Weston-super-Mare to England match-winner: Watkins' fairytale rise

Nine years after his spell in the Conference South with Weston-super-Mare and seven years since he played in League Two, Ollie Watkins has written the latest chapter in his remarkable rise.

The 28-year-old came off the bench in Dortmund, replacing captain Harry Kane to earn his 14th cap, and fired England to the Euro 2024 final with a clinical finish in the 90th minute to defeat the Netherlands.

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…

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Ollie Watkins scored two very similar goals to his England winner against Holland for Aston Villa last season.

Non-League learning curve

Watkins joined Exeter City’s academy at U11 level but his first proper 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 side 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.”

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Gareth Ainsworth reacts to Ollie Watkins’ winner against Netherlands in the semi-finals of the Euros.

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 2021.

“And that is in no way disrespectful to non-League, but it gives you the determination to push on, and motivates you.”

Exeter breakthrough

Watkins made his Exeter breakthrough the following season under Paul Tisdale, who told Sky Sports: “At that point, it’s just potential. He ticked a lot of boxes: athleticism, attitude, technique, ability. One thing is having talent but then it’s developing the talent and making that player selectable so that they’re able to go and take the next step.

“When you give a young player an opportunity it’s about working out the best way to optimise the talent. Ollie did that. He’s had the perfect path, he’s gone through the steps one at a time.

“He’s had a really clear focus and does it with lovely charm and fantastic work rate. He’s kept his mind clear which made him selectable. Not filling his mind too much, playing to his ability and his strengths.”

Exeter City's Ollie Watkins (right) and Carlisle United's James Bailey battle for the ball during the Sky Bet League Two play-off second leg at St James Park, Exeter.
Ollie Watkins came through the ranks at Exeter

Kevin Nicholson, his coach at youth level at Exeter, felt Watkins benefited 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 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.

Ollie Watkins helped Exeter to the League Two play-off final in 2017, where they lost to Blackpool
Ollie Watkins helped Exeter to the League Two play-off final in 2017, where they lost to Blackpool

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?'” said 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.”

Brentford impact

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.

Ollie Watkins shone as a central striker for Brentford
Ollie Watkins shone as a central striker for Brentford

“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.”

Watkins scored in Bentrford's Championship play-off semi-final second leg against Swansea
Ollie Watkins scored in Brentford’s Championship play-off semi-final second leg against Swansea

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 in 2020. “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. 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 justified Smith’s belief in him.

Ollie Watkins
Ollie Watkins finished the season with 19 Premier League goals

“He’s one of the most hard-working individuals I’ve worked with,” said Smith. “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 perfect England debut and Euro 2024 dreamland

Ollie Watkins celebrates his late winner with the England substitutes
Ollie Watkins celebrates his late winner against Netherlands with the England substitutes

Watkins marked his international debut in March 2021 with a goal against San Marino in World Cup qualifying and told Sky Sports: “It’s what I’ve dreamed of. Never did I think it would happen quite so soon. 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.”

A year later, Watkins scored on his first England start against the Ivory Coast but was not picked for the 2022 World Cup squad.

Watkins was called up for the first time in 18 months last October, scoring again in a friendly against Australia, and his 19 goals and 13 assists in the Premier League last season made him impossible to ignore for the Euro 2024 squad. He justified his selection by scoring his fourth international goal in the final minute against the Dutch.

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Watch the best bits from Gareth Southgate’s press conference after England defeated Netherlands in the Euro 2024 semi-final.

“I said to Cole Palmer: ‘We’re coming on today and you’re going to set me up’,” said Watkins. “I knew, as soon as he got the ball, he was going to play me in and you’ve got to be greedy. Touch, finish and when I saw it go in the bottom corner, it was the best feeling ever.”

Harry Kane added: “We talk about being ready when it matters. You might get five minutes, one minute, but you can make a difference and win us a tournament. Ollie has been waiting, patiently, and what he did was outstanding. He deserves it.”

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