We're looking good for Euros – Wilson
IT HAS been a long time in the making for Marc Wilson, but the 26-year-old can finally afford to recline in his chair and ponder the fruits of being first-choice for club and country.
Versatility probably counted against him under his previous Stoke City boss Tony Pulis, something Mark Hughes has addressed this term by secreting Wilson into the centre-back berth for 23 consecutive Premier League games.
Similarly, Martin O'Neill has given the Antrim native a permanent home for Ireland. It appears, based upon the manager's praise at least, that it will be Wilson accompanied by 'AN Other' in central defence for the start of the Euro 2016 qualifiers in September.
For far too long, Wilson had been a spectator rather than a participant for Ireland. Nigel Worthington and Michael O'Neill used the situation to publicly question the player's decision to turn his back on Northern Ireland.
As Wilson points out, the Irish FA blew whatever slim chance they had of embedding him into their set-up at 14. Not that it would lasted long anyway.
"I trained with the Northern Ireland squad at 14 but wasn't picked for their Victory Shield squad at U-15 level," he explains. "I just said to myself, 'You know what, I'm not interested in this'. It was a lot more hassle than it was worth.
"The FAI approached me two years later and that was me settled. I was never going to play for Northern Ireland.
"I was always a Republic of Ireland fan anyway, so would have ended up switching even if I'd played for the North. I was more interested in Gaelic football growing up than I was in the Irish League."
That wasn't the only snub Wilson endured in his formative years, though the second actually hit him hard.
Manchester United, Wilson's boyhood idols, had invited him into weekly coaching sessions at their Belfast school of excellence. The kid with the dainty balance and crisp passing from Aghagallon was up against it as United had in that group a Belfast boy they hadn't coveted so much since George Best.
"Jonny Evans was there and they signed him," says Wilson. "I'd be lying to say I wasn't disappointed but Portsmouth turned out to be the best move for me."
Indeed, Harry Redknapp underlined Pompey's desire to recruit the teen by turning up at the family home in Aghagallon. "We had first refusal on Marc if United didn't sign him," outlined Portsmouth's scout at the time, Robert Walker. "That was one of the main reasons I chose Portsmouth," Wilson says of Redknapp's intervention.
"Within a year of moving over, Harry had me training with the first team. It was sink or swim for a young player going into a dressing-room with big players like David James, Sol Campbell, Glen Johnson and Sylvain Distin but they were all first-class to me. They didn't even make me sing a song!"
Nowadays, Wilson is creating his own music. He may not have realised his ambition of playing alongside Roy Keane at United but is benefiting under the Ireland's assistant manager's wing.
Not even the challenge of marshalling Robert Lewandowski deters him from believing that automatic qualification at the expense of the Borussia Dortmund striker's Poland or Scotland is achievable.
"He (Lewandowski) is a top player but I've done well against a lot of strikers this season in the Premier League," he contends. "My team-mate at Stoke, Charlie Adam, has been dishing it out to us Irish players since the draw. He reckons their Scotland side are better than us.
"It's going to be some game, especially if it's at Celtic Park, and November won't be long coming around now.
"We've got a new lease of life under Martin and Roy. I think we got tired in the last game against Serbia because of all the club matches in March but the squad is shaping up nicely for the Euros."
Before then, family commitments mean Wilson will have a truncated end-of-season programme with Ireland.
"I'm best man for my brother's wedding on the same day we play Italy, so he'd have my life if I wasn't there," he quips. "I should be available for the three other matches, so I'm looking forward to those."