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‘Sam Fender playing Champions League anthem at Newcastle was when it sank in’

Callum Wilson knows when it finally hit home that he – and Newcastle United – would be playing in the Champions League next season. It wasn’t when they confirmed it on the pitch, nor when they did a lap of honour after the final home game.

Last Sunday, Wilson and his wife went to see Sam Fender live at St James’ Park and described a sea of black and white. Fender played the Champions League anthem before he took to the stage. Hearing that, in the stadium he will be playing in, did it: “I was like ‘this is absolutely real’.”

Wilson knows, and has been told repeatedly by supporters, what a difference he made to this happening. He scored 11 league goals in April and May, including braces against West Ham, Everton, Southampton and Leeds. He scored Newcastle’s first goal in four matches and, on April 2, scored the clincher against Manchester United. That anthem is for him as much as anyone.

But, for a while, he doubted whether that might ever happen. Having gone to the World Cup with England, Wilson scored one goal in 13 games in all competitions after the break. He lost his place in Newcastle’s team, with Alexander Isak starting as a centre forward. When Gareth Southgate named his squad for the matches in March, Wilson had been dropped. Now he’s back in the fold, speaking from a sun-soaked St George’s Park.

“You are at a World Cup and then there’s a camp in March and you get withdrawn from the squad and you aren’t around the lads again,” he says. “It was the same time that I dropped out of the Newcastle team, so it was a double whammy. All of a sudden you have England that is being taken away and your club position that is being taken away. It feels like everything around you is falling down. So you have to have a good look at yourself.”

Wilson explains that using controlled anger as a fuel is the secret to responding to adversity. Off the pitch he is relaxed, a laugher and a joker. He says that he has never been the type to sulk or make an atmosphere in the dressing room.

Away from football, he invests in art and now has a collection that contains a Banksy, a Tracey Emin and a Damien Hirst and thinks that he might buy a Patrick Caulfield next. But as soon as he steps onto the pitch, he’s looking to produce the spark that can change a season.

“Sometimes you have to delve back, and think of difficult times, and then keep that fire, that hunger, that desire, that sometimes as humans can get a bit complacent with,” he says. “I had to work hard to get back in the team, and I came on, scored a goal, still be on the bench, and then you become frustrated, thinking ‘well, what more have I got to do to actually get into the team’.

“You have conversations with the manager, and things like that are personal, but at the end of the day the message was ‘keep going, keep doing what you are doing, you are training’. Use that fire in the belly to elevate yourself and your performances. That’s what I tried to do and went on a great run of scoring goals.”

Playing at Newcastle now brings with it new expectations. There is a group of players who were there pre-takeover and are there now, a club under Saudi ownership and with Saudi wealth that is aiming to stick around in Europe’s premier competition. In those circumstances, you sink or you swim.

“Seven or eight of the players who started the games at the back end of the season were also the ones who were fighting relegation in the previous two seasons. Seven or eight of the players who started the games at the back end of the season were also the ones who were fighting relegation in the previous two seasons.”

And Wilson clearly has improved. Despite starting only 21 league games last season, his tally of 18 goals was the first time he had even reached 15 as a Premier League striker. After scoring 28 in three previous seasons combined that were littered with annoying injuries, it was Isak who was moved to the left wing in late season to accommodate Wilson’s prolificacy.

Now, Wilson is dreaming of a legacy. A recent discussion on a Newcastle United labelled him the greatest Newcastle No 9 since Alan Shearer. Some of that is damning with faint praise: Martins, Carroll, Gayle, Rondon. A list of those who didn’t stay long or didn’t score much. But Wilson has a more statistical target. He is now the sixth highest goalscorer in the Premier League for Newcastle, nine behind Peter Beardsley in second. That would be a wonderful way to cement his place in folklore.

“When I got this shirt,” Wilson explains, “all I wanted to do was to leave it in a better place than when I found it and achieve great things. My time at Newcastle has been amazing so far and long may it continue.

“In terms of Premier League goals, behind Shearer at Newcastle, there aren’t many in front of me now I’m trying to get second – it’s a long way to catch Alan! But if I could achieve that, fantastic.”

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