There was no shortage of suitors for Dean Smith’s priority summer transfer target – one of the most in-demand strikers in English football and the EFL Player of the Season, Ollie Watkins.
Aston Villa stumped up a premium £33 million in add-ons to secure a number 9 capable of leading Villa into a new, exciting era alongside local boys Smith and Jack Grealish. There’s a lot of faith in Watkins at Villa Park.
On his second start at his new home, Watkins became the first Premier League player to score a ‘perfect’ first-half hat-trick since Tommy Johnson did it for Villa in 1995. After that 7-2 victory over reigning champions Liverpool, Watkins will be fondly remembered by many a Villan for decades to come – he’s already making his mark.
From Weston-super-Mare to tormenting Virgil van Dijk, Watkins has made quite the journey to where he is today, but Villa’s striker is in no mood to settle for Premier League adulation – he wants to realise a potential that… nobody can cap. Predicting the heights that former Exeter and Brentford forward Watkins could achieve would quite possibly be limiting his ceiling.
“The Ollie I had at Brentford had an unbelievable attitude as a player,” Villa boss Smith told talkSPORT. “He just wants to get better but he always tests you as a coach, asking you what he can do to improve.
“One of his questions, when I met up with him, was: How can you get me in the England squad? That’s his ambition and I love it when people have got them targets and the hunger to get there. Hopefully he’ll get there – it certainly won’t be for the lack of trying.”
It’s no surprise that Smith pleaded with Villa’s chiefs to bust the bank for Watkins having seen up close his quality and potential while at Brentford. After scoring 15 goals under Smith from a wider role, Watkins finished last year’s Championship season as the league’s joint-top scorer with 26 goals having taken only a year to adapt into a central position at Griffin Park.
“Ollie has developed into one of the most sought-after strikers in the country,” said Smith after landing his priority target in September.
“We are looking forward to seeing him show his great qualities in an Aston Villa shirt. He is a hugely determined character who has both the ability and personality to succeed at the highest level.”
Watkins didn’t need much persuading, neither a red carpet rolled out to his feet as he greeted his former gaffer with a big hug at Bodymoor Heath after penning a long-term deal with Villa.
“The fact that it’s a massive club, Dean sold it to me. I’m definitely excited to work with Dean again and I’m looking forward to getting started,” Watkins said.
“I feel like this is the next step for me, I always want to challenge myself and get myself out of my comfort zone and I felt like this was the right time for me to move on and have a new challenge and I’m really relishing this one.”
Observers routinely describe Watkins as a natural in front of goal, but after only acclimatising to the centre-forward role last season, Villa’s forward is versatile in a multitude of forward positions. Having previously described himself as a ‘number 10’, with a skill-set capable of contributing to both goals and assists from wide areas, Watkins’ fast-developing game is based around his idol Thierry Henry.
Speaking at the London Football Awards in 2017, Watkins said: “I try to base my game on his (Henry), by driving at defenders and looking to make something happen when I get the ball.”
Adept at threatening defenders on the wing or as an attacking midfielder, Watkins only took to the striker role last season. It’s been a meteoric rise in whichever way you’d like to measure Watkins’ development from a positional sense, his goal record or more simply his rise from the seventh-tier to Premier League in under five years.
This season, Watkins scored on his debut in the Carabao Cup against Burton Albion and was unfortunate not to have taken a brace away from what was a promising audition when he struck the bar in the first half. Following up on his fast start with another goal in another away victory cup against Bristol City, Watkins saved his best three for the rout of Jurgen Klopp’s champions at the start of October as Villa made it three from three.
Without a goal in the two games either side of Villa’s historic win over Liverpool, Watkins remained a thorn in top-flight defences alongside attacking duo Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley. Only Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Patrick Bamford have a better non-penalty xG (expected goals without penalties) than Watkins when compared with all strikers in the top-flight having played his first five games in the league this season.
Watkins is only bettered by two forwards again when his performance is measured by non-penalty xG per shot, which highlights to what degree is Villa’s forward threatening to score a goal per his 13 shots he took in his first five games.
As a hard-working frontman too, in the Premier League, only Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne have made more defensive actions that have led to a shot attempt than Watkins, which can include a tackle, pressure or interception when defending from the front.
Defined by his character and work-rate, Watkins isn’t averse to putting in the extra yard to realise his goals. In fact, Villa’s club-record signing has for a long time been tipped by many to reach the top following a lower-division grounding in League Two.
Exeter, Weston-super-Mare and Brentford: Watkins learning his trade in the lower leagues
Before his move to Brentford in 2017, Watkins started his career with Exeter City and spent 13 years on the Devon side’s books. The financial package paid by Villa to the West London side will partly fund Exeter, whose sell-on fee if fully deserved having overseen Watkins’ early development as a teenager.
The Grecians let go of Watkins for less than £2 million in 2017, as the former academy graduate moved to Brentford to progress his career. Torquay-born Watkins joined Exeter’s renowned academy at Under-11 level and progressed through the ranks to sign a scholarship, all after failing to catch the eye in a trial at the club aged nine.
On the face of it, his journey has been a smooth ride taking him from the lower leagues with Exeter, all the way through to the Championship with Brentford where he has increased his goal tally and performances levels season after season.
Watkins’ route to the top has, however, not been so quite straightforward. There was a time when one of the more promising prospects in English football was struggling to convince coaches he was worth a place in lower-league reserve sides and Conference South teams.
Exeter’s 2014-15 League Two campaign was supposed to be Watkins’ breakthrough year but following just the three appearances at the start of the season, he’d depart on loan to Weston-super-Mare in December 2014.
Watkins remained on loan to the Conference South club until the end of the season. He scored ten goals in 25 appearances before returning to St James Park at the end of the season. The youngsters’ eye-opening loan move prepared him for his first full campaign at Exeter under manager Paul Tisdale. He was frequently named as a substitute in the 2015-16 season and after scoring his first senior league goal against Portsmouth in March 2016, Watkins was afforded an extended run in the side in time for Exeter’s season finale.
He had to remain patient, but an impressive four goals in six appearances saw him win the EFL Young Player of the Month award for the first time, as well as the PFA Fans’ Player of the Month, and from there, Watkins never looked back.
Despite Exeter’s season-ending with defeat at Wembley following a 2-1 loss to Blackpool in the League Two Play-Off Final, it was a memorable one for Watkins whose 16 goals and 13 assists in an impressive 52 appearances saw him pick up the EFL Young Player of the Season Award at the 2017 EFL Awards ceremony.
Used predominantly as a wide man during his first two years at Brentford, Watkins managed ten goals in each of his first two seasons before moving into a central role following the sale of Brentford’s Neal Maupay to Brighton.
Watkins went on to become a crucial part of Brentford’s formidable forward line that included Saïd Benrahma and Bryan Mbeumo, last season. Thomas Frank’s side scored the most goals in the Championship last term (80). Watkins scored twice in a game on four occasions and even managed a hat-trick of headers at Oakwell in a win over Barnsley.
Watkins’ 26 goal haul last term reaffirmed Villa’s interest to press ahead with a deal having reportedly delved into negotiations for the forward last season.
Watkins has worked under five different managers in his career, but not many have made a more significant impact than former Exeter boss Paul Tisdale.
‘You need to come along as a left-back’
At 19 years of age, Watkins was left out of Exeter City’s 24-man pre-season tour squad in 2014 at a time where his development at the south-coast club was in the balance.
The forward wasn’t always necessarily following the smoothest path to success. Speaking in the Official EFL Podcast last year, former boss Tisdale revealed how Watkins’ change of fortunes was all down to a psychological reset.
“He came through and happened to be there for my whole time at Exeter,” Tisdale told Sky Sports.
“He was very athletic, he had good feet and an eye for goal. He had big potential, but he hit a wall when he turned professional and spent 18 months or two years in the Reserves or on loan.
“I remember going up to Scotland for a pre-season tour; he would have been 19 at the time, and he didn’t make our touring squad. Our left-back got injured and I said ‘you need to come along as a left-back, otherwise you’ll have to stay here and train on your own’, so he came along, played a couple of games and I remember him coming off really upset. He’d been thinking so hard about everything that he couldn’t control the ball, so we sat down a month or two later and started again.
“In the next Reserve game, Reading away, I said ‘you need to make three headers, three tackles, three interceptions and recover three loose balls in the first half – that will be 12 touches’. I said ‘if you can repeat that in the second half, that’s 24 moments’, and the point was it changed the way he thought. He ticked those boxes, and he was now engaged with everything.”
It was the grounding Watkins needed to realise his potential.
“He got lots of passes, he picked the ball up and turned, everything, and it was enough to make me want to pick him for the first-team game, the derby against Plymouth.
“He played in the same position, which he hadn’t played in before that day at Reading, and he got Man of the Match as we won 2-0. Ollie was brilliant that day, and that was his moment. All of the training was there, the coaching was there, but he needed to play with freedom.”
The goals will continue to flow for Watkins – a player so crucial to Dean Smith’s dynamic style of play and indeed Villa’s assault on the upper echelons of the Premier League in the coming years.