Sometimes, the key to growth and development at a football club isn’t keeping its best players, but rather knowing the right time to cash in on them. When Brentford sold top scorer Neal Maupay to Brighton in the summer, their supporters would have been forgiven for fearing a season of stagnation, or worse, trepidation. But the Bees have shown time and time again that they are among the best-run clubs in the Championship, regularly able to punch above their weight amid a sea of parachute payments and over-inflated transfers.
Maupay was absolutely key to life at Griffin Park, scoring 25 goals in 43 games despite Brentford only finishing in 11th last season. Premier League interest was rife, but they weren’t afraid of it; Brighton won the race, and there was immense speculation that both Sheffield United and Aston Villa were also ready to pounce, too. It was the right time to sell for everyone involved, and Brentford were confident in their ability to grow without the Frenchman.
They had some talent waiting in the wings, most notably Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins, both of whom had scored ten goals in 2018/19; it wasn’t an obvious transition, but Brentford boss Thomas Frank saw something in Watkins and brought him in from wide to make him the focal point in attack. Neither the player or the team have looked back since.
As joint-top scorer in the Championship, alongside Fulham's Aleksandar Mitrovic, right now with 18 goals, Watkins is attracting the sort of admiring glances Maupay received last season. His clinching goal in last Saturday’s West London derby against QPR will only raise his profile further, but while he is enjoying a new lease of life in a slightly different role, his talent as a winger has long been untapped.
While his teammate Bryan Mbeumo deserves his share of credit for filling the void left by Maupay in the summer, having also scored 11 goals so far, Watkins is getting a lot of the praise, and rightly so. Brentford’s attacking style has lifted them into the playoffs as the best of the rest, and on the periphery of the two-horse race at the top between West Brom and Leeds; while there weren’t too many expecting this sort of challenge from them so soon after the Maupay sale, it has almost become second nature to defy the odds.
It seems inconceivable that the 24-year-old won’t follow Maupay to the Premier League sometime soon, only the difference here is he may not have to leave his current club to achieve that dream. Frank and the Brentford will surely have to field calls this month, with high-flying Sheffield United reportedly keen to add to their frontline; while Watkins can see a positive in the speculation, he has nailed his colours to the Brentford mast and wants to get the job done.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he told Sky Sports.
“If you’re doing well there’s always going to be some talk and interest around you. It means they’re enjoying what you’re doing on the pitch and that’s a nice feeling really. But I’ve just got to keep focused on my game and help the team to try and do something special this year.”
There are often doubts surrounding Championship players and whether they can make the step up to the top flight. Many have proven themselves consistently in one league and failed to light up the other, but Watkins is leading a charge; there are a number of players yet to taste the Premier League who are both hungry and confident enough to impress, including his teammate Mbeumo, Hull City’s Jarrod Bowen, who’s contract expires in the summer, and arguably the jewel in the crown, Eberechi Eze of QPR.
But the difficulty interested clubs will face when it comes to Brentford, in particular, is, funnily enough, their readiness to do business. Because they expect interest and are not desperate to keep their players, they remain in control of the situation, naming their price and hoping for a bidding war. If anyone is to prize Watkins away this month, or even in the summer, it’ll cost a huge sum of money, but that is unlikely to stop anyone trying.
Watching him this season, it is easy to forget that Watkins burst onto the scene at Exeter and impressed originally at Brentford out wide. But the seamless transition into, right now, the Championship’s most feared attacker is testament to himself and the club. It won’t be long until they both get what they really deserve.