract at Bristol and I just 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 there.”

“That said, the last six months at Oldham were hard. We weren’t getting paid, we 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 have 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.”

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

And 10 years on from his first League Two medal, 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 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, though I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. It was an amazing season, definitely.”

Originally featured in BEES Issue #17 v Hull City (23 February 2019)


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