On the brink of the Premier League: The rise of former Weston forward Ollie Watkins
PUBLISHED: 11:00 06 August 2020
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Ollie Watkins and Brentford are just one game away from reaching the Premier League as they take on Fulham in the Championship play-off final tonight.
The 24-year-old forward, who has scored 26 goals so far this campaign, more than double his tally from the previous two seasons combined, is set to lead the line for The Bees as they aim to reach the top flight for the first time since 1947.
His journey to Wembley caps a remarkable rise following the last few years, having signed for the London outfit from League Two side Exeter City for the Devon club’s outgoing club record transfer fee in the summer of 2017.
Before that, after four substitute appearances for The Grecians, in December 2014, alongside Matt Jay, the then 18-year-old Watkins signed for Weston on loan.
“He came in as a young player fresh out of academy football but he had a mature approach to his football,” recalled former Seagulls manager Ryan Northmore.
“A great attitude and a hunger to do well. There were all the signs there of a talented player, educated in the right way and just as impressive was the way he integrated into the team.”
Watkins, who described playing for the club as the“best thing” he ever did, says his move to Somerset helped mould and shape him to be the player he is today.
“I went to Weston when they were near rock bottom of the league, in a relegation battle, and it was just about surviving really, playing men’s football,” he said.
“Playing against men is more physical, you’ve got to be a little bit more smarter, because there is a lot of good ex-pros that played in the division when they come to an end of their career. You’ve got to be stronger all round.
“Fighting for something which meant something to people, they had direct debits to pay for and things like that.
“I never really took that into consideration, I was just used to playing reserve football, it didn’t matter if you won or lost, it’s just about your development. Men’s football really helped me. Going on loan to Weston was a major figure in my career.
“I did well there, I scored 10 goals, but I’d definitely say the importance of three points was a great experience for me.”
Northmore added: “Making the steps from youth football to senior football isn’t just about the increase in things like the tempo of the game or the pressure to win, it’s also about what is stripped away in terms of support.
“For someone like Ollie, I’d done my homework, and having a close relationship with Paul Tisdale helped me to understand the person Ollie was first.
“Pressure is an important tool to find out about yourself. Ollie grew up quickly and one of his defining qualities was his drive to maintain and build on his performances.
“He could take a bit of constructive criticism and a bit of praise and maintain his drive and determination. He knew if I gave him a bit of tough love at times it was coming from a good place with his best interests at heart.
“It’s a thrill and a privilege to work with humble, talented young people, with ambition and drive to fulfil their potential.”
After his loan spell ended in the summer of 2015, the teenaged Watkins returned to The Grecians, but he says he owes Northmore a lot for his growth on the pitch as well as off it.
“He was really good with me,” added Watkins on Northmore.
“He extended my loan, I was only supposed to be there for about one or two months but he extended it for the rest of the season. He definitely believed in me and I feel like sometimes he was harsh on me and that’s what I needed because coming up from the youth team, playing Tiki-taka football is good, but it doesn’t matter if you win or lose it’s about your development.”
Watkins’ arrival at The Optima Stadium saw him help Weston secure their first win in eight games over Farnborough, with the striker netting in their 4-3 victory, but what makes him so special?
“With Ollie it’s the goal threat he carries,” said Northmore.
“He is able to drop into spaces to collect the ball and run at defenders and the moment they try to squeeze that space he can run them in behind.
“Technically he has all the tools. At Exeter Tisdale would play him in different positions to expose him to different challenges so he could develop new qualities and now we can see how he deploys all of those technical qualities to great effect.
“I think he is at a club that have an innovative and very logical approach so they are able to play to Ollie’s qualities and at 24-years-old, topping the goal scoring charts is nowhere near the end of the story for him.
“His mentality to improve and take things in his stride are what have got him this far and I’m sure it will be the same qualities that take him on further still.”
After heading back to Exeter at the end of the campaign, where Weston finished in 17th place, the club have seen a number of players who have gone to play in the Football League in the last five years, most notably Brad Ash signing for Barnsley, Dayle Grubb moving to Forest Green Rovers and Rollin Menayese at Bristol Rovers.
As for Watkins he states there are so many more players that need to be given the chance to play in the Football League.
“I feel like a lot of players from non-league are good enough to play in the league,” he added.
“I played with a couple who moved to Forest Green and there were others, one who moved to Barnsley, so the league doesn’t go unnoticed and there is a lot of talented players in non-league.
“Playing non-league football you aren’t that far away, Weston were in the Conference South when I played for them and it’s one league away from full-time. There were teams in that league, like Ebbsfleet, who are in full-time football it’s a great standard. There are good crowds there still and you can quickly find yourself in full-time professional football.”
Northmore continued: “There are many routes into the professional game, but players who have come from non-league tend to have a different perspective on their opportunity in the professional game.
“Dayle is one who had to wait for his chance because sometimes the cream takes a little bit longer to rise to the top. Whereas Brad Ash was sold to Barnsley at a younger age and then found chances limited to maintain his momentum.
“For me, all players in the professional game deserve massive respect for what they have achieved but there is a something a bit more magical about players who have made the grade via a spell in non-league.”
But Watkins’ rise from non-league to potentially playing in the Premier League next season is a testament of his character and personality.
“He has done very well, to be on the verge of firing his team into the Premiership is a fantastic achievement,” said Northmore.
“Ollie is down to earth, a player that really embraced the academy values that Exeter and Paul Tisdale instil in their players.
“He burst onto the scene with us, went straight into the match-day squad and didn’t look back.
“I was fortunate to have a squad with good players and experienced senior pros who understood what Ollie needed, and he responded.”
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