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England’s Ollie Watkins: ‘I used to shop in Sainsbury’s … then I came to Aston Villa and I couldn’t’

Ollie Watkins is the man of the moment: seven goals and four assists this season in a free-flowing Aston Villa side, including a recent hat-trick against Brighton in front of Gareth Southgate, meant it wasn’t a surprise when he was called up to play for England last week, 18 months after his last cap.

Except that three weeks ago, he wasn’t the man at all. He still hadn’t scored in the Premier League. He was struggling to take chances and he was getting some heat, which is why he celebrated his first league goal of the season, against Chelsea in late September, with his fingers in his ears. Zoom out and his form has been exceptional for a year, but criticism is never far away.

“I think all fans are quite fickle,” Watkins says. “If you go a few games without a goal, people will be saying, ‘he’s on a drought, he can’t score’. Then I score four goals in two games and everyone kind of loves you.”

Watkins is sitting in a quiet room at St George’s Park, at ease with his surroundings at England’s headquarters. He is 27 and has just signed a new long-term contract with Villa. After a sporadic international career to date, he seems ready to add a lot more to his seven England caps, and is striving to make a first major tournament at Euro 2024 in Germany next summer.

But getting there isn’t necessarily a given. Since Unai Emery took charge of Villa 12 months ago, no English player has recorded more than Watkins’ 25 Premier League goal involvements, yet he has not played for his country all year. “I think I go under the radar, maybe,” he concludes. “I don’t know if I’m not talked about enough, profile-wise.”

Watkins is up against a truism of international football, certainly when it comes to England, that established names playing for renowned clubs find it a little easier to get in the team. It only takes a glance at the current squad to see that. And when there is a manager at the helm who has built up loyalties to long-serving players, they can be hard to dislodge.

I’m content with where I am. The fame, the followers on Instagram – if it does come, it does. If it doesn’t, I’m not bothered really

Ollie Watkins

So perhaps players like Watkins need to do something special, like his role in thrashing Brighton, to get the same recognition as more experienced internationals who can rely on Southgate’s faith through rocky form. “I know I need to be scoring as much as them, if not more, to get into the team,” he says of his fellow strikers.

He’s also conscious that his name does not carry the cachet of other England players. This is a curse of the modern game, a place where sporting talent meets celebrity hype, where players are scrutinised for what they do off the pitch as much as on it. It is a world Watkins has largely shunned, perhaps to his detriment. He doesn’t have Twitter, and his 374,000 followers on Instagram are dwarfed by teammates like Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, who have online audiences of 16 million.

A commercial guru at his agency has encouraged Watkins to use social media, to raise his status a little, but it doesn’t come naturally. “I wouldn’t want to put anything out there that’s not authentic and not myself,” he says. “You see how much money you can make on Instagram. But my saying has always been just be good at football and the rest will take care of itself. If I’m scoring 30 goals a year and someone wants to do a sponsorship deal with me then they are going to want to do it because I’m doing well on the pitch.

“I’m content with where I am. The fame, the followers on Instagram – if it does come, it does. If it doesn’t, I’m not bothered really.”

Being a Premier League striker at a historic club still brings its fair share of attention, something Watkins admits he doesn’t revel in. Life was different playing in the Championship for Brentford.

“I used to just go and shop in Sainsbury’s, normal, and I came to try and do it at Villa and I couldn’t,” he laughs. “I had my earphones in and people took two looks and went, ‘Is that him?’. Once one person asks for a photo, then maybe it’s two or three, and then it’s hard to do shopping… I came home and I was fuming. I said to my missus, I’m never going out again. And since then I don’t do the shopping.”

But he appreciates living at the gentler end of the mania scale, and cites Jack Grealish as an example. “I can imagine for Jack, it’s 10 times worse. He’s on another level, he’s like a superstar.”

Watkins celebrates completing his hat-trick against Brighton in September

(AFP via Getty Images)

Out of the spotlight, Watkins has been playing some of the best football of his career. He credits his form to his demanding Spanish manager, who has given him direction to be a pure goalscorer after his struggles under Emery’s predecessor, Steven Gerrard. “It wasn’t down to him but I was just falling into a rut. I feel like I’ve gone on to a different path and really focused on being a striker. Before I’d be trying to cross it and then get on the end of my own cross and head it. Now I’m focused on being the main man.”

This is his fourth season at Villa and he is producing his highest numbers so far. His expected goals and actual goals per 90 minutes are up on previous seasons, he is shooting a yard closer to goal, on average, and he is taking more than three shots per game under Emery, compared to only two under Gerrard.

Those numbers are translating into eye-catching performances. He has set a target of 20 goals this season and it is a sign of his form over the past year that it almost sounds unambitious. But if he keeps delivering for Emery on the pitch, slowly but surely, the recognition will come his way.

“I’m confident I’m gonna get to that number, and then I think people start talking and you get put into a bracket of the top players. I’ve got to where I am today from doing everything I believe in – the social media element is not my No 1 priority at the end of the day, football is – so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.”


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