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Ollie Watkins: Meteoric rise from non-league football to England Euro 2024 star

  /  autty

NINE summers ago Ollie Watkins went on a lads’ holiday after helping to save Conference South side Weston-Super-Mare from relegation.

Now he’s in Germany as part of the England squad trying to win Euro 2024 after helping Aston Villa qualify for the Champions League.

Watkins arrived on the Somerset coast as a teenaged striker on loan from League Two Exeter in December 2014.

His 10 goals in 24 league games were a big factor in stopping Weston from slipping into the sixth tier for the first time in their history and in giving them something to celebrate on a post-season trip to Spain.

But it was also his workrate and attitude that earned him the respect of the dressing room, and helped him take the first significant steps on the road to stardom.

Ryan Northmore, boss of Weston at the time, said: “His goals saved the club from relegation. But he contributed much more than his goals, which is really important when you’re scrapping away for your lives.

“He wasn’t just sat at the top of the pitch waiting for the ball to come. He would roll his sleeves up and get involved in all aspects of the game.”

Among Watkins’ team-mates at Weston was Tom Jordan, son of former Leeds, Manchester United and Scotland striker Joe.

Jordan said: “He always struck me as the kind of lad who had his eyes wide open to different aspects of the game.

Sometimes you would have loan lads come in from a League club to non-League and they would be looking at you like they were doing you a favour.

“His attitude was very different. He was coming in thinking, ‘I’m going to learn from this experience’.

“I was one of the older lads in the dressing room. Even when you were giving him basic messages about how you wanted him to perform in your team, he was receptive to it.

“He had respect for the lads and we had respect for his abilities.”

Those abilities were obvious from Watkins’ very first game for Weston.

Days after arriving from Exeter with close friend Matt Jay, he starred in a crucial game against Farnborough.

Northmore said: “For an 18 year old to come in as our No 9 was a big responsibility.

“Ollie was right up for it. He had a big grin on his face. That’s what I think he craved: to have that responsibility.

“On the Tuesday night we had Farnbrough at home. They were down in the dumps with us. It was a six-pointer in December. Ollie got off to a flier.”

Watkins came on in the 50th minute with the score at 2-2. Farnborough took the lead soon afterwards, but the teenager grabbed the equaliser and Weston snatched a late winner to seal a crucial victory.

Northmore said: “Ollie hadn’t even trained with us yet but after the impact, the group really got around him and Matt and were really pleased to have them on board.”

Watkins scored some vital goals as Weston went on a great run that all but secured safety before March.

Northmore said: “Ebbsfleet had their Kuwaiti owners and one of their players was on the same money that we had for our full first-tam budget.

“We nicked a 1-0. Ollie ran his socks off all night, got one chance and slotted it in the bottom corner.

“Centre forwards can sometimes expect the team to play for them and rightly so.

“But he also puts the hard yards in and is willing to play for the team.

“It was really important in times like that when we were the underdog, when we needed someone with the character and the quality to give some kind of hope.

“That’s what he became in the end, the player that the senior players were looking up to and looking after.”

Jordan added: “He would go long spells in matches where he would be doing the ugly side of the game: chasing down clearances, coming back to defend corners and set-plays, and not having much of a glimpse of goal.

“But he was very clinical when he got his couple of chances, left and right foot.

“On the counter or breakaway, he was the perfect outlet for us.”

It was during Watkins’ spell at Weston that the then Walsall boss Dean Smith spotted him.

Smith would later take the striker to Brentford and bring him to Villa, where he has reached new levels under current boss Unai Emery.

The Villa manager has praised Watkins’ desire to learn and improve every day, the key quality that also shone through all those years ago.

Both Northmore and Jordan have watched with pride and pleasure as Watkins has made his way up the pyramid, all the way to a top-four finish in the Premier League and international honours with England.

Jordan, now a personal trainer and grassroots coach, said: “I go down with my son to watch Bristol City a fair bit and I remember seeing Ollie with Brentford down there.

“You could see a change in him physically but also in his contribution without the ball.

“I remember saying to my lad, ‘Watch Ollie Watkins. Watch how hard he works,’ and messaging Ollie after the game and saying how impressed I was, considering he had moved on from playing in front of small crowds to playing at Ashton Gate.

“He seems to be continually improving because I think he is a bit of a sponge.

“Now it’s England representation and all the things he’s doing at the moment. It’s a credit to his attitude and workrate.”

Watkins has never forgotten the part that Weston played in his rise to the top.

One of his Villa shirts is on display there, he has spoken to young players coming through and happily tells the local press how important and enjoyable his time at the club was.

And he even helped fund an end-of-season boys’ trip to Spain due to his fines for being late - although he was allowed to join the rest of the squad.

Northmore, who is now head of football at an international school in Singapore, said: “It helped his transition from youth to senior football.

“We never talked about him being on the road to being a Premier League or England striker.

“It made Ollie go: ‘OK, I’m at Exeter and my career might go one of two ways.’”

“He was a Weston player, and no disrespect to that level of football, it’s not glamorous.

“That served as a motivation to go back to Exeter and to maximise every day in training and really focus on developing his talent.

“It really did fit into the idea of arriving as a boy and leaving as a man.”