Ollie Watkins' Former Coach On His Incredible Rise From Non-League To England
Ollie Watkins is used to making an immediate impact. Joining sixth-tier side Weston-super-Mare on loan from Exeter City during the 2014-15 campaign, the striker announced his arrival instantly.
“He signed on the Tuesday night and we had Farnborough at home so he went straight on the bench,” recalls Ryan Northmore, his manager at the time, in an exclusive interview with The Sportsman. “He didn't get a chance to really meet the lads or anything but he's come off come off the bench and scored so they loved him immediately”
Now, just over six years later, Watkins is at it again, introduced as a substitute on debut and hitting the back of the net. This time, though, it was for England in a World Cup qualifier.
Born in Devon and starting his career with Exeter, the 25-year-old forward earned his call-up via after scoring ten Premier League goals for Aston Villa, including a hat-trick against Liverpool.
Watkins has come a long way since playing upfront in the Conference South. However, it was that grounding and that experience at Weston-super-mare which set him on the path to stardom. Northmore first saw Watkins play during pre-season, seven summers ago, and was keen to sign him as well as Grecians team-mate, Matt Jay.
“They’ve done a session and then came and met me in a meeting room at the training ground,” he recalls. “We had a talk about their careers and what they wanted to do next. Tis (former Exeter manager Paul Tisdale) made it quite clear that this move was a step in their development in order to go back and get into the Exeter team. It was never a loan with a view to them leaving the club. That conversation was the first time I sat down with Ollie and he lit up at the opportunity and was enthusiastic about it. He was keen to play senior football and test himself.”
Watkins was a completely natural finisher and boasted quality but lacked aggression in his game, according to Northmore.
“He's just a really good bloke, a really nice guy and he hadn't really created an on the pitch persona so he would go on to the pitch a nice guy too. Then some big lump in non-League would kick him up in the air and he would respond in a good way and get more aggressive. You saw glimpses of that aggression come out at certain moments.”
However, Northmore was keen to see it more often so he and his assistant decided to play the roles of good cop, bad cop in order to stir Watkins up and get that aggression out from the first whistle. It worked and the striker scored ten goals in 25 games for Weston-super-Mare. A solid return for the then 19-year-old who soon realised adding some nastiness to his game could help him stick the ball away.
“When he was in that zone and helped the team get good results, I think he started to see some value in that and it became easier for him to get into that mood as time went on.
“He wasn't a target man as he struggled with his back to goal but as soon as he could receive the ball side on, he could run at people and was quick, running onto things.
“He was always thinking about the goal. He would pick the ball up wherever and was really direct and created a sense of sense of excitement. He could give the opposition five or six yards and still get there, he’d just find his turbo, finishing off both feet and he got a few diving headers in there as well.”
Watkins was really liked among the Seagulls squad and was one of the lads, even joining the team on a summer tour of Spain at the end of the season despite only being on loan. He would travel an hour and 20 minutes for training every Tuesday and Thursday and Northmore recalls one session where the pitch was ‘knee-high in dirt, caked in mud’ but Watkins was still ‘playing with a massive smile on his face despite being a million miles from where he is now.’
“He loved it you know,” his former coach adds. “That's one of the reasons why the lads took to him so much, he wanted to get involved.”
However, rather surprisingly, he was never first pick in five-a-side, though he would get the nod for an eleven-a-side. Despite his obvious talent, Northmore admits nobody could have foreseen Watkins going on to play for England.
“None of us thought he was on his way to the very top,” he candidly admits. “At that stage, we weren’t really talking about him being a Premier League player. It was about gaining experience, going back to Exeter and then, with the reputation they have for developing players, doing well and perhaps earning a move to a Peterborough, a League One side.”
Instead, Watkins earned a move to Championship Brentford in 2017 and scored 26 goals last season which helped convince his former Bees manager Dean Smith, who first saw him at Weston-super-Mare, to take him to Villa for a club record £28m fee in September last year.
Northmore, who himself was a goalkeeper and was understudy to the legendary Neville Southall at Torquay 20 years ago, was jumping up and down when Watkins came on to make his England debut against San Marino and even more so when he netted the fifth goal in a 5-0 victory. He has noticed a change in the striker the higher up the ladder he has climbed.
“Now, he is ready to impose himself on the game right from the beginning and doesn't appear to need any help to get that aggression into his game,” he tells The Sportsman. “His style of play is still is still very similar, it's just on a different level now. His technical qualities and speed he works at are far quicker than when he was at Weston.
“I think what we were able to do at Weston was give him a different perspective of football. When he went back to Exeter, he had a good season but didn’t get a move. Some players might lose some energy and effort, thinking their chance might have gone. I think what Ollie had was a consistent attitude.
“At Brentford and Villa, the resources they have at those clubs and the attention to detail they go into, and Ollie’s attitude and personal determination, I think the combination of those things has taken him from the sixth Tier to international football.
“He’s done exceptionally well. I think a big part of his success has been the fact that he is so focused on what he's going to do on the day. He’s not thinking too far ahead.”
With that in mind, Watkins, right now, will be hoping to catch Gareth Southgate’s eye in the hope of featuring against Poland on Wednesday night after scoring his first Three Lions goal against San Marino last week. Beyond this month though, could the Villa forward play at the Euros?
“I think it’s a tough ask,” says Northmore. “Hand on heart, I feel Southgate's getting to know him and brought him in to have a look at him. I think there are there are other strikers ahead of him but the thing is, Watkins has been an underdog all the way through so he won’t chuck the towel in, he'll embrace that challenge and anything can happen.
“It would be amazing if he did go. This this time around might be too early but maybe the World Cup?”
Watkins’ career has continued to reach new heights since his spell in non-League, and with that aggression he learned in the sixth tier, who would bet against his determination earning him a place in England’s squad at a major tournament? It would be just reward for such a nice guy.