The Rise of Ollie Watkins
Inside the exuberant and empowering rise of Ollie Watkins – the Premier League striking sensation who’s here to stay.
Ollie Watkins falls silent for a split second as he struggles to contain the creases of a wry smile that creep from the corners of his mouth. We’ve arrived at the biggest moment of his career; the day he signed for Aston Villa and became the club’s all-time record signing following his £28 million move from Brentford in September 2020. “I am very level-headed so I just try to take everything in my stride but things always catch up on me a few weeks after,” he admits as the creases soon turn into cracks and he can no longer contain the smile of a striker who has finally arrived at the top table of English football.
“The day after I signed for Villa I was just in the hotel with my Mum and as I was going to leave to go to my first day of training and she burst into tears. So, she set me off too, It was then that I actually took the time to sit down and realise that this really is a very big moment. To come up from Exeter, to be playing non-league, to then be a record-transfer for a massive club like Villa. It’s incredible.”
In a year marked by the undeniable success of Ollie’s own making – being named the EFL player of the year, the big money move to Villa and that hat-trick against Liverpool – this lone, reflective moment shared with his family, you can tell, has loomed on him persistently and inspired him ever since. It’s another sense of grounding, emotion and purity; of good will, strength of character and desire that has narrated every step of Ollie’s journey so far. From starting out playing football in Devon and signing for Exeter where he played everywhere just to get on the pitch – “Left-wing back, centre midfield, right wing, striker. Utility man, basically” – to becoming the Aston Villa number eleven who is fast approaching the top of the Premier League scoring charts.
The growing trend of strikers taking the step up from the Football League – Vardy, Ings, Wilson et al. – ensured that the murmurs around Ollie’s record-breaking fee were positive ones; pundits talking about ‘smart business’ and not offering much of a sniff at the potential fee. For Ollie personally, his level-headed approach has ensured that the price tag sits rather comfortably on his shoulders too. In fact, since arriving in the Premier League he’s hit it off. After scoring his fifth and six goals for Villa last time out at the Emirates – at the home of his boyhood team – he took his tally to six goals from just seven games.
“I’m just loving it,” Ollie explains. “The whole experience from the very beginning has been unbelievable. I actually bumped into a few of the Villa boys in Mykonos over the summer break and a few of them were trying to get me to join. When I was flying back, I had Aston Villa fans at the airport coming up to me too. I had a hat and a face mask on and they were still recognising me and saying ‘sign for Villa, sign for Villa!’ Since I’ve signed it’s been non-stop.”
So, when did the summer holiday end and the transfer talk turn from speculation to a serious move? “It happened so quickly after that,” Ollie explains. “A few weeks later I was driving up to Birmingham with my agent and there was no conversation in the car. It was dead quiet. It hadn’t sunk in what was happening, I was just lost for words.”
That was until he arrived at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground. “That was the moment,” he says.
“The facilities are just incredible – the pitches, the pool, the sauna – everything about the training ground is top tier. They gave me and my family a tour all around the training ground before a private tour of Villa Park.
Again, that was surreal. I had my Mum taking her shoes off saying ‘I want to feel the pitch properly’ while my older brother is pretending to score a goal in front of the Holte End and celebrating. Everything I’d ever known was blown up by about ten times.”
Ollie often tells himself, “You can always do more,’ – his way of saying, ‘to never stop working, to never stop believing.’ Perhaps the best illustration of how focussed Ollie is what came up in the aftermath of Villa’s memorable victory against Liverpool. “I am a bit of a perfectionist,” he admits. That explains why, as he completed a post-match interview following his perfect hat-trick in the 7-2 win – one goal with his right foot, one with his left and one with his head – he brought up the two chances he missed.
“I scored three goals but I felt like I could’ve scored more. I’m always going to be looking for more,” he adds. “You can never settle. If you look at Ronaldo, he’s scored over 700 goals and he knows that is the past and he has to score more. That is what I aspire to be like.”
He delivers every word with a heady sense of personal pride and a slice of self-belief. He talks with an energy that is complemented by his humbleness; the perfect blend of youth and ability. He is down to earth. This is an in-form Premier League striker living in the moment.
He’s very much his own man, too. Which means he keeps a sole focus on everything. Even when it comes down to initiation songs at Villa’s first away trip of the season earlier this year, he admits he went a little bit left of centre because it felt right.
“I had to go Luther Vandross, I can get by on Luther just about,” he says with a laugh. “Matty Cash did Shallow by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. I was in his room before saying ‘mate, are you sure? That’s a big song. He just kept saying ‘who is Luther Van Gough?, I couldn’t believe it!
“But, it was always going to be Luther for me, there’s no doubt. Keep it cultured, keep it classic. I practiced it about ten times in the room to get the notes right”
Again, the art of putting the hours in before the big performance seemed to have done the trick. “I held my own although my legs were shaking a little,” he admits.
It’s a special mindset that he forged over 7 years ago at hometown club Exeter City and it is the go-hard attitude that has continued to blaze a trail through every level of the Football League that he’s played in since.
In Watkins’ late teenage years at Exeter City, he still hadn’t nailed down a position of preference. He could play down the middle or out wide, hence why he became a ‘utility man.’ However, he admits that a defining period at Weston-super-Mare helped shape his future, and also cement that early steeliness in his mindset.
At Weston-super-Mare AFC, six divisions deep in the Football League pyramid, he scored ten goals in 24 games and returned to Exeter with a sense of rejuvenation. After scraping into Exeter’s pre-season tour to Scotland in 2015 as the 24th man and the final pick, he didn’t look back.
“Until I broke into the first team I didn’t really work as hard,” Ollie admits. “As soon as I got into the first team it switched. From then on, I always thought if you work hard, put it all in, throw yourself about and just run, then you may get lucky. From that very first break that has always been my number one thing to do. I try to take that approach to everyday life. I always make sure that I can’t do it anymore. Because, then, I know I will never have any regrets.”
Towards the tail end of 2015, Ollie nailed himself down as a starting striker for Exeter going onto score 25 goals in 74 games and he earned himself a move to Brentford where his current manager, Dean Smith was at the helm.
“He [Dean Smith] was the one who spotted me when I was on-loan at Weston Super Mare,” Ollie adds. “Even before I broke into the team at Exeter, he had spotted me while he was Walsall manager. So, it’s all spiralled from there, basically.”
Together, in the Championship, Ollie took his game to a new level. After Dean Smith left for Villa and he was replaced by Thomas Frank, Ollie went even further; scoring 26 goals in all competitions for the West London side who narrowly lost in the Championship Play-Off Final to Fulham last year. But, what clicked between him and Dean Smith then and to what extent, if any, has the relationship changed now?
“One of the first things I remember him saying to me was that the difference between the top players and the average players is that they forget their mistakes quicker. It’s more about mentality. I would always beat myself up over little things. I still beat myself up now but it’s only because I want to be the best I can be.”
Along with his steely mindset, it’s his blend of technical and physical attributes that have helped him shine in the Premier League but, now he’s arrived in the Premier League, the focus of ‘being the best he can be’ has reached new levels.
“Everyday I do my own finishing drills. Every single day,” he explains.
“It was raining the other day at the end of training and I spotted all the keepers running in. So, I was shouting out to them ‘oi, you, get back here.’ I managed to pull one of the youth keepers to stay out there and do some finishing with me.
“I was doing finishing drills for about 45-minutes and the assistants were calling me in and I was just saying ‘one more, one more.’
“I just want to perfect my trade and be the best I can be. Because you just can never get enough of scoring goals.”
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