Exeter old boy coming good at Aston Villa
Former Exeter City forward Ollie Watkins is the latest homegrown soccer success story who has risen through the divisions of English football into the Premier League. Rags to riches is a familiar tale now.
What you might not realise is that Torbay native Watkins isn’t the only player who has enjoyed this upward curve with West Country connections. Rickie Lambert, a native of Merseyside, was a steal for Bristol Rovers in the lower leagues at £200,000 in the summer of 2006 before moving on to Southampton three years later for more than five times profit.
Danny Ings enjoyed a spell at Dorchester Town before establishing himself at Bournemouth and, via a spell up north with Burnley, went on to play for Liverpool like Lambert. Erstwhile Turf Moor strike partner Charlie Austin had a previously prolific spell with Poole Town, another non-league Dorset club before doing the business at Swindon Town, while laying bricks as a day job.
Since Austin turned professional, he has since had three Premier League spells with QPR, Southampton and West Bromwich Albion. Lambert and latterly Ings have played and scored for England.
"I said at half-time, there is nobody in the Premier League that I would want to go and lead the line when we're down to ten men, more than Ollie Watkins."— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) December 26, 2020
𝗕𝗜𝗚 praise from the boss. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/S2ISAJi0mw
These are players Watkins would do well to emulate now that he has reached the same glamorous heights. Turning 25 between Christmas and New Year, his peak is still to come, and Aston Villa will hope to be beneficiaries of that having smashed their transfer record to buy him from Brentford.
Watkins scored 26 Championship goals for the Bees to share that division’s Golden Boot with Fulham and Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. Brentford just came up short in their bid to reach the promised land, evoking previous play-off final failure during his time with Exeter.
Unlike Lambert and Ings, Watkins hasn’t gone to a team with pretensions and where qualifying for Europe is almost mandatory. Villa barely preserved their Premier League status last season after three years of battling to get back into the big time.
Early signs are that Watkins will be a handful for opposition defences. For evidence of that, see his Villa Park hat-trick in the sensational 7-2 defeat of reigning Premier League champions Liverpool.
It announced to the footballing world that Watkins had really arrived. From League Two play-off pain at Exeter to Premier League hat-trick heroics in less than three-and-a-half years. That is some journey, but Watkins is also enjoying the destination.
For the St James’ Park faithful to see one of their own get his big break and seize it was a feelgood moment. Villa pulled off a major upset there, and Premier League betting sites suggest they are in no danger of the same struggles they had last term in their second season back at this level. While still outsiders for the title at 50/1, Villa are quoted at 7/1 to get a Champions League spot and 2/1 for a Top 6 finish (odds from 888sport) – not bad for a team that barely escaped relegation last season.
This will sound overly simplistic to some, but all Watkins needs to do is score goals as he did for Brentford and at Exeter before that, and Villa will be just fine. A shortage of firepower was definitely a contributory factor in them finding Premier League life tough upon their return.
Thanks to Watkins, so long as he stays fit and keeps doing his job, Villa should not lack for goals. He is also acting as a foil for others by occupying defenders with his presence, bringing the likes of Jack Grealish and Anwar El Ghazi into play. Watkins still has a very bright future ahead of him too.