MARK Wilson has a smile on his face again. Poised to sign a new 18-month contract at Dundee United, he knows it comes with no guarantee of a starting place in Jackie McNamara’s first team.
But he is at the very least assured of constant communication with the Tannadice manager, a courtesy denied him during a nightmare stint at Bristol City which he says could have wrecked the career of a player with less resolve.
Now rejuvenated back at the club where it all started for him, Wilson still reflects with bemusement on his ultimately wretched season in Bristol. It all went wrong when Derek McInnes, who signed him from Celtic, was sacked in January 2013 and replaced as manager by Sean O’Driscoll. Wilson almost immediately found himself ostracised for reasons which were never explained by the taciturn O’Driscoll.
“When Derek was sacked I went in to see O’Driscoll and asked him if I had a fresh start under him because I’d moved my family down to Bristol and wanted to stay,” said Wilson.
“He said everyone had a fresh start and we were all in his plans. That was the first time I spoke to him – the last time was the week before I left four months later. He didn’t like chatting to people one-to-one. He was a strange fella.
“My form hadn’t been great under Derek, but I believed I deserved a chance. I trained with the first team every day and was one of the better players. The assistant manager [Richard O’Kelly] liked my attitude but O’Driscoll wouldn’t even put me in any matchday squads. I wondered then what had happened to me in the space of a year.
“That was my lowest point. I spent Saturdays on day trips with the family or watching the results on Sky’s Soccer Saturday. It was a weird situation to train all week and not be involved on matchday. It was always left to the assistant manager to break the news I wouldn’t be in the squad and say it was best to stay with my family rather than travel with the squad.
“I never went to see O’Driscoll again until the last week of my deal. I needed to find out for my own peace of mind what the problem was. I thought it stemmed from a problem with the board and my contract when Derek left, but he assured me that wasn’t the case and I just wasn’t part of his plans.
“I left it at that and spoke to him reasonably. It was hard, because the year before I was at Celtic and enjoying my time. Although I was leaving Celtic, I’d been captain a few times and Neil Lennon gave me the armband in my last game. I was leaving Celtic fit and ready to go with six years at Celtic behind me. I wanted to prove myself elsewhere and kick on and keep moving up rather than down but that’s where I found myself.
“I’ve been around football a long time but I couldn’t understand what was happening. I’d go running every day after training with the sports scientist and they were at a loss as to why this situation had happened.
“It wasn’t like I was lazy in training or had a bad attitude and that’s what I couldn’t understand. It could have ruined anyone who wasn’t mentally strong.
“It’s a different world coming back to Dundee United where people want to chat with you, like Jackie McNamara who will even talk about what was on the TV the night before or life in general. O’Driscoll just couldn’t do it, and not just with me. I suppose that was part of his downfall in the way it ended at Bristol when he got sacked a few months after I left. I’m grateful to have had someone like Jackie to bring me back to United and give me a chance to prove I can still play.” Wilson’s initial short-term deal at Tannadice expires this month and he is delighted to have agreed an extension until the summer of 2015.
“I just need to get over to Tannadice and sign it,” said the 29-year-old. “I travel with four other boys to training in St Andrews every day as I don’t have a car, so I don’t want to drag them away over to the stadium. But it’s all been agreed and the manager just asked me to go over and sign it. We’ve been chatting about it and it’s been agreed for a while but with the busy festive period I told my agent I wanted to concentrate on the games.
“Time just runs away from you and before you know it hits you, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve not got a job next week!’ The deal we’ve agreed is the end of this season and the following season so it’s a bit of stability for myself and my family.”
Wilson has relished being in a United squad whose crop of young players have attracted so much attention this season. Despite the recent slump in results, he has no doubts about the talent around him.
“Ryan Gauld is the best young player I’ve ever trained with and I’ve trained with some good ones at Celtic and Dundee United first time around,” added Wilson. “It is incredible to see his movement and knowledge of the game. John Souttar, Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven are all great talents too and it’s a breath of fresh air playing with them.
“The way they are off the park is a credit to them – they are all so down to earth. This has been a tough period for them, because they had great coverage in the media and I think some people get jealous and start sniping at them when things aren’t going so well. They never hyped themselves up – it was others who did it – but they’ve handled that pretty well.”