Kelvin Wilson On Celtic, Nottingham Forest And Working Under Neil Lennon

Kelvin Wilson On Celtic, Nottingham Forest And Working Under Neil Lennon

An interview with Kelvin Wilson, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You had a successful period of time at Nottingham Forest in your first spell that led to interest from Celtic and you moved to the club in 2011 on a free transfer. What did you know about Celtic before you joined the club and as soon as you heard of their interest, was that where you knew you wanted to go?

“Yeah, I knew Celtic were a massive club. I remember being a kid, and my best friend was a guy called Leon Best who went on to play for Newcastle, Blackburn, and Southampton. His mum was Irish, and I remember going into his room, seeing a lot of Celtic things when we were 12, 13. So, I knew about Celtic; they were a big, massive club.

“Then, with Neil Lennon joining Nottingham Forest in my first spell towards the end of his career to come and play, I just got a feel for the club as well because he used to tell us stories about big games. So yeah, I knew about Celtic. I knew they were a massive club.”

In terms of coming into Celtic, you won the Scottish Premiership title in your first season. How did you adapt to life in Glasgow on and off the pitch?

“Yeah, it was hard for me for a number of reasons. One of them being my oldest daughter now, who was born just that summer I moved, and I wasn’t able to be with her mum.

“So, you know, she was back here in Nottingham, and I was moving up into Glasgow with her newborn baby down in Nottingham. So that was hard.

“Celtic were great with me about it as was Neil Lennon. He understood. He gave me a lot of time to come down and get back and forth. So, things were great with that.

“However, being in Glasgow is like being in a goldfish bowl in terms of the pressure that you feel — as is commonly said up in Scotland.

“It was a massive eye-opener for me. I just couldn’t believe how magnified everything was on Celtic and Rangers players, even in terms of what you do, where you go to, in terms of restaurants for dinner. You know, you don’t get a minute but not in a bad way. Not in a bad way at all.”

Who were the big characters in the dressing room at Celtic and who did you socialise with?

“You know that first season was really hard because initially, I found it hard to adapt and to settle and I had a couple of injuries as well. I think I tore my Achilles early on but, luckily, it was only a little tear.

“I was out for a couple of months with that then I had a few other little niggles, so I was in and out the side which was odd for me.

“As for socialising with the boys, probably the main two that I was closest with were Joe Ledley and Gary Hooper.

“It was a close-knit group, all of us. I really got on with Broony — Scott Brown. We were really good mates.

“For example, with Broony, if we were going for a few beers after a game in Glasgow, we would come back to mine, get changed, and we would head out together down Ashton Lane and things like that.

“I also got on really well with Kris Commons, because I knew Kris before as I was at Forest with him. So, like I say, it was a really tight-knit group.

“Even, the foreign boys were great too. Victor Wanyama and Efe Ambrose, I was really close with them. I got on with pretty much everyone.”

You mentioned Scott Brown there. Can you sort of just put into words what he was like as a captain? 

“I played for Forest in two spells, for Preston North End and Notts County as well as Celtic so I played under a hell of a lot of captains, and I’ve been captain myself.

“However, Scott Brown stands out as head and shoulders above everyone else and I mean no disrespect to anyone else that I played under as captain by saying that.

“It was funny when I first moved up there, I was a bit wary of him because obviously you start Googling people and looking at the team. And I thought, bloody hell, who’s this guy here with the shaven, bald head? He looks a like bit of a nutcase.

“But as soon as I got there, he was just so welcoming. He was just a nice, genuine guy. Not big time one bit. Just a great guy.

“And as a captain, he pulls you along that much that you feel like you can never lose. That is why when he left Celtic to go to Aberdeen, I was so surprised because I thought even just having him in the changing room would have been beneficial for Celtic longer term.”

In addition to winning multiple trophies in Scotland, you were part of the Celtic team who defeated Barcelona in 2013. Can you sum up what that game was like from your perspective?

“Just to be facing that Barcelona team was incredible at the time. I remember all the emotions that came with it.

“I think that was what some people might say was the best-ever club side and we managed to beat them.

“When you look back, they had got world-class players in every position from Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi and Sanchez to the three players they brought off the bench in Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fabregas and David Villa.

“People will not believe this but I said to Kris Commons in the warm-up when we were stretching, I’ve got a good feeling about tonight. I think we’re going to win.

“You can ask him that because it’s 100% true and we went on to win it. After the game he was like, I can’t believe it. You said that, you said that!

That 2012/13 season was just incredible as a whole. I’ve never played football with so much confidence. And it came from playing Real Madrid in Philadelphia in a friendly match in preseason.

“I remember I played really well and when I came off Neil Lennon said to me, you’ve set your standards now and from that game, I don’t think I played below 7 out of 10 all season.

“I have only great memories of that season and my time at Celtic as a whole.”

Neil Lennon was your manager throughout your time at Celtic, what was he like to play for?

“He was a superb man-manager.

When people say old school, he was old school, but he was just like one of the lads. He knew what to say, he knew when to say it. He always knew what the lads needed.

“I couldn’t thank him enough for, one, bringing me to Celtic, and two, the time I had with him. He was just a great, great guy.

“It was not just Neil who was great to work with, but Gary Parker and Johan Mjallby too. As well as Stevie Woods, the goalkeeper coach and the physio Tim Williamson as well, they were all fantastic to work with.”

“It was sad to see how it ended for him, the second spell there. But as a manager, him and Billy Davies, for me, are the best I’ve played under and that’s because they got the best out of me on the pitch.”

You left Celtic to return to Nottingham Forest in 2013 after two seasons at Celtic Park. Did your personal circumstances dictate that returning to Nottingham had to happen?

“Yeah, that was it in a nutshell and people say, do you regret going back to Forest, because when I came back six games into my second spell, I had a really bad injury, and I was out for a year. So, people always say, do you regret it?

“However, I do not regret it at all because the main reason I came back was for my daughter who then was two. I knew that she was going to start school in the coming years, and I wanted to do the school runs, I wanted to read the books with her at night. Things like this.

“All of that means more to me than football so I did not have a choice but to leave Celtic for those personal reasons.”

In terms of Nottingham Forest. How do you reflect on both of your spells at the club?

“Yeah, my first spell, it was a dream come true. I was at Preston, and I was actually meant to go to sign for Leeds under Dennis Wise. I had it all agreed, and I was meant to sign on the Monday morning; however, as I was driving home on the Friday afternoon of the weekend before Monday; I got a call from Forest.

“They said they would match the deal if I wanted to come to them. No-brainer as I was a Forest fan, so off I went, and I spent four years there in my first spell.

“My last year of that four years, again, was probably up there with my best season at Celtic. I was brilliant which is the reason why Celtic wanted me.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t want to leave Forest the first time around. I was in contract negotiations with Mark Arthur, who was the chief exec. For some reason, he didn’t want to give Nottingham-based players the good contracts that the players brought in from other clubs got.

“He just thought because you were from Nottingham, he was doing us a favour by letting you play for Nottingham Forest.

“It wasn’t about being greedy. It wasn’t about being greedy at all. It was about getting what you deserve.

“He just didn’t value me, but he did the same with Wes Morgan, hence why Wes left. David McGoldrick was the same. All of us were Nottingham boys that he didn’t value and that is why we all left.

“That is the only reason that I left to begin with. The contract they offered me didn’t value me and then Celtic came along and then it was a no-brainer. I was going.

“But my second spell was just a bit of a nightmare, to be honest. I came back really looking forward to it. We had made some great signings and things looked up.

“Coming back, I played the first six games and started really well. I think we were up near the top. We didn’t lose in quite a few games, then we played a Tuesday night game against Middlesbrough.

“I’ve jumped over the goalkeeper because he’s come sliding out for the ball. As I landed, my disc in my back just collapsed onto the nerve and I couldn’t walk. So I had an operation that kept me out for a year because of all the nerve damage.

“I couldn’t go up on my toes. So, I couldn’t run. And then when I came back, I just wasn’t the same player at all because my game was based on my pace. I was pretty quick but lost two yards of pace.

“It really affected my confidence as well, which was a bit of a nightmare. I was sad to end it on those terms with Forest. But, you know, that’s football. It’s a physical sport.”

Finally, Kelvin, you mentioned Billy Davies and Neil Lennon as managers that you really enjoyed playing under. Were they similar in style, and are those two the main coaches that stand out through your football career or are there any others that you would add to those two?

“There are two more coaches that stand out in my career, and both were in my youth team days.

“Firstly, John Gawne, he was my youth team manager at Notts County and he took me from being a right back to becoming a centre-half.

“He gave me the confidence to play and express myself. He was a great coach. Really old school but he made me tough which I needed to be as I was a bit too nice as a footballer back then.

“The other who stands out is Gary Brazil, who now is at Nottingham Forest as the academy director.

“He had me for a year in the youth team as well after John Gawne left and he was brilliant as well. I have to single those two out as they were top coaches.

“Professionally, Billy Davies and Neil Lennon stand out as head and shoulders above anyone else. Both are completely different guys yet both were great man managers.

“Billy Davies was also very good tactically. He had everything down to the finest details. He analyses the game like no one else and he could tell you what was going to happen in a game at what minute.

“He was so, so particular with everything but he was driven to win.

“Neil Lennon was similar as he kept training interesting by only doing a few drills each day rather than planning multiple drills across a session and I think that was because of the calibre of player that he had compared to what Billy had. At Celtic, Neil had players who were all internationals apart from the English boys like me and Gary Hooper.

“So, he knew he could trust us to go out there and get results and perform without us needing too much tactical guidance and analysis.

“I have so much respect for both of them, both great guys and great managers who were always there for me personally.”