It is a little more than six years since Ollie Watkins scored a dozen minutes into his Weston-super-Mare debut, stepping off the bench to propel the Conference South’s bottom club to a 4-3 victory over Farnborough Town before 130 spectators. On Thursday the Aston Villa striker could make his England debut in a World Cup qualifier and this time millions will be watching, none prouder than those who helped his remarkable rise from Exeter City to the Premier League, via a six-month crash course in the sixth tier.
When an 18-year-old Watkins walked through the door at Weston, the part-time club had lost eight on the bounce and were staring at relegation. He signed on loan from Exeter alongside Matt Jay, one of his closest friends, in search of experience. “They were thrown in at the deep end,” says Ryan Northmore, Watkins’ manager at Weston. “I brought Ollie on, he ended up scoring and it just gave everybody a huge lift, it brought momentum and that 40 minutes he was on the pitch was the turning point for us. We never looked back. We were cut adrift but secured our safety with plenty of games to go and it was a monumental effort from everybody. We got over that finishing line and collapsed into a heap.”
It was at Weston where Dean Smith, who signed the striker for Brentford before taking him to Villa for a club record £28m last summer, spotted Watkins. He scored 10 goals in 24 games but the loan did more than sharpen his instincts in the box. A selfless performance against Ebbsfleet, Northmore says, sticks in the memory, as does an irresistible display at Wealdstone that led to home supporters applauding Watkins off, but perhaps the biggest takeaway was the hunger it gave him.
Watkins, Northmore says, learned the value of “winning headers in your own box at a corner” and doing the unglamorous side of the game. “Academy football is very much focused on what you do with the ball, so if you’re a forward player sometimes you are just waiting at the end of a passing chain,” he says. “If that is the only way you are going to get on the ball, then you are not going to be on it very much when you’re in a team that is struggling.
“It was about saying: ‘Look, you can create goals, have a go at people and express yourself, but there are maybe five or six goals for you if you force errors from defenders, if you set traps and if you apply that pressure.’ He would take praise and criticism – he got a lot of tough love from me – but he took it really well because he recognised that it needed to happen in order to improve.”
Watkins has earned his stripes, showcasing his speed and athleticism whether as an emergency left-back, as he was on Exeter’s pre-season tour of Scotland after returning from Weston, or the talisman as Brentford chased promotion. He is one of 22 players in the 26-man England squad for the games against San Marino, Albania and Poland who have come through an English Football League club, played in the EFL or made their debut in the competition.
“Some of the qualities you see now in Ollie at Premier League level are some of the lasting images I have of him on a pitch playing for Exeter,” says Watkins’ former youth-team manager, Kevin Nicholson. “His ability to hold off opponents in one v one situations, to press defenders, he was always very hard-working, very determined. He was his own biggest critic. He would always come to you and challenge you as a coach, to continually help him to develop. He would say: ‘What can I do better in this situation?’ He would always be there after training practising, even if it was the simplest of things, sending free-kicks into an empty goal.”
Watkins was part of a talented crop of youngsters at fan-owned Exeter, including the now Swansea captain Matt Grimes, the Peterborough goalkeeper Christy Pym and Ethan Ampadu, who was in the under-14s; cutouts of all three form a mural at Exeter’s training base and last year Ben Chrisene, who made his Villa debut against Liverpool in January aged 16, became the latest prospect to be picked up from their academy.
“Ollie is a great example for young players on their development journey now,” says Nicholson. “It isn’t as straightforward as an upward curve. There isn’t one route to fulfilling your potential as a young player. It isn’t always going to be academy, all the way through from under-nines to under-18s, into under-23s and then directly into the first team.”
Watkins has done the yards to get here. “He wouldn’t get pushed off the ball at the age of 18 or 19 but needed to get kicked to get angry, to show his strength,” says Northmore, now an academy coach at Southampton. “He wasn’t one to bring it to the table first but when he got into that mood and got a little aggressive, that was when his strength really came out. I don’t feel like that needs to happen now because he imposes himself on games from the start. He doesn’t wait around. He needed someone to get him wound up a bit and then you saw his turbo kick in. And then he would take off.”