Ollie Watkins is a goal-scoring England international after his debut strike against San Marino in Thursday’s World Cup Qualifier. The goal capped an incredible rise for the 25-year-old, who spent time in non-league in the early days of his career.
Six years on from his spell in the Conference South with Weston-super-Mare, four years after playing in League Two, and midway through his first season in the Premier League, Watkins’ arrival on the international stage is just the latest step on his remarkable journey.
Here, with the help of his current and former coaches and team-mates, we hear what has driven his ascent and how he has adapted to the new challenges along the way…
Non-league learning curve
Watkins joined Exeter City’s academy at U11 level but his first real taste of senior football came during a loan spell with Weston-super-Mare in the Conference South during the 2014/15 season.
The youngster scored 10 goals in 24 appearances for the non-league outfit and made a lasting impression on manager Ryan Northmore.
“He was playing in the front three of a 3-4-3 and he thrived,” Northmore told Sky Sports in 2018. “You could see his technical skills were good and he was great at facing up defenders and running at them.
“He did extremely well, but it was not just in terms of the goals and the way that he played, it was the way that he bought into it all.
“The environment was right for him. He fitted in with the lads and his attitude was great. He handled that modest success really well. He didn’t get too big for his boots by any stretch of the imagination.
“The more I worked with him and focused on what he did in the game, the hungrier he got to do well. That was one of the key reasons why I felt he would go on to do well in the game and I think it will stand him in good stead throughout his career.”
Watkins agrees that the experience served him well – not least because it motivated him to set his sights higher.
“To be honest, it made me think: ‘I don’t want to come back here, so I need to make sure I work hard, and aim to be playing at a higher level, and try to be successful in my career’,” he told Sky Sports in January.
“And that is in no way disrespectful to non-league, but it gives you the determination to push on, and motivates you.”
Watkins made his Exeter breakthrough the following season under Paul Tisdale, who admired his attitude as much as his technical and physical talents.
“I am a big admirer of Ollie, I like him very much,” he told Sky Sports in August. “There are so many players out there with great ability who have a bad attitude but Ollie has got everything. He has the ability and he has the perfect attitude. He has the perfect personality really.”
Kevin Nicholson, his coach at youth level at Exeter, felt Watkins benefitted from being at a club with a clear pathway from academy to first team.
“Ollie was at a club that was willing to give players the opportunity to be involved in and around the first-team environment,” he told Sky Sports in 2018.
“At 17, he had the chance to move to the pitch next door where the first team were training and get involved with them. Even if it was part-way through a session, that helped him grow and develop even more.
“Matt Grimes, who is now at Swansea, was the first to be given the chance by Paul Tisdale, both training and playing.
“As soon as Ollie and the boys saw him get that opportunity and do well, it inspired them. Sometimes it only takes one to make the breakthrough. You don’t need to do too much then as a coach because it drives them on naturally as individuals.”
By the time Watkins left Exeter for Brentford in 2017, he had been converted from a left winger to a striker by Tisdale and scored 26 goals in 78 games for the club.
Tisdale also worked closely with Watkins to show him the importance of off-the-ball work, and why winning the ball back himself should be his priority rather than waiting for passes to reach him.
“I said to him, ‘Just think about this, Ollie. What happens if you go on the pitch and nobody passes you the ball?” added Tisdale.
“How can you still have a good game? How can you come off that pitch and still have people saying, wow, that Ollie Watkins played really well today?’
“There was a moment of silence. He was thinking to himself that it was not possible. But it is possible.
“Think about it. You can be ready and anticipate this or intercept that. You can go and win that ball. Suddenly, just by thinking about the game differently, he is psychologically repositioned and any time that he does get the ball passed to him is a bonus.”
Watkins took the step up to the Championship in his stride following his £2m move to Griffin Park in 2017, scoring 49 goals in 143 appearances across three seasons – 26 of which came when he was deployed as a central striker during the 2019/20 campaign.
“The boy could always finish, that was a natural thing that he had,” his former team-mate Clinton Morrison told Sky Sports in 2018. “Nine times out of 10 he would hit the target.
“He never played up front [at first], he played as a No 10 or as a winger cutting in from the left, but he has always had the ability.
“He has a great physique. He is powerful, quick and direct. He is a threat and he is a handful and defenders hate playing against him.
“He is a quiet lad, so he is nothing like me, but he is a good character, a positive guy who knew what he wanted. He worked hard for it. He wants to be the best.”
It was Dean Smith who signed Watkins for Brentford and later took him to Villa Park but his best seasons at Brentford came under Thomas Frank, who helped him develop his goalscoring instincts.
“All the praise to Ollie – he’s done amazing,” Frank said after he scored his 25th goal of last season. “He’s a pleasure to work with in terms of his determination, his desire.
“The key thing for me to coach him this year was his position in the box for crosses and he has improved that massively, he has also improved his link-up play.”
Stepping up to the Premier League
Smith signed Watkins once again in September 2020, this time for a club-record fee of £28m, which could rise to £33m. It was a show of faith in the player that he could make the next leap forward in his career and deliver in England’s top flight.
After getting off to a goal-scoring debut in the Carabao Cup against Burton Albion, Watkins played a starring role in Villa’s stunning 7-2 win over defending Premier League champions Liverpool. His perfect hat-trick in October justified Smith’s belief in him.
In total, he has 10 goals from his first 28 Premier League appearances – with four goals in five games in January and February boosting his tally – and Smith believed his England call-up was deserved reward for his application throughout his career.
“He’s one of the most hard-working individuals I’ve worked with,” said Smith earlier this month. “He’s got lots of qualities but the biggest one for me has always been his attitude and his selfless nature to the team when he works.
“Last year he was the top scorer in the Championship and we wanted to bring him to Aston Villa and believed he could make that step up.
“One of the questions, when I was talking him into coming to Aston Villa, he asked me was how I could get him into the England team. Well, he’s got himself into the England squad with his performances for Aston Villa and everybody at the football club is thrilled for him.”
A dream England debut
England boss Gareth Southgate made it clear it was a close call between Watkins and Leeds striker Patrick Bamford but praised the Villa man’s “pressing, speed and runs in behind”, before adding: “He’s got some improvement to make in linking the game, but for his first season in the Premier League at a big club, he has done exceptionally well.”
San Marino may have been ideal opponents to get up and running against, but there was assured confidence and quality in the way Watkins shifted the ball in the penalty area before firing in his low shot after coming on as a second-half sub in the 5-0 win at Wembley.
Exactly four years earlier he had been playing a League Two match with Exeter and the goal capped a fairytale rise.
“It’s what I’ve dreamed of. Never did I think it would happen quite so soon,” he told Sky Sports afterwards. “There have been a lot of days sat in the stands, travelling to games and not getting a sniff. But I just kept training and working hard.”
That approach has earned him the respect of his team-mates on the international stage too.
“He’s been really sharp,” said Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who Watkins came on for. “He’s a nice lad. It’s the first time I’ve come across him.
“I know what it feels like, not too long ago, to step into the squad, and the feeling he’ll have now, scoring on his debut is something he’d always have dreamed of.
“He came in a little bit late [to the dressing room after the match] and we all gave him a big clap and he had a big smile on his face and I’m very, very happy for him.”
The exciting thing for Watkins now is where the next stage of his journey will take him…