Dean Smith has finally got his man – the 2019-20 Championship Player of the Season, Ollie Watkins, who joins Aston Villa as the club’s record signing.
Watkins was the Championship’s joint-top scorer last season with 26 goals and will join Villa for a fee worth £28m, which could rise to £33m with add-ons.
The 24-year-old took his Championship tally to 45 goals in 132 games following his impressive goal haul that propelled Brentford into promotion contention last season. Only Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic found the net more often than the Bees marksman in regular league action.
Villa are buying a striker bang in form, with pace, power and a natural finishing ability.
Watkins is just as happy running at defenders and into channels as he is heading home a cross from inside the box. His ability to score from range, press from the front or find pockets of space in the penalty box is a scary prospect for opposition defences, and are just a few of reasons why Smith was so eager to reunite with his former striker.
“Ollie has developed into one of the most sought-after strikers in the country,” said Villa boss Smith.
“We are looking forward to seeing him show his great qualities in an Aston Villa shirt. He is a hugely determined character who has both the ability and personality to succeed at the highest level.”
Watkins’ arrival at Villa Park follows Matty Cash’s £16million move from Nottingham Forest last week – two signings that Smith was keen to wrap up before the start of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign.
After embracing a warm welcome from his familiar gaffer, Watkins revealed his delight to link up with the Villa boss this time round.
“I am so excited to join Aston Villa and to reunite with Dean Smith as my head coach,” Watkins told Villa TV.
“I want to do something special here and score some goals. It’s been a long time coming. I’m buzzing now and I can’t wait to get going.
“The fact that it’s a massive club, Dean sold it to me. I’m definitely excited to work with Dean again and I’m looking forward to getting started.”
After moving through the divisions, with firstly Exeter City and then Brentford, Watkins is confident he can make an impact in the top-flight.
“I want to hit the ground running, do something special, score some goals, work hard,” he said.
“I feel like this is the next step for me, I always want to challenge myself and get myself out of my comfort zone and I felt like this was the right time for me to move on and have a new challenge and I’m really relishing this one.”
Smith was determined to bolster his attacking options after his side clinched Premier League safety on the final day of last season. Securing the calibre of striker capable of scoring the sheer volume of goals Watkins managed in the EFL is a big coup for Smith – he’ll bring many qualities to Villa next season.
Observers routinely describe him as a natural in front of goal, but after only acclimatising to the centre-forward role last season, Watkins is versatile in a multitude of forward positions.
Villa’s new forward has previously described himself as a ‘number 10’, with a skill-set capable of contributing to both goals and assists from wide areas. Watkins’ fast developing game is based around his idol Thierry Henry.
Speaking at the London Football Awards in 2017, Watkins said: “I try to base my game on his (Henry), by driving at defenders and looking to make something happen when I get the ball.”
Adept at threatening opposing defenders on the wing or as an attacking midfielder, Watkins only took to the striker role last season.
Lower league grounding
Villa’s club record signing has for a long time been tipped by many to reach the top following a lower-division grounding in League Two.
Before his move to West London in 2017, Watkins started his career with Exeter City and spent 13 years on the Devon side’s books. The financial package paid by Villa will partly fund Exeter, whose sell-on fee if fully deserved having overseen Watkins’ early development as a teenager.
The Grecians let go of Watkins for less than £2m in 2017, as the former academy graduate moved to Brentford to progress his career.
Torquay-born Watkins joined Exeter’s renowned academy at under-11 level and progressed through the ranks to sign a scholarship, all after failing to catch the eye in a trial at the club aged nine.
Exeter were glad to welcome Watkins back to the club for good this time, when in his final U18 campaign with the south-coast club, he netted 30 times in Exeter’s 2013/14 Youth Alliance South West Conference-winning season.
Watkins was hot property and his promise was evident in academy performances. A two-year professional contract shortly followed and his debut wasn’t far behind either as the youngster came on as a substitute in the final Sky Bet League Two match of the 2013/14 season.
On the face of it, his journey has been a smooth ride taking him from the lower leagues with Exeter, all the way through to the Championship with Brentford where he has increased his goal tally and performances levels season after season.
Watkins’ route to the top has however, not been so quite straightforward.
There was a time when one of the more promising prospects in English football was struggling to convince coaches he was worth a place in lower-league reserve sides and Conference South teams.
Exeter’s 2014-15 League Two campaign was supposed to be Watkins’ breakthrough year but following just the three appearances at the start of the season, he’d depart on loan to Weston-super-Mare in December 2014.
Watkins remained on loan to the Conference South club until the end of the season. He scored ten goals in 25 appearances before returning to St James Park at the end of the season.
The youngsters’ eye-opening loan move prepared him for his first full campaign at Exeter under manager Paul Tisdale. He was frequently named as a substitute in the 2015-16 season and after scoring his first senior league goal against Portsmouth in March 2016, Watkins was afforded an extended run in the side in time for Exeter’s season finale.
He had to remain patient, but an impressive four goals in six appearances saw him win the EFL Young Player of the Month award for the first time, as well as the PFA Fans’ Player of the Month, and from there, Watkins never looked back.
Watkins finished his first full season with Exeter with ten goals in 22 appearances, though one goal in particular, he’ll remember forever. His brace against south-coast rivals Plymouth was his sixth goal in seven, and his second of the game was voted as the club’s Goal of the Season.
His performances in the final two months of the season saw him enter the following campaign as an established member of the first team and it would be the 2016/17 season that put him in the shop-window for a number of Championship clubs.
Despite Exeter’s season ending with defeat at Wembley following a 2-1 loss to Blackpool in the League Two Play-Off Final, it was a memorable one for Watkins whose 16 goals and 13 assists in an impressive 52 appearances saw him pick up the EFL Young Player of the Season Award at the 2017 EFL Awards ceremony.
Developing at Brentford
Used predominantly as a wide man during his first two years at Brentford, Watkins managed ten goals in each of his first two seasons before moving into a central role following the sale of Brentford’s Neal Maupay to Brighton.
Upon joining the ambitious Championship club, Watkins scored his first competitive goal for the Bees in their 3-1 EFL Cup first round extra time victory over AFC Wimbledon in August 2017. Two years later, he signed a new four-year contract with a one-year extension option.
Watkins went on to become a crucial part of Brentford’s formidable forward line that included Saïd Benrahma and Bryan Mbeumo, last season. Thomas Frank’s side scored the most goals in the Championship last term (80). Watkins scored twice in a game on four occasions and even managed a hat-trick of headers at Oakwell in a win over Barnsley.
Watkins’ 26 goal haul last term reaffirmed Villa’s interest to press ahead with a deal having reportedly delved into negotiations for the forward last season.
Frank trusted Watkins to lead the line for his dynamic side last season and his former boss went on record many a time for waxing lyrical about his qualities as a player.
“I normally call him the beast,” Frank told Sky Sports. “He’s a remarkable player and person. He’s so dedicated.
“He’s so dedicated to improving every single day, so he’s a coach’s dream because of course, we want to focus on little details. We’ve been working very hard on his positions and how to run in the box and the link-up play.
“Overall he’s just improved massively as a player and also as part of the leading group. He’s driving the team. Look out there how hard he works – it’s a joy to have a striker like that.
“He’s one of the hardest, if not the hardest working offensive players in the league, and he’s also the top scorer. That’s not a bad combination.”
Watkins has worked under five different managers in his career, but not many have made a more significant impact than former Exeter boss Paul Tisdale.
Realising his potential
At 19 years of age, Watkins was left out of Exeter City’s 24-man pre-season tour squad in 2014 at a time where his development at the south-coast club was in the balance.
The forward wasn’t always necessarily following the smoothest path to success. Speaking in the Official EFL Podcast last year, former boss Tisdale revealed how Watkins’ change of fortunes was all down to a psychological reset.
“He came through and happened to be there for my whole time at Exeter,” Tisdale told Sky Sports.
“He was very athletic, he had good feet and an eye for goal. He had big potential, but he hit a wall when he turned professional and spent 18 months or two years in the Reserves or on loan.
“I remember going up to Scotland for a pre-season tour; he would have been 19 at the time, and he didn’t make our touring squad. Our left-back got injured and I said ‘you need to come along as a left-back, otherwise you’ll have to stay here and train on your own’, so he came along, played a couple of games and I remember him coming off really upset. He’d been thinking so hard about everything that he couldn’t control the ball, so we sat down a month or two later and started again.
“In the next Reserve game, Reading away, I said ‘you need to make three headers, three tackles, three interceptions and recover three loose balls in the first half – that will be 12 touches’. I said ‘if you can repeat that in the second half, that’s 24 moments’, and the point was it changed the way he thought. He ticked those boxes, and he was now engaged with everything.”
It was the grounding Watkins needed to realise his potential.
“He got lots of passes, he picked the ball up and turned, everything, and it was enough to make me want to pick him for the first-team game, the derby against Plymouth.
“He played in the same position, which he hadn’t played in before that day at Reading, and he got Man of the Match as we won 2-0. Ollie was brilliant that day, and that was his moment. All of the training was there, the coaching was there, but he needed to play with freedom.”
Becoming Aston Villa’s no.9
According to reports, Villa’s hierarchy were keen to identify a couple of strikers to bolster their goal scoring ranks, especially after former record buy, Wesley suffered a season ending blow in January. Watkins was at the top of the list.
It came as no surprise to former boss Tisdale that Watkins would win the Championship Player of the Season after a prolific year as a centre-forward.
“I smile to myself now when I see him doing so well as a striker after playing on the left for a couple of years at Brentford,” he said. The reason he got his move was because we had moved him into that position. That was where his progress was made.”
Smith is also keen to target the correct profile of a player, who holds all the desirable personality traits for a player keen to develop under his watch.
Tisdale, as well as Smith, knows Watkins holds the correct temperament to kick-on in the Premier League.
“I am a big admirer of Ollie, I like him very much,” Tisdale began.
“There are so many players out there with great ability who have a bad attitude but Ollie has got everything. He has the ability and he has the perfect attitude. He has the perfect personality really.
“A football player might only touch the ball 20 times in a game so where is he moving for the rest of the game? What is he thinking? How does he visualise what is coming next?
“With Ollie, it was something very specific and something very technical in terms of his application of the game. He had to work out where he was going to fit into the game.”
Aston Villa’s business in this summer’s transfer window is not over yet, but securing Smith’s number one target is the statement of intent Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens needed to deliver. With Villa’s opening Premier League game under two weeks away, Watkins will settle into his new surroundings before making a fist of his first top-flight campaign.
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