From non-league to Premier League: The rise of Ollie Watkins
PUBLISHED: 14:00 15 October 2020
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Ollie Watkins introduced himself to the Premier League in explosive fashion as the forward fired a perfect first-half hat-trick to help Aston Villa beat defending champions Liverpool 7-2 at Villa Park this month.
The 24-year-old’s treble against The Reds also saw him into a class of his own with the most league goals in the top four tiers, including the play-offs, since the start of last season with 29, one ahead of Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Leicester City’s Golden Boot winner Jamie Vardy.
His red-hot form with Brentford last term saw scouts take notice and after reaching the Championship play-off final against The Cottagers, where his side came up just short, it was only a matter of time before his chance to play in the top flight would materialise.
That rise to the Premier League has taken him six years after starting out with Exeter City.
Three months after signing his first professional contract with The Grecians, Watkins was loaned to Weston on a one-month deal in December 2014, extended until the end of the season.
Watkins’ climb to the top has seen him play in all four divisions before the age of 25 and it was with The Seagulls where he first tasted playing senior football week in, week out.
Ryan Northmore, who pushed Watkins into a more forward role, using the then 18-year-old either on the left-hand side or down the middle in a 3-4-3 formation, says his “emphatic performance” against Liverpool “surprised everyone” but shows what a talented footballer he is.
“He has slotted in against the best in the world like he has been there for years,” said Northmore.
“It’s a wonderful start and announced his Premier League arrival in style. There have been a few critics that questioned the price tag and he has shown already he isn’t fazed by it.”
Former teammate Dayle Grubb echoed Northmore’s comments.
“Obviously it’s great to see, you can see how hard he has worked to get where he is and to score a hat-trick in the Premier League against Liverpool is an unbelievable achievement,” said Grubb.
“He’s been improving year after year, so it’s not too much of a surprise that he’s made it this far, but I probably didn’t expect him to crack the Premier League so soon.”
Northmore, who began playing for Weston in 2004, had started the 2014-15 campaign as the club’s Director of Football before he was given the role of head coach in November, after taking over from Micky Bell, with the club seven points from safety.
Having played under then Exeter manager Paul Tisdale during his career, Northmore approached him to bring Watkins, who scored the winner when the two sides played each other during pre-season, and Matt Jay to Weston.
The pair duly came in on loan and were both named on the bench against Farnborough on December 9.
Weston opened the scoring with their first league goal in 479 minutes through Grubb and Jacob Cane then doubled their lead before the visitors fought back to level.
Watkins was brought on in place of Alec Fiddes in the 52nd minute and had only been on the pitch for three minutes as Boro completed the comeback to move 3-2 up but he levelled 12 minutes into his debut and Brad Ash got Weston’s winner in the 82nd minute to seal their first victory in nine league matches.
“There were early signs in the game that we had an attacking threat and this gave us all a bit of confidence,” added Northmore.
“I’d decided we were going to throw the usual relegation blueprint out the window and secure our safety with goals rather than setting up for clean sheets and with Ollie spearheading that goal threat it was a big responsibility.
“But in the Farnborough game he hit the ground running and the gamble paid off. It was the catalyst for the changes I was pushing and players could see with Ollie and Dayle in the team we could threaten in behind and in the pockets of space.
“Drop too deep and Dayle will finish from distance and squeeze too high and Ollie is going to run in behind you.”
Grubb recently returned to the club, having scored 88 goals in 314 appearances in his first spell, after two years with Forest Green Rovers in League Two.
The midfielder scored double figures for the first time in 2014-15 and finished on 11 goals, one ahead of Watkins as the pair struck 21 times in 62 matches.
And Grubb was amazed how quickly Watkins settled in and the impact he had on the club during his six-month loan spell, adding: “He had great work ethic, athletic and a good finisher with both feet.
“I remember him being brilliant for us. Guys who come on loan don’t always buy in to what we are doing and sometimes they aren’t always a good fit but he came with an amazing attitude. He had brilliant attributes and he was hugely successful with us.
“He was a great player for us and he’s a top lad as well. Hopefully it’ll encourage other players to use Weston as a stepping stone in future years.”
Northmore said: “Ollie is an example of someone who kept a constant steady course. His attitude remained consistent and he invested all his energy into improving.
“The way his football was hammered and chiselled into place it was painful at times, but he stayed on course. It has to be hard, and the higher he goes the harder it gets. It takes huge passion, enthusiasm, discipline and desire to meet the challenges along the way.”
After his loan spell ended Watkins was given more chances at Exeter and by March 2016 he made the breakthrough into the starting line-up and finished 2015-16 with nine goals in 22 appearances.
Another positive year followed as the forward managed to play in every league game, bar one, and finished with a respectful 16 goals in 52 matches, picking up the EFL Young Player of the Year award on his way to Wembley for the League Two play-off final against Blackpool.
Despite defeat to The Seasiders, his good form saw Brentford, under the management of Dean Smith, sign him for £1.8 million and bring him to the Championship, where he exceeded every target he faced.
His blistering 2019-20 campaign, which saw Watkins score more goals than in his last previous seasons combined, made him become one of the most sought-after forwards outside the Premier League, before agreeing to sign for Villa, for a club record transfer fee of £28m, to play under Smith again.
“I think it’s a fantastic story and an inspiration for many,” said Northmore, who held a number of different roles with Weston during his 12 years with The Seagulls, including academy manager, first-team coach and a trustee of the community trust.
“All of football should be thinking very seriously about clubs such as Weston who enrich our national game. Our football pyramid is unique and something very special in world football, it’s a tough time for many non-league clubs at this moment.
“I hope stories such as Ollie’s, along with all the other former non-league players who have made the jump to higher divisions, can serve as a little reminder of how important our non-league system is so that we are protected during this difficult period.
“For me Ollie’s message to young people is to do what you love; improve to become valuable in your industry; and don’t expect to make any of the effort and sacrifice with a guarantee of success.”
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