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Romaine Sawyers – Blossoming in the Championship with play-off contenders Brentford

Finding himself in the best form of his career at Brentford, Romaine Sawyers talks us through his experiences adapting to life in the Championship with the Bees.

Romaine Sawyers

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Photo: Reuters

The step up to the Championship, moving from Walsall to Brentford, was a difficult one.

For one, the quality of players is much different, no disrespect to League One.

There are a number of quality individuals and teams, but there is also a greater emphasis on the tactical side of the game, largely due to the strong balance of clubs from the top right through to the bottom of the division.

At first I was inconsistent and spent a fair bit of time trying to find my feet. But now I am over that hurdle and playing at a level I am happy with.

This season has been good. In fact, probably my best one to date. I feel that I’ve been quite consistent and in really good form.

I can’t thank Dean Smith enough. His influence has been massive. He gave me my first real chance at mens’ football and he has continued to have faith in me as I’ve progressed through the levels.

I was fortunate to spend my formative years at the West Brom in the club’s academy. I was there from the age of seven and received a great footballing education. I still speak to most of my coaches that I had at a young age there, even now.

Dean initially brought me to Walsall when I left West Brom, and he has been a key factor throughout my development. He knows to get onto me if need a kick up the arse, or he will compliment me if I need an arm over my shoulder.

Above all, he is a great man manager. He quickly finds your strengths and weaknesses as a player and knows how to get you performing.

He gets the balance of praise and constructive criticism just right, in order to get the very best out of the individuals in the team.

I would say recently is the best I have performed in my career and my Player of the Month nomination for December was recognition of the work me and my Brentford teammates have been doing.

It feels like a real group effort every time we go out on the pitch and that has shown both on and off the field.

At the same time as myself being nominated for an award before Christmas my teammate, Lasse Vibe, was in the mix for the PFA Player of the Month prize.

We have players who are topping stats charts left, right and centre and we have some real depth and versatility in the team. This means we can attack from all areas, whereas in the past we have maybe been reliant on one or two individuals.

Personally, I like to get on the ball and make things happen, helping the team to score goals by creating chances. I think I could probably add more goals to my game by getting behind the opposition defence more regularly.

I’ve scored four times this season, so far, but this is something I’m working on in training with the coaching staff at Brentford. We do a lot of work with video analysis to help me and improve this aspect of my game, but it is a work in progress.

Stats are a well known aspect of the backroom work at the club. Personally, I don’t read into them as much as others. I’m a player who prefers to be visual, making decisions and reacting based ‘on the eye’, rather than through what the data says.

It is good when you feel you are in positive form and you consider yourself to be in a good place, then the stats back it up. I prefer to see it as a secondary option, rather than a first.

Having said that, in terms of recruitment, it has shown to be a success time and time again through the players that the club have signed from lower divisions and abroad – there is a lot of talent to be found outside the top English leagues.

I have fond memories from my time with Walsall and being nominated for League One Player of the Year in my final season is probably the best moment of my career to date, alongside signing for Brentford.

However, I also hold a lot of pride in representing my heritage country, Saint Kitts and Nevis .

It is a very fulfilling ambassadorial role, in terms of giving hope and confidence to the youth of the country. Whether it is through football or something else, it is possible to provide for your family and that is the message I like to send.

Every time I go back there I try to motivate them a little bit more.

From a football perspective, it is a different culture and a new style. I think that has helped my game. It is a lot more physical and rough. You get kicked about and you have to learn to deal with that.

Playing for my country means a lot to me because of my family history. If I am there actively with football it gives me the chance to get involved with the people and their community.

Away from the pitch I am also involved in the Kick It Out campaign, which is a role that is very important to me.

I remember growing up and being a young boy wanting to be a professional footballer. It is extremely important that we continue to try and bridge the gap in today’s game.

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Who will win the race for the Sky Bet Championship play-offs?

The Championship play-offs are just around the corner.

The Boot Room

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Photo: Getty Images

The Championship is a league renowned for its unpredictability and twists and turns in what is a 46 game long season.

On any given weekend, any team can beat another which makes it one of the closest and exciting leagues in the world.

This season has proved no different, with six teams still competing for a play-off place with just six games to go.

In 5th place currently is Derby on 68 points, three points clear of 7th placed Millwall with a game in hand.

They are at the moment the favourites to secure a play-off spot, with the top three having already practically guaranteed their places if they do not gain automatic promotion.

Aston Villa look to set to join them, with a maximum of eight points needed from their last five games to be sure of making the play-offs.

Gary Rowett’s side have bounced back well from the loss of Johnny Russell in January to the MLS and a string of first-team injuries that have decimated the squad in recent months.

Most of their stars, including Tom Huddlestone and Joe Ledley, returned for their 1-0 away win over Preston on Easter Monday, a result that was desperately needed.

They followed that up with a 3-0 win over Bolton at the weekend, and the goals of Matej Vydra plus the defensive experience of Curtis Davies and Scott Carson should see them over the line.

(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Two points behind them in 6th is Tony Pulis’s Middlesbrough, who have seen an upturn in form since the former West Brom man took over in December.

Pulis is known for his defensive style of play but Middlesbrough have scored plenty since he came in, with Adama Traore in particular impressing.

A club like Boro will be expecting play-offs as a minimum, and you would expect them to achieve that goal given the quality of their squad, although even if they don’t get there this season, they will be one of the favourites to go up next season under Pulis.

(Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

The surprise package of this season has been Millwall, with Neil Harris leading his side to an unexpected 7th place berth at this stage of the season.

The Lions have only lost one game all season, that being on New Years’ Day at Norwich.

They have relied on a mixture of youth and experience, with younger players like Jake Cooper, Jed Wallace and George Saville complemented by the likes of veteran Steve Morison, and an immense run of form has given them every chance of making the play-offs, which would be a remarkable achievement.

Most fans surely would have been happy with a mid-table finish on their return to the Championship, but they have defied expectations so far.

They face tricky trips to Middlesbrough and Sheffield United, and home games against Fulham and Aston Villa, but win at least a couple of those and the Lions could be roaring at the end of the league season.

(Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Behind them on 62 points is Bristol City, who have had a mixed run of form since the turn of the year.

They briefly went 2nd in the table after a Boxing Day win against Reading, just a week after Lee Johnson’s side defeated Manchester United to reach the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup.

They eventually lost on aggregate to Manchester City after giving them a stern test, but have only won twice since then.

Like Millwall, they too face a trip to the Riverside to play Middlesbrough and host Sheffield United on the final day, but they are only four points off the top six and can still make it in.

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Another side who had an excellent first half of the season is Sheffield United, Chris Wilder’s side briefly sitting in top spot after a 2-1 away win against Leeds in October.

They have fallen away since then, currently sitting 9th and behind Bristol City on goal difference, but regardless of whether they qualify for the play-offs or not, it has still been a good season for Wilder’s men.

They drew 1-1 with Cardiff last week, a game which they had the better chances in, showing the fine margins that exist in the Championship.

The Blades lost in the Yorkshire derby against Barnsley on Saturday, a result that puts them four points behind Middlesbrough.

They host Preston before the season is out, a game which could still prove crucial for both teams, and also play Bristol City and Millwall.

Brentford sit just one point behind them in 10th, having shown some resurgence in recent weeks.

Their transfer policy is a very effective one, using a stats model to sign players both from England and all around the world.

Some of their signings appear to be gelling together well, with summer signing Neal Maupay netting the winner in both of their previous two games.

Manager Dean Smith has been linked with Premier League jobs in the past, and has done an excellent job at the Bees, who will surely be challenging at the end of the season.

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

The final team that have a realistic chance of reaching the play-offs is Preston North End, Alex Neil’s side currently occupying 11th place on 60 points.

They have lost their last three league games, although they were unlucky to lose against Derby and had the fair share of possession and chances against Reading.

Neil’s side face only one team out of the top 11 in the remaining fixtures – Sheffield United – which could work in their favour.

They have missed the firepower of top scorer Sean Maguire, who missed four months of the season due to injury, but his return has boosted the team, who have seen some outstanding performances already this season from the likes of Ben Davies, Ben Pearson and Alan Browne.

If Neil’s side can get substantial points out of their remaining games, they still have a chance of qualifying for the play-offs, although like the teams above them up to 7th, will need to rely on Derby and Middlesbrough dropping points.

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Three takeaways from Tuesday’s Championship action

Cardiff and Wolves extended their lead at the top of the Championship table.

Max Cohen

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Photo: Getty Images

Last night featured a blockbuster slate of Championship matches, with all of the top three clubs in action. Here are the main talking points from Tuesday’s fixtures…

The title race is not over yet…

Cardiff City continued their scorching hot run of form with a 3-1 win over Brentford at Griffin Park. The Bluebirds notched their seventh straight league win thanks to goals from Sol Bamba, Matthew Paterson, and Kenneth Zohore. Cardiff showed impressive fortitude to fight back from a goal down, and after conceding just five minutes in, they clinically rebounded to claim the three points.

The win brings Neil Warnock’s side just three points behind the league leaders Wolves with nine matches to play, and given Wolves’ recent slip-ups, a late title bid is not out of the question. Mark your calendars for April 6th: the matchup between Cardiff and Wolves which could serve as a battle for first position.

But the battle for automatic promotion probably is.

As much as supporters of Aston Villa and Fulham would like to believe they have a chance to achieve automatic promotion, the top two is most likely settled. With Wolves joining Cardiff in picking up maximum points on Tuesday, the gap between second and third is now seven points with nine matches to go.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

With Cardiff showing no signs of letting up, it looks immensely difficult to topple the Bluebirds off their perch in second. Although Fulham is in the midst of a 15-match unbeaten run and making an impressive late charge, Neil Warnock’s side are on an 11-match unbeaten run of their own.

The Championship cements its reputation as the most exciting league in England

There is arguably no league in England that is as intriguing and unpredictable as the Championship. The vaunted status of the division was on full display Tuesday night when Queens Park Rangers shocked Aston Villa 3-1 at Villa Park.

Villa sat in third and had just come off a brilliant, comprehensive 4-1 thrashing of Wolves on the weekend. QPR, on the other hand, came into the match mired in lowly 16th position. Yet Rangers embarrassed the Villains on their home pitch and raced out to a 3-0 lead. That’s just the magic of the Championship.

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Exclusive: Brentford’s Ollie Watkins on his rise from League Two to the heights of the Championship

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Ollie Watkins

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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