Exclusive: Brentford’s Ollie Watkins on his rise from League Two to the heights of the Championship
It is the stuff of dreams. Any young, budding footballer will say that they want to breakthrough at their childhood team and take them to Wembley Stadium before earning that big-money move further up the Football League ladder.
Whilst it remains an elusive goal for the vast majority, Brentford forward Ollie Watkins has turned his dream into a reality and made the leap from Exeter City to the bright lights of the Championship. However, it certainly hasn’t been plain sailing for the boy from Devon.
At just nine years of age, Watkins was turned down by local Football League side Exeter after a short trial period at the club. He was forced to go back to playing regular Sunday League football before the opportunity to impress arose once again further down the line, when the Grecians scouted him for a second time.
“I went on trial for the Under-9s and didn’t make the grade – concentration seemed to be the main issue amongst other things. I went away for a couple of years and enjoyed my football before I was scouted again by Exeter later down the line, and they gave me the opportunity.”
Watkins ensured that lightning didn’t strike twice as he worked his way through the youth ranks at Exeter, making an impression in their Under-18 team before being awarded his first professional contract back in April 2014.
He made his first appearance on the final day of the 2013-14 League Two season in a 2-0 victory over Hartlepool, coming off the bench to play the final 13 minutes for the Devonshire outfit.
There was no immediate route into the first-team set-up after that brief taste of action, though, and he was sent out on-loan to Conference South outfit Weston-super-Mare to continue with his development.
Initially intended to be a month-long loan, he ended up staying for the rest of the 2014-15 season after receiving first-team football on a regular basis and he finished the year with ten goals in 25 appearances.
His prolific form edged him closer to first-team exposure at St James Park upon his return, although it took three months of the new season for Exeter manager Paul Tisdale to name the young forward in one of his squads, eventually awarding him his first start in a 2-1 victory over fierce local rivals Plymouth.
“When I got my chance in the first-team I didn’t take it too seriously – in my mind I thought I was a first-team player already by that point. It was after that first spell when I realised what it would take to take to stay at that level.”
Little did Watkins know at the time that his outing at Plymouth in late November would signal the beginning of a remarkable – and sudden – rise to prominence, and by March 2016 he would have firmly forced his way into the reckoning at Exeter, on a regular basis, after a string of impressive performances.
Four goals in six games saw him clinch both the PFA Fans’ Player of the Month and the EFL Young Player of the Month for March and his excellent form continued, scoring eight goals in ten matches towards the end of the campaign – a run that included a sublime match-winning brace against old foes the Pilgrims.
After firmly cementing his status as a cult hero at Exeter, ending the year with ten goals in 22 appearances, he began the 2016-17 League Two season as an established and key first-team player.
He continued to spear-head the Exeter attack and helped them dramatically turn their fortunes around. With the Grecians sat rock bottom of the Football League in late November, Watkins led his side to a run of form that saw them win 16 matches out of 29 to secure a play-off semi-final tie against Carlisle United.
Watkins was influential in their play-off push, scoring 15 goals and earning 13 assists. However, he saved his very best for a pulsating semi-final second-leg when his double clinched a 6-5 aggregate win.
Football can be a cruel game, though, and after a stirring revival from Exeter following their dire position in Autumn they fell agonisingly short of promotion to League One as Blackpool ran out 2-1 winners at Wembley Stadium – and Watkins admits it is a game that still plays on his mind five months down the line.
“I think about the play-off final every day. We had a great year, going from bottom to the top seven come the end of the season, but I didn’t turn up. You can’t make excuses but it’s an experience I’ll learn from – you’ve got to leave everything on the pitch and I don’t think I did that at Wembley.
“I don’t have any regrets but looking back that’s definitely one thing I’d change. You’ve got to pick yourself up and go again and hopefully it’ll be a different outcome if I get to Wembley again.”
But they say every cloud has a silver lining, and despite the over-riding disappointment arising from Exeter’s play-off final defeat there was still something for Watkins to shout about at the annual Football League Awards bash as he earned the acclaimed title of Football League Young Player of the Year 2017.
There aren’t many that’ll dispute this after his performances during the 2016-17 campaign, a season in which he made a name for himself as one of the best up-and-coming young prospects in the Football League.
It was perhaps expected, then, that a number of Championship teams came sniffing around the 21-year-old during the summer transfer window as they looked to steal away the prolific forward.
Leeds United and Aston Villa were just a few of the high-profile names thrown around, but it was Brentford who managed to fend off competition secure their man, with Watkins arriving in west London on a four-year contract. This signalled the end of his ten-year spell at his childhood club.
Since breaking into the first-team at St James Park he found the net 26 times in 78 appearances, taking Exeter to the brink of promotion, and he admits the decision to leave was one made with a heavy heart:
“I was at Exeter for ten years – it was home. However, I want to progress and play at the highest level possible for the longest time possible. I wouldn’t be testing myself if I stayed in my comfort zone. The gaffer here [Dean Smith] showed great desire to get me to sign and I’m glad that I did.”
Nobody at Exeter would begrudge him his shot at the big-time and Watkins seems to have already taken to life in the Championship like a duck to water, despite having to adjust to a different style of football. He said:
“The ball is on the floor a lot more than in League Two – I found it very physical at that level and you’ve got to take your chances. In the Championship I’ve got some great players around me – they get me the ball and then it’s down to me to do something from there.”
Watkins has featured in all of Brentford’s matches so far this season, making nine starts, and in recent weeks his natural instinct to score goals has come to the fore after finding the back of the net in three matches in a row, earning his side a valuable point against both Derby and Middlesbrough.
There may have been an air of trepidation around west London when Jota – who scored 12 times in 21 matches for the Bees last season – left for Birmingham City and was replaced by the League Two marksman, with some wondering if he was ready for this level, but any fears have since been alleviated.
Heading into the international break – something the youngster hasn’t experienced before – he had been directly involved in each of Brentford’s last four goals, scoring three and earning an assist too.
His composure on the ball is akin to someone with far more Championship experience, whilst his fast turn of pace and his raw strength naturally lend themselves perfectly to competing in the higher division.
It is the burning desire inside of Watkins – allied with his clever and shrewd movement – that has earned him goals so far this season, and he has all the ingredients needed to be a long-term success story.
Whilst Watkins’ individual performances have started to catch the eye of late Brentford have found it tough going in the opening 11 matches of the new season, only sitting out of the relegation zone by virtue of goal difference after securing just the single victory against basement boys Bolton last month.
The Bees are without a win at Griffin Park in five attempts this campaign, frustratingly being held to four consecutive draws, but the young forward has played down concerns over their current form:
“There’s plenty of quality in the squad and we’ve passed some of the top sides off the pitch, we just haven’t put the ball in the net as often as we should have. There’s going to be more top performances from us and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s on the end of a four or five goal score-line.
“People look at the table and say, ‘they’re towards the bottom of the table, we should beat them,’ but they haven’t seen our performances. Once we’re sharper we’ll move onwards and upwards.”
The step-up from League Two to the Championship is a vast one but Watkins has made it look relatively easy after a strong start at Brentford and, if the club’s form is to turn around, expect him to play a critical role.
The 2017 EFL Young Player of the Year seems well-set to continue his meteoric rise after settling down well to life in England’s second-tier, and it certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed that a fair few of the past winners of the annual accolade have gone on to achieve big things throughout their respective careers.
The likes of Gareth Bale, Nathaniel Clyne, Fabian Delph, Wilfried Zaha, Tom Ince and Dele Alli are all previous winners of the award, and they have set quite the precedent for Watkins to try and live up to.
And it is Tottenham and England talisman, Alli, who has come in for close comparison with Watkins over the past 12 months – and the Brentford forward admits he takes inspiration from the former MK Dons midfielder’s monumental rise:
“I get the comparison a lot – perhaps we look similar! I can see some similarities but I’m my own person and I’ve got to focus on my own game. He achieved that at a younger age than me; he’s at a different stage of his career now but hopefully I can go on to emulate what he’s done.
“Everyone wants to play in the Premier League – it’s the aim to get there and hopefully stay there.”
For now attentions will firmly turn back to Championship action and the looming visit of mid-table Millwall to Griffin Park, with Brentford continuing their search for a first home win of the campaign.
Millwall would do well to fully prepare themselves to face one of the league’s in-form strikers, with the rise of the young lad from Devon showing no signs of relenting just yet, as he continues to turn heads in his rise up the Football League.
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