Harry Wilson: Made in Corwen, born to play for Wales

Tucked away behind a cluster of trees and beneath the crags of the Berwyn Mountains, you will find the sleepy Welsh town of Corwen.

It is a homely place, perhaps overlooked by those seeking adventure in Bala or Snowdonia beyond as they traverse the Dee Valley, but it has its own charm, binding together a tightly knit community — the kind where everyone knows everyone else and those that move away always tend to come back.

It holds its tales close, both of the past and the present.

There is history here. In the centre of town there is a statue of Owain Glyndwr, the Welsh hero who led a rebellion against English rule in the 15th century. Glyndwr was the last native-born Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales and his revolt began from his stronghold near Corwen. He took great swathes of the country before the English pushed him back, but tales of his exploits live on.

Just off the road sits a church dedicated to St Mael and St Sulien, a 13th-century place of worship that likely dates back far beyond those years. On the wall at the back of the church is an imprint of a medieval sword, which, according to folklore, belonged to Glyndwr, who threw it from his seat atop of Pen y Pigyn, the ancient woodland that sits above the town.

Corwen, as seen from the top of Pen y Pigyn

This is where Harry Wilson — Liverpool academy product, Fulham winger and Wales star — grew up.

He explored the trails of that same woodland, sometimes on a bike, sometimes on foot, to keep fit. There is nothing mystical to Wilson’s journey. His is a real and lived adventure that is shared and adored by the whole town. He is, though, royalty too in a way: the “King of Corwen”, as he has been affectionately dubbed by Wales supporters.

But when he is back here in his home town, he tries to shed the limelight that comes with playing for his national side, who he will bid to help qualify for the World Cup when they face Ukraine in a qualification play-off in Cardiff late on Sunday afternoon. To those who know him, in this small pocket of North Wales, he is just one of them.

“A month ago, now when Corwen FC were playing at home — I think Fulham played on the Friday night — he was here watching the local team play,” says Daf Morris, Wilson’s former secondary school teacher and once a defender for Corwen, too. “I had a good chat with him then. He’s always got time for you.

“He’s just Harry, here in Corwen.”

Mark and Nicola Wilson have always lived in Corwen. Mark, who used to be a local firefighter, works as a shift manager for snack manufacturer Wholebake in Wrexham while Nicola works for the same company in HR in Corwen. “People do tend to go away for work and then come back,” Nicola tells The Athletic.

“But we’re Corwen born and bred, and so is Harry.”

Wilson’s parents greet The Athletic by War Memorial Park, the home of Corwen FC. Their pride at their son’s achievements is palpable and they race into reminiscing. “He was never one for sitting still, not even computer games, at that age,” says Mark. “Back in the day, it was finish work and then, ‘Dad can we go in the garden?’. Cricket, football… mainly football.”

“It’s been worth it,” says Nicola. “All we’ve done is help him get there.”

The pitch is set up for cricket now, but it is here that a young Wilson would come down and kick a ball around, often while his dad played for the team. “Harry stood out even back then, when he was three or four,” recalls Morris, who was a team-mate of Mark’s. “You would see him smacking the ball against the hoardings. You would think: ‘Wow, for a little lad that age, he can he can hit the ball really well’.”

Mark and Nicola take The Athletic on a whistle-stop tour, seeking out the key landmarks from Wilson’s upbringing. The first stop is across the River Dee, which bisects the town, and to the Canolfan Hamdden Huw Jones (the local leisure centre). This is the gym where Wilson is regularly put through his paces during pre-season by his friend Oliver.

They go through the fitness plans given by his clubs and Wilson still works with Oliver today, who now does his own fitness, nutrition and well-being work. It is named after Huw Jones, a former councillor who did much for sport in the local area. “Mr Corwen”, as Mark puts it.

Beneath the gym and down the hill sits an artificial football pitch where Mark used to train and Wilson would play on a Thursday night. The slope creates the illusion of a bowl, as though there’s a terrace climbing high against the road and the hill. This was the first arena of Wilson’s career.

“He used to go on the astroturf aged six and seven. He’d be running rings around (us),” recalls Mark. “I’d tell them to get tight but they’d say it wasn’t that they were standing off him; they just couldn’t get near him!”

A short way up the quiet main road is Wilson’s former primary school, Ysgol Caer Drewyn. It is named after the Iron Age hillfort that overlooks the town to the north, at the confluence of the Rivers Dee and Alwen above the Vale of Edeyrnion.

“I don’t know how many pairs of trousers he went through,” says Nicola, reflecting as she looks out at the goal-nets beside the playground. “And shoes. It was always the left shoe that wore away first!”

Wilson’s former headmistress, Jayne Davies, would write reports to Liverpool on his education and receive them in return, monitoring his progress. Wilson joined the Merseyside giants aged eight and would sometimes miss a day for a tournament or need to leave earlier for training. Today, there is a signed shirt at reception and a pair of boots.

“When he was in school, he was a genuinely lovely child. There wasn’t a bad bone in his body,” Davies tells The Athletic. “He’s very grounded. And I think that comes from his family. They did not let his education suffer. They realised both (football and education) were important.

“We always celebrate with the children, Harry’s achievements, because I think having those high aspirations, and showing children that you can come from a small rural town but you can go anywhere in the world as long as you have that hard work and dedication.

“Harry is someone we can physically refer to and say, ‘Look, this is photograph in the school photos, here’s his shirt, his boots. That’s him on the telly’. He’s tangible. They can see what hard work can achieve.”

The entrance to Wilson’s old primary school

Back in the car and back across the Dee, the Wilsons head back to the family home. On the way, a woman in a yellow coat is walking a beagle. “That’s Harry’s best mate’s mum!” says Nicola.

It is quickly clear that most people you pass will be familiar to the Wilsons. It’s that kind of town. “He’s got his football mates and when he comes home, he has his home mates too,” says Mark. “It’s a good mixture. He’s not forgotten where he comes from.”

The family home sits among a group of houses on a meandering road up on the hillside above the A5. The Wilsons moved in 22 years ago but have had to relocate temporarily recently due to a burst pipe. Mark points to the window facing the street, which is Wilson’s room. “The box room!” says Nicola. “He was always away, so Annie got priority.” Wilson’s sister Annie is set to graduate from university soon and take up dentistry.

The home of Corwen FC Juniors, with the town of Corwen, where the Wilsons live, behind it

The garden has a small patio area and a raised grass area. There is a Wales flag fluttering in the wind and a gnome-sized small red dragon, too.

Some burgeoning trees now obscure the view but it looks out across the Dee Valley, a sweeping vista that runs down to the river, where Wilson would sometimes go down to fish. Back up the slope takes you towards the hilltop. Dad Mark would cycle with him, sometimes to neighbouring Carrog or beyond. There was always a way to keep fit.

“Harry used to win the ‘yo-yos’ (bleep tests); him and Ryan Kent (at Liverpool),” says Mark. “Harry used to say he wished someone would drop out sooner but that was the winner in him — he just wanted to go and prove himself.”

The family garden is where Wilson would spend hours doing kick-ups and testing the patience of his neighbours. His parents installed a 15ft net to stop footballs escaping down the hill towards the road below. “People would ask, are you keeping giraffes?!” says Nicola. “There’s probably hundreds of footballs down there.”

“As a local fireman, it was handy living here because I’d just have to run through the gates and down the hill; the fire station is down the bottom,” explains Mark. “When the call went off, Harry would run to the back, to watch which way we would go.”

Inside, one thing untouched by the burst pipe is a big, black chest. It looks like it could have been pulled from a pirate’s ship. The treasures inside contain the story of Wilson’s career to date. Nicola pulls out some big, heavy red binders and they contain every achievement, team sheet, newspaper clipping, match-day programme and progress report. There is a champagne cork taped to the inside of the binder — a keepsake from when he signed his first contract with Liverpool.

Wilson’s dad Mark goes through a red binder, packed with memories

There is a team sheet from when Wilson scored a hat-trick against Tottenham for Liverpool’s under-21s, with his now-Wales team-mate Danny Ward in goal while his current Fulham colleague Josh Onomah was playing for Spurs.

One parents’ evening report, written by former Liverpool academy coach Gary Lewis, reads that Wilson had “shown excellent technical ability with his left foot. He moves the ball into space and that gives him the best opportunity to pass or cross. He continues to work hard, keeping this up. What is most pleasing is he putting his technical levels to good use, resulting in him being our best player in many games this season.”

One of the most prized possessions is Wilson’s first cap for Wales. He remains Wales’ youngest debutant and Liverpool’s youngest international, too. He came off the bench against Belgium in October 2013, aged 16.

“I followed Wales home and away, when there would be only a few hundred and thinking, ‘What are we doing here?’,” says Mark. “To have a son playing for the team that you watch and support is unbelievable.”

The family have kept Wilson’s whole kit.

Wilson’s dad Mark with the shirt his son wore on his Wales debut in 2013

“We were in the hotel afterwards and Harry just came through with two burly security chaps,” recalls Nicola. “He gave us this bag with sweaty socks and dirty boots! ‘I’ve got to go, the bus is leaving’, he said. We just went back in and laid it all out.

“He’s gone from our little boy… he’s still our little boy! He’s very family orientated. He phones regularly, Facetimes regularly. Wherever he goes in the world, he always makes contact. We don’t go a week without hearing from him.”

Barely a stone’s throw from the Wilson family home is that of his grandparents, Peter and Dorothy. In fact, his other grandparents, Jen and John, who are Mark’s parents, live just around the corner, too. So does his uncle, known as “Skinny” — more on that nickname later —  and his partner Carol, son Henry, and daughters Amelia and Sephora.

That they have all stayed close is no surprise, as the relaxed pace of life in such a peaceful place makes even the idea of leaving hard to comprehend. But they also formed a strong support network behind Wilson and his family. Without them, the Welsh winger would not be where he is today.

Peter and Dorothy have lived in Corwen all their lives. With Mark and Nicola working full-time, during half-terms they would look after Wilson, with a football in his hand, and his sister Annie.

“Annie would go in goal as soon as she could stand. Poor Annie,” says Mark. Grandma Dorothy points to the living room lights: “Harry broke that,” she says. “After, he was only allowed to kick a balloon inside! When he was about five or six, I would be one of those 99p plastic balls for him. He used to kick it on the hill all the way home and by the time we got home, it had burst! So every day, one of those 99p balls.”

Wilson was spotted for his talents early but he did not play organised youth football until he was eight. That happened when Mark was asked to help set up a team in Llangollen, 10 miles east from Corwen.

“I had to play Harry at left-back,” Mark recalls. “I didn’t know the other parents and obviously, when asking who played where, it was 10 strikers and no defenders or goalkeeper!

“The goalkeeper would just roll the ball out to Harry. Harry would beat five or six players and score. So after three games, nobody wanted to be a striker; everyone wanted to be a defender!”

Harry Wilson, Rob Page

Wilson celebrates with Wales manager Rob Page after their 2-1 win over Austria in a World Cup qualification play-off in March – which set up Sunday’s game against Ukraine (Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Wilson briefly trained with Manchester United’s pre-academy before the late Liverpool scout Ian Richardson, who also picked out Ben Woodburn and Ward, spotted him. Once old enough, he joined the Liverpool academy, having initially trained at a satellite centre in Chester. Coach James Parry would travel down from Liverpool to make sure he was staying up-to-speed with the other youngsters as the distance meant that reaching Liverpool was not always possible in those early years.

The travel was long, and taxing. Overall, Mark says, it was a 126-mile round-trip. Others sometimes helped to get Wilson to training, such as Phil Roscoe, the former player-care manager at Liverpool, and Steve Cooper, now manager of Nottingham Forest and formerly Liverpool’s academy manager, and Wilson’s youth coach. Both would travel to training from near Wrexham and their support would help shorten the journey for the Wilsons. Often, Wilson’s taid (grandad) John would pick him up after school and take him to sessions. So too did Peter.

Those car journeys were where Wilson ate, slept and revised for exams.

“It would be a round trip of about five and a half hours” recalls Peter. “I’d pick him up 3pm and wouldn’t be back until 9pm. He would sleep all the way home.”

His secondary school, Ysgol Dinas Bran in Llangollen, now has a mural of Wilson outside, commissioned by the TV channel S4C, ahead of this Sunday’s crucial game. They were accommodating to his football.

“He would miss more and more of school due to the fact he was training,” recalls his old teacher Morris. “He’d come in for a few hours and get a taxi, or his grandad would take him there. He was such a grounded young man from day one. He’s never let it go to his head at all. He’s got a great bunch of mates in school. They just looked at him as Harry — simply as one of the lads.”

Peter and Dorothy have their keepsakes, too. There’s a photo of young Harry framed with a ball in hand in the living room, and Peter goes out and returns to the room with a pair of tiny football boots, hardly bigger than his hand. They are Wilson’s second ever pair. “We haven’t cleaned them. We’ve kept them as they were,” he says.

“We went to Chester to get those,” says Nicola. “He was about four. They were still a little bit too big but he said, ‘I want them, I want them!’.”

Grandad Peter with Wilson’s old boots

Peter also fetches an under-13 trophy from a tournament in Greece. It has a story behind it.

“Harry carried it all the way back,” says Nicola. “We went out for Sunday lunch in Llangollen and Annie said, ‘I’ll go get it from the car’ but as she closed the car door, it smashed! My dad spent weeks putting it back together.”

The trophy shattered into about 40 pieces, but Peter fixed it by hand. “I had to put in a wire and he (the player depicted) was standing on one leg. I dyed it with coffee and tea for the colour.”

“Every time Annie picks something up, it’s, ‘Don’t drop it!’,” jokes Mark.

Grandad Peter shows off Wilson’s fixed trophy

At 18 months old, Peter decided to place a bet that Wilson would one day play for Wales.

“I was just talking with the manager at William Hill bookmakers one Saturday and she mentioned something about special bets,” recalls Peter. “She said, ‘You’ll have to write to head office in London and tell them what you want’.

“So I wrote a letter and they got back in touch, and said, ‘What do you want to do?’. I said, ‘What odds would you give me that one day, Harry will play for Wales?’. I didn’t mention football so they asked that, and I said yes. He said, ‘I’ll give you 2,500 to one that one day he will play for Wales’. I put £50 on it.”

Dorothy interjects. “He was 18 months old. I said, ‘Don’t be so ridiculous’, because £50 was a lot of money!”

Peter had been working as a pylon foreman for 40 years. The night that Wilson made his debut in 2013, he was working and staying in Buckinghamshire. He knew his grandson was on the bench and told his boss that he would retire the next day if he came on.

And he did. He won £125,000.

“I had my iPad and managed to get a signal,” recalls Peter. “They were all screaming over the phone that he was coming on. I said, ‘No he’s not!’. I didn’t realise my iPad was two minutes behind.”

“We were bursting with pride,” says Dorothy.

Peter and Dorothy with their betting slip and letter from the bookmaker

Wilson could have represented England at national team level. His grandmother, Jen, was born in Chester — by chance more than anything — but representing a different country to the one of his birth was never likely to be on the cards. Wilson is a Welshman and you only have to speak to his uncle Ian Evans, aka “Skinny”, to know that.

Evans, who is known as “Skinny” due to his thin frame, takes The Athletic to the neighbouring youth pitches at Corwen FC. His mornings are taken up by his work — he has been a postman for the past 19 years — but his afternoons are frequently spent here, preparing the green pitches and organising the football. He oversees the club from under-4s to the seniors. Like Wilson’s dad Mark, he also once played for the club, which remains the football heartbeat of the town.

“It’s all about the youth,” he says. “The local talent and getting them through.”

Ian Evans, aka Uncle Skinny, at Corwen’s junior clubhouse

Wilson is not the only footballer in the family. While Mark’s dad and grandad all used to play, sister Annie and cousins Sephora, Charlotte and Amelia played to a good standard, too, the latter representing Wales. Ian’s son Henry, who has just turned 16, is another talented youngster and so too is cousin Benjamin, both of whom play for Corwen.

When Wilson is in town, he will head down to these pitches for a kickabout, or to practise his trademark free kicks. In pre-season, he will do some running here too.

“If he’s local, he’ll drive home and watch his mates play for Corwen,” says Evans. “He’ll phone up and say, ‘Skin, get the mannequins out, get Henry, get Benjamin’.” Henry, like Harry, is prolific from free kicks, scoring a bucketful this past season.

It is place Wilson cares about, too. When Corwen FC was flooded in 2019, Wilson arranged for a shirt, signed by the Wales squad, to be auctioned to raise money to help with repairs. For the Wales star, this is a place to step out of the professional bubble. As Davies, his former headteacher puts it: “He’s quite humble. He doesn’t want the crowd around him or the celebrity status; he just wants to be happy.

“I think when he comes to Corwen because everyone’s grown up with him everybody knows him, and he’s no different to how he was when he started. Everyone gives him that space to be just him.”

Naturally, though, there is plenty of excitement for local youngsters when their hometown hero returns.

“I will remember this forever,” says Evans. “One of the new lads I’d signed up for my under-16 team was walking over. They normally walk across the pitch like snails. He had a second take and saw Harry on here with Henry and Benjamin taking free kicks. I’ve never seen him run so fast in all my life!”

Evans’ passion for football in Corwen, though, is matched — if not bettered — by his love of the national team. Wilson’s uncle has a tattoo of the Welsh football badge on his calf and first went to an away game  in 1991 — “I think it was Belgium away, 1-1, Dean Saunders scored!”.

Mark travelled to games too, along with a dedicated group from Corwen.

Evans (front, centre, left) with the Corwen Reds flag”I’ve seen some hammerings,” says Evans. “It was awful. The last five, six, seven years; I said to my little lad: ‘Don’t think this is normal because this isn’t normal, watching Wales away. You’re in a golden generation!’.”

After witnessing so much disappointment, to see the Welsh team doing so well — and not only that but to have a family member playing a part — is almost overwhelming.

“I went to see Harry in Porthmadog when he played in the Victory Shield against Northern Ireland,” says Evans. “I think it was only under-14 and the the pride watching him out there… I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve watched this team all my adult life, home and away, and now we’ve got a family member who could potentially go on and play for Wales! It’s absolutely crazy.

“For a town like Corwen… yeah, we’ve had (former Wales internationals) Gareth Roberts and Andy Jones but ‘H’ is a special, special player. He’s the best of the bunch by a long, long way. As a family member, it’s just mind-blowing. The pride that I personally feel, and the whole family do — it’s just unbelievable.”

Since Wilson’s ascension into the national team set-up and the phenomenal success of recent years, the number of those travelling to matches from Corwen has swelled. The whole family regularly go to games now. They are friends with Tim Williams, the man behind Spirit of ’58, the unofficial attire worn by legions of Wales fans all over the world. The bucket hats in particular have become a sensation. Williams’ shop is in Bala, 12 miles west from Corwen.

Evans, meanwhile, made sure to get an update for the Corwen Reds flag; this time with Wilson on it, scoring his first goal for his country against China in 2018. It travels everywhere with them.

Wilson and the Corwen Reds at Wales’ 1-0 win over Estonia in Tallinn in October – pictured among the group are mum and dad Mark and Nicola (second row, centre), uncle Ian Evans (front row, second from left) and Carol Evans (second row, left)

“The kid himself, he’s just an absolute superstar,” adds Evans. “I’m proud of him not just because he plays for Wales but because of who he is and the way he is. He’s so down-to-earth, level-headed, all about the family. We’re all proud of him.”

Wilson was rested for Wales’ 2-1 loss to Poland on Wednesday in the Nations League. It’s a sure sign of his importance to Rob Page’s team ahead of Sunday’s decisive World Cup play-off final against Ukraine at the Cardiff City Stadium.

But Ian, his partner Carol and son Henry, who is in the middle of his GCSEs, aren’t about to miss a kick regardless. They watch the Poland game from home, glued to the screen.

Carole, Henry and Ian watching Wales on Wednesday

Unsurprisingly, Wilson’s family will be in Cardiff on Sunday for the big game. They will be watching on as one of their own tries to make history and take his country to the World Cup for the first time since 1958.

Back in North Wales, you can be sure all of Corwen will be watching on, too.

“It’s a close-knit community and that’s why everybody’s so proud of Harry’s achievements,” says headteacher Davies. “Because he’s coming from a small rural town that people wouldn’t really think would produce somebody of his calibre.

“But then it just goes to show that, if you’ve got those aspirations, if you put that hard work in, if you dream those dreams, you can actually achieve what your ultimate goal is — and that’s what Harry has done.

“He’s still showing where hard work gets you, and hopefully it will be to the World Cup.”

(Top photo: Marcio Machado/Getty Images)