Ollie Watkins' journey from Devon lad to England hero

England's Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring their side's second goal of the game during the UEFA Euro 2024, semi-final match at the BVB Stadion Dortmund in Dortmund, Germany.
-Credit: (Image: PA)

WELL, would you believe it? On a night of high drama in Dortmund, Germany, a humble young man born in Torbay hospital, who grew up in Newton Abbot, attended South Dartmoor School and is a product of the renowned exeter-city-fc>Exeter City youth academy, has become a national hero.

With under ten minutes of England’s European Championship semi-final with Netherlands remaining, head coach Gareth Southgate threw the dice and called on Ollie Watkins to be England’s hero. And he duly delivered in the final minute with a quite sensational goal to book the Three Lions a place in Sunday’s final, where they will face Spain.

Watkins said on ITV : “Unbelievable. I’ve been waiting for that moment for weeks. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to where I am now. I’m grateful I got the opportunity and I grabbed it with both hands and I’m delighted.

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"I swear on my life, on my kids’ lives, I said to Cole Palmer ‘We’re coming on and you’re going to set me up’ and that’s why I was so happy with Coley, I knew as soon as he got the ball he was going to play me in.

“You’ve got to be greedy, touch and shoot and when I see it going into the bottom corner, it’s the best feeling ever.”

The look on Watkins’ face as he wheeled off in celebration is something that will go down in English football folklore. An iconic moment of pure, undulated joy as the realisation of a quite seismic sporting moment sinks in. A wide-eyed Watkins runs off screaming ‘come on, come on!’ before knee-sliding towards the England bench as his team-mates and coaching staff embrace him in a moment of pure ecstasy. Or should that be Exe-tasy.

Rejected by both Plymouth Argyle and torquay-united-fc>Torquay United, Watkins found his footballing feet with Exeter and came through their successful Academy system. He was taken to training either by his mum, or Chris Jay – father of his good friend in the Academy and former Grecians team-mate, Matt Jay.

My first sighting of Watkins came in the summer of 2013, firstly when he impressed against Weston-super-Mare and then iIn a game of three ‘halves’ of 30 minutes at Chippenham Town. Watkins and Jay entered the fray as substitutes with the Grecians drawing 1-1. Watkins simply terrorised Chippenham that night and played a significant role in Exeter going on to win 7-1 with six goals in the final 20 minutes.

His first professional goal came in October 2014, a consolation in a 3-1 EFL Trophy defeat at Coventry City, six months after he made his Football League debut as a 77th minute substitute in a 2-0 win at Hartlepool United.

Watkins made only four appearances in his first two seasons at St James Park, but he really broke through after a successful loan spell at Weston-super-Mare. On his return, Watkins was handed a start in a 2-1 Devon derby win at Plymouth Argyle, played well and never really looked back.

He scored against Port Vale in his next game before ending the season in superb style with eight goals in 13 games. The highlight being a derby double in a 2-1 win against Argyle with the winner coming – you guessed it – in the 90th minute.

Watkins was 20 at the end of that breakthrough 2015/16 season and it was no surprise people were starting to take note. The following season saw Watkins play 52 times for Exeter as they reached the play-off final with Watkins scoring 16 goals. Two of those came in a thrilling play-off semi-final second leg against Carlisle United, which the Grecians won 3-2 on the night and 6-5 on aggregate. Alas, they were to be his last strikes for Exeter with City losing 2-1 to Blackpool in the final at Wembley.

By now, Exeter were at a stage where keeping Watkins was proving a challenge. He had outgrown the club and needed a new challenge for the sake of his own career and a £1.8 million fee was agreed with Brentford. Under the excellent tutelage of Dean Smith and then Thomas Frank, Watkins’ career kicked on again as he made 143 appearances and scored 50 goals. That led to a £28 million move to Aston Villa and with a sell-on clause as part of the deal that took him from Exeter to Brentford, the Grecians also cashed in. It was Smith, his former mentor at Brentford, that persuaded the Villa hierarchy to sign him and in his first season with the Villans, Watkins scored 17 times, including a hat-trick against Liverpool. The season ended with him being called up by England, where he scored on his debut in a 5-0 thrashing of San Marino.

Smith was sacked by Villa in November 2021, and replaced by Steven Gerrard, but it was after Gerrard’s 11-month tenure came to an end that Watkins’ career really kicked on again. That was under his current Villa boss, Unai Emery, who certainly knows how to get a tune out of the 28-year-old Devonian.

After his appointment, Watkins went on a goal spree, scoring 11 goals in 11 games and he finished the 2022/23 season with 16 goals from 40 appearances. This season has been his best yet, though, with 29 goals in 60 appearances, the most recent of those coming in such dramatic against the Dutch on Wednesday night. And if he can round that up and make it 30 with an England win on Sunday, then Watkins’ elevation will cement his status as a national hero.