From Weston Super-Mare to the England reckoning; the remarkable rise of Ollie Watkins

Almost every child has, at one stage, held that tantalising dream.

That is, the dream of becoming a professional footballer.

It is not easy, not for anyone, and that is why nearly 100% of academy footballers do not make the cut. But few players have had to dig their feet in the way in which Ollie Watkins has done.

At the age of 19, Watkins was on loan in the National League South with Weston Super-Mare. That rigid, unorthodox route to success hugely differs from those within the England camp, who Watkins will be rubbing shoulders with later this month.

At that very same age, Phil Foden was playing in the Champions League for Manchester City. Bukayo Saka, who is still that age, is already amongst Arsenal’s key players. And Raheem Sterling was blitzing Premier League defences with Liverpool.

What does that show you? It proves that there is more that one motorway to success. In fact, there are multiple, if you really have the passion, hunger and internal steel.

Born in the scenic coastal town of Torquay overlooking the English Channel, Watkins displayed serving resilience from a young age.

At U9 level, Watkins had failed a trial with boyhood club Exeter City.

“I remember seeing Watkins as an under-9 player, and we felt he wasn’t ready to become one of our registered academy players” said former Exeter academy manager Simon Hayward.

“Sometimes you get the insight that certain players won’t be able to make the transition between their grass-roots club to the academy at that point of time. That’s why we didn’t think Ollie was ready for that change.”

Though Watkins would combat rejection and, a year later, would wind up on Exeter’s books.

Here, he gave a telling of what he was all about and did enough to warrant a scholarship in 2012.

So, did Watkins simply waltz into the Exeter first team fold? No, he did not. Not by any means.

For Watkins, the narrative was never basic, and graft coupled with hardened spirit, would come to full fruition once again.

Struggling for minutes at St James’ Park, the forward moved out on loan to Weston Super-Mare in December 2014 and engraved a lasting impression, scoring ten goals in his opening taster of regular senior football.

Subsequently, Watkins was licensed with a more prominent role upon his return to Devon. A 13-goal haul in the 2016-17 campaign wavered the EFL Young Player of the Season Award his way and that summer, he would depart for Brentford.

Watkins wasted little time in announcing his talents to the Griffin Park crowd. Ten goals apiece in each of his opening two seasons in West London followed by 25 strikes last term hallmarked Watkins as one of the Championship’s hottest properties.

Therefore, little surprise emanated as Watkins departed for the Premier League, heading to Aston Villa for a fee in the region of 30M.

It must be said, eyebrows were raised at the sheer amount of money that the Villians forked out. Though evidently, Villa visioned something within the 25-year old and it has bore heightened fortunes for all involved.

Watkins has, for the large part, transitioned seamlessly into top flight football and at the time of writing, sits on ten goals and three assists.

And for me, Watkins’ prowess truly emerged to universal realisation when, in only his third game of Premier League action, struck a heroic hattrick in a 7-2 trouncing of current Champions Liverpool.

Defeating the proverbial notion of being a flash in the pan, Watkins would then go on to hit a brace at the Emirates a month later, starring as part of a monumental 3-0 victory for the Midlands side.

Watkins’ astronomical, astonishing yet inspirational ascendancy was epitomised as he received his first call-up for the England National Team on Thursday afternoon, becoming the first Exeter City academy graduate to do so.

As a result, Watkins is widely tipped to feature in one of the Three Lions’ triple headers against San Marino, Albania and Poland.

Across his expedition to success, Watkins’ all round game has underwent large refinement.

Throughout his first two seasons in the second tier, Watkins spent the majority of his time as a winger on the right side of a front three.

But after the departure of star striker Neal Maupay in 2019, the English attacker embraced a transformational period. This saw Watkins converted into a striker, with his upper body strength, eye for goal and link-up play all cited as decisive factors in the switch.

To this day, that is where Watkins can be found. This term, he has led the line brilliantly for Dean Smith’s side and his role revolves around a much more complex picture than simply scoring.

For a striker still yet to hit his peak, Watkins is extremely well-rounded. Marrying him throughout his career is a creative streak which has led to the forward creating 35 chances for his teammates, along with utilising his physical presence and hold-up play to open up inviting space.

So, at 25, Watkins is far from done. There is still a magnitude of improvement ready to be imposed and that should make any top flight defender tremble and quake.

If there is one thing we have learned, it is to never bet against Ollie Watkins.

featured image credit sky sports