From loanee in the non-league to England debut goalscorer, the story of Aston Villa and England striker Ollie Watkins is nothing short of miraculous.
Six years after a career-changing loan move to non-league Weston-super-Mare, Ollie Watkins is scoring for fun with Aston Villa in the Premier League.
Having stepped up for boyhood club Exeter City, relished the chance to play Championship football with Brentford and made the Premier League leap, Watkins is set to continue his journey with England.
First Time Finish spoke to Ollie Watkins’ former manager at Exeter City, Paul Tisdale, about his rise to the first-team.
‘He would have joined at around ten and I wouldn’t have had any personal connection at that stage. It wasn’t until he turned 15 or 16 that you have a gaze on him. He had great temperament, physicality, ability and athleticism and he had really good talent,’ Tisdale told FTF.
‘At 18, you become very much aware of the players. You take advice from the youth team coach and the academy. You have to make a decision. In 2014, he turned professional. My awareness of Ollie grew the closer he got that point. He had the attributes but still needed to become selectable.’
Ollie Watkins joined Exeter City as a boy and played in a number of positions across the front line. However, as a teenager, his output didn’t quite impress Tisdale enough to give him extended game time.
‘Becoming selectable is a mythical process. The outside view is not quite as a manager would see it. He has to get trust in the player before he selects them. He needs players to reflect how he thinks. The narrative, the team strategy. You can’t have too many players who are out of sync with that. You need to tread carefully,’ Tisdale said.
‘I recall giving him his debut at Hartlepool at the end of the season. It wasn’t until the next year when I picked him in a cup against Coventry, I think he scored a goal actually.’
Paul Tisdale was fully aware of the potential of Ollie Watkins at this stage. But a loan move to non-league side Weston-super-Mare was enough to boost his promise.
The Torquay-born forward netted 10 times in 25 appearances for The Seagulls and his stock rose to the point Tisdale couldn’t leave him out.
Like many a young player, Ollie Watkins had his sights set on being a regular goalscorer and his boss was determined to help him become a superb all-rounder.
‘At first, his mind was about receiving the ball and what he could do with the ball. We had to work hard at his contribution as a team player. I used to say ‘how could you have a good game without receiving a pass?’ That improved,’ explained Paul Tisdale.
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The first step up
Any young player’s dream is to work their way up the football league pyramid. In 2016/17, Watkins notched a spectacular 13 goals and 10 assists in 45 appearances for Exeter. He also scored in their unsuccessful play-off showing as they failed to reach League One.
But Ollie Watkins had higher aspirations. The attacker signed for Championship side Brentford under Dean Smith in July 2017. The fee was thought to be less than £2million.
The Bees have prided themselves for years on getting the most out of bargain players and Watkins became a prime example.
Cutting in off the left hand side onto his stronger right foot, Ollie Watkins scored 10 and assisted five in a stellar maiden campaign in the second tier. In his second campaign, he topped this with 18 goal involvements.
The Frank effect
Having seen manager Dean Smith take the job at his beloved Aston Villa, Watkins began to excel under the tutelage of his assistant Thomas Frank.
The Dane took over the main job at Griffin Park and was instantly required to bat off interest from the Premier League. He was hell bent on working with Watkins for one more year.
First Time Finish spoke exclusively to the Brentford manager about Watkins’ time at the club.
‘I said to him: ‘If you leave this club, it needs to be on a high. We will play you as a striker and we will develop you’. When you leave and you finish on a high, it’s easier to take the next step. He did that and the rest is history,’ explained Frank.
The ex-Brøndby manager converted Ollie Watkins back into a central lone striker for his final season in London. His goalscoring tally more than doubled.
In 2019/20, Ollie Watkins averaged more than a goal every other game, netting an astonishing 25 in 46.
‘We try to develop people and football players and they go hand-in-hand.’
Links to Tottenham Hotspur followed and Ollie Watkins seemed destined for the big time.
Dean is keen (again)
In 2019/20, Aston Villa’s return to the Premier League hadn’t quite worked out. Injuries to Heaton, McGinn and Wesley plus a lack of impetus saw the Villans escape relegation by a single point.
It was evident that Wesley would remain out of contention for over a year and replacement Mbwana Samatta failed to impress.
So Dean Smith turned to a familiar face in Ollie Watkins. Aston Villa spent £27.72m on the Englishman, a fee set to rise in add-ons to over £30m.
‘The first thing that stood out to me was his goal record was similar to Tammy Abraham in the season Villa got promoted. From what I’d seen of his game, he looked like someone who could stretch defences and someone who would be well suited to the Premier League,’ Bardell said to FTF.
‘He’s pretty much the only striker who’s been at the club this season. The mental side of him has been the thing that has stood out. I think you find with players who have played at all different levels that their mentality is very strong.’
At the time of writing, Ollie Watkins has scored 10 goals and assisted three, playing all available minutes. Injured forward Wesley Moraes is close to a return and academy graduate Keinan Davis has failed to impress, certainly on the goalscoring front.
He also netted a hat-trick in the freak 7-2 thrashing of Liverpool on 5th October 2020.
Watkins’ ability to drift out to the left flank to help create also impresses. His goal-creating actions per 90 stand at 0.39 – higher than Salah and Mané at Liverpool and Barnes at Leicester.
He also averages 1.12 shots on target per 90 – higher than Ings, Cavani and Vardy. With luck on his side, his stats and goal number would be even higher. Ollie Watkins has hit the woodwork seven times; more than any other player in the Premier League this season.
Success as an Aston Villa forward in 2021 requires a great relationship, both in playing and personally, with captain Jack Grealish. And Dan Bardell has been in awe of the partnership so far.
‘There’s always a risk when you spend big money on someone who hasn’t played in the Premier League. Villa found that with Wesley, they spent £20m+ and, just as it looked like he was turning a corner, he ended up getting a really bad injury,’ Bardell said.
‘I just felt his (Watkins’) attributes were more suited to the Premier League and to Villa. He’s got high standards. When he scored the hat-trick against Liverpool, he was annoyed he hadn’t scored four or five!’
‘He’s making space to Grealish and the way Watkins plays really helps him. We all know how good Jack is. Straight away, you got the feeling he’d been at Villa for a long time.’
England debut delight
In March 2021, Ollie Watkins received a shock England call-up. With Abraham, Ings, Antonio and Bamford all in contention too, the former Exeter man was fixated on making his chance count.
Watkins did just that. Albeit in a customary drubbing of San Marino. But his journey is not to be scoffed at.
Ollie Watkins’ spectacular career is only just beginning. Having only just turned 25 in December, the Devon-born forward could still rise further.
Can he become an England regular? A Champions League goalscorer? The signs are plain to see and we shall wait patiently.
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