Sport writer Timon Burford profiles the rise of Ollie Watkins, from his southwestern routes to starring against the Premier League champions
When you think of Devon what comes to mind? Wet summer holidays? Cream teas? Pasties? The southwestern county is known for many things, but elite football talent is not high on the list.
While the Exeter Chiefs have become a force to be reckoned with in rugby, the same cannot be said for the county’s professional football clubs. Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle, the most prestigious Devonian clubs, both share a rich footballing history but for too long have been exiled to the doldrums of lower-league English football. You can understand my elation, as a proud Devonian, when Torquay-born and Exeter-educated Ollie Watkins bagged a perfect hat trick for Aston Villa in their 7-2 hammering of reigning Premier League champions Liverpool.
The £28 million that Villa paid, a club-record fee, certainly raised eyebrows. However, his track record of scoring goals meant the high price was of little surprise to Exeter and Brentford fans. In an otherwise mediocre Grecians side, the young Watkins was one of the few shining lights, with his individual performance in the 2016/17 season ensuring Exeter’s place in the League 2 playoffs. Watkins bagged 13 goals at just 20 years of age during this season, and his reward was interest from a young and exciting Brentford side, who quickly snapped up the talented striker for a fee reported to be in the region of £1.8 million.
While at Brentford, Watkins built upon his raw talent, establishing himself as a leading forward threat for the Bees. Citing Thierry Henry as his footballing idol, the comparisons with the Frenchman’s game are noteworthy; both Henry and Watkins draw significantly from their ability to beat centre-halves for pace and dribble into a scoring position.
Through his three seasons at the West London club, Watkins goal-scoring ability greatly improved. The Devonian became a reliable finisher at close range and although he lacks real power in his shot, he compensates with pinpoint accuracy.
Ultimately, though, it was Watkins’ phenomenal performance last Sunday that silenced his recent critics, showcasing his full ability against an error-prone Liverpool side.
His quality was clear especially for his second goal, running in behind a sluggish Joe Gomez and then possessing the spatial awareness to control the ball, before unleashing a rising shot off his right foot into the Liverpool goal. His third goal, scored from the head, demonstrates the strikers’ potential for being an aerial threat, a trait that in recent years has become a key facet to the 24-year-old’s game.
Hopefully, Watkins’ ace performance on the weekend is a sign of things to come. Alongside many other Devonian football fans, I wish him the best of luck in the second city as he makes his adjustment to the top-flight.
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