For Harry Wilson, the nervous excitement about the new season is tinged with a sense of relief.
This time last year, as his team-mates caught everyone by surprise against Liverpool on the opening day in a topsy-turvy 2-2 draw, Wilson was staring at a knee brace. His early Premier League hopes had been scuppered by a serious injury, suffered in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Aston Villa.
It was the first serious injury of his career and it was all the more difficult considering the optimism of his pre-season. He was following on from an outstanding campaign in the Championship, where he provided 20 assists and 10 goals for Fulham, and had received rave reviews behind the scenes. The injury meant he would miss the first nine matches of the league season and, with Bobby De Cordova-Reid holding his own on the right flank, he would make only four league starts before March.
Now, after coming through Fulham’s final pre-season outing unscathed against Hoffenheim, he is eager to prove his Premier League credentials from the start.
“I feel I’m in a good place,” he tells The Athletic after the 2-1 win over Hoffenheim. “Last year, with the club back in the Premier League, I wanted to show that we could do well, and I wanted to be part of that but I wasn’t able to. The lads showed it without me. We had a great year, but we want to do even better now. I want to be part of that from the start.”
This year has a fresh feel to it for Wilson, so much so that he has decided to dye his hair jet blond. This decision would send him viral on social media when Fulham announced their bright new away kit — in eye-watering pink.
He insists it has nothing to do with Barbie, the hit film in which Ryan Gosling (playing Ken) has a similar look. Is he sure?
“It was just something my barber has been mentioning it to me for a while,” he says, laughing. “When I got back from my holiday the barber messaged me and I thought: ‘You know what, I’ve got a few days before pre-season starts. Let’s do it.’ It was a bit bright the first couple of days, but now I’ve been able to get a couple more trims and it has settled in.
“We got back from a US tour on the Monday morning (July 31), so on Tuesday the time difference caught up with me. I had a bit of a lie in, and then I woke up and my phone was going mad. The boys in the group chat were sending Twitter links: Sports Bible, a few other footy pages… they had jumped on Fulham’s post. I was actually a bit relieved that it was just that, as I thought I’d done something wrong for a minute!
All set to shock the streets. 🛣️
Our 2023/24 Away Shirt is available now.
— Fulham Football Club (@FulhamFC) August 1, 2023
“My uncle (Ian, aka Skinny) really liked it, but I’ve had mixed views actually.”
Garish colours aside, Wilson has again had a strong pre-season as Fulham travelled to the US for the first time in almost a decade. He scored in the opening match of the Premier League Summer Series against Brentford, a screamer, and then started the team’s subsequent matches, against Chelsea and Aston Villa.
While the 26-year-old has avoided a pre-season injury, Fulham have not quite been so fortunate. Again, the summer has been an emotional rollercoaster as Fulham, who were already without Tim Ream and Andreas Pereira, proceeded to lose Tom Cairney and Joao Palhinha to injury.
All are recovering now, but that has not been the end of the story when it comes to off-season anxiety. The transfer market has again induced some cold sweats. This time last season, Marco Silva declared the club not to be ready for the Premier League owing to late summer arrivals. This year, however, concerns lie elsewhere, with Silva, Willian and Aleksandar Mitrovic subject to overtures from Saudi Arabia, and Palhinha coveted by West Ham.
With so much noise swirling around the club off the pitch, and with key players subject to speculation, what has it been like for those in the dressing room, faced with the uncertainty?
“I would be lying if I said we don’t read Twitter and read the rumours of (Saudi Arabia) wanting our players,” admits Wilson. “But everyone here is still training hard. When on the pitch today (against Hoffenheim), they were still running around, doing their best for the club. So for us as a team, we try to not let that affect us, although there’s a lot of noise on the outside.”
Fulham have — so far — successfully retained their key assets and have added to their squad, too. Raul Jimenez has signed from Wolverhampton Wanderers for around £5million, while left-sided defender Calvin Bassey has also signed from Dutch side Ajax, for around £19m. Both scored their first goals in Fulham colours against Hoffenheim.
“They have settled in really well,” says Wilson. “Calvin with his pace and physicality, he’s left-footed at the back which gives us great balance. And Raul too, he fits the profile of a striker that we like to have. He’s big, he’s aggressive, he is a great target man and if you give him a chances, he will score goals.”
More are expected to arrive before the window shuts, but the base of the team seems set. It is for that reason that Wilson is hoping Fulham can build on their first year rather than fall victim to the cliche of second season syndrome, which statistically is a myth anyway.
“That’s up to us to avoid,” says Wilson. “We’ve got a really good squad here. I don’t think many people predicted (our 10th-place finish), although we knew the quality we had and what we were capable of.”
With top teams flexing their financial muscle and those that struggled last year remedying their flaws, it appears even harder for Fulham to emulate the impressive way they cruised to mid-table security last year, let alone push on. But while there has to be realism about Fulham’s prospects, Wilson outlines a determination to maintain the standards the team set.
“Last year the aim was survival because the club for the past few years has been up and down, but we surpassed all expectations,” he says. “Maybe that’s added a bit of pressure. But we accept that pressure. We want it.
“We know that teams have a lot of money to spend. Chelsea did not have a great year and they’ll be wanting to get back to where they’ve been for the past 10-to-15 years. But there’s Newcastle and teams that have European football for the first time in a while, and they have to cope with that. We just have to focus on ourselves.”
(Top photo: Henry Browne/Getty Images)