'I just wanted to soak it all in': From non-league football to England's hero – the rise of Ollie Watkins

By John Mercury July 11, 2024

These are the nights Ollie Watkins never imagined were possible.

Scoring in a tournament for England? That seemed so far out of reach when he was playing club football in the sixth tier – and still out of the Premier League just four years ago.

Now finally at 28, here he was – wearing the Three Lions shirt with tens of millions watching worldwide.

And handed his opportunity with nine minutes to go of the semi-final – replacing the team’s all-time top-scorer Harry Kane – and seizing it in spectacular fashion.

With the dread of extra time looming, the striker struck to see off the Netherlands.

Just the type of finish Aston Villa fans have been enjoying all season. Now doing it for his country on the grandest of stages.

“When you score, the emotions that come through your body,” he said after the 2-1 win. “But this is just a different feeling.

“It was slow motion when I was running over to the boys and celebrating, and … I don’t want to get off the pitch at the end because I just wanted to soak it all in because it doesn’t happen often, obviously.”

Watkins fires home to break Dutch hearts Pic: AP
Image:
Watkins fires home to break Dutch hearts Pic: AP

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England fans mob sports correspondent Rob Harris

Never before have England’s men reached a final overseas.

Although this is the second consecutive Euros final for Gareth Southgate’s side, the Three Lions had not even reached a final since 1966 before then.

Now for Watkins, it’s onto one of the biggest games in world football – a European Championship final on Sunday against Spain in Berlin.

The former Weston-super-Mare, Exeter City and Brentford striker said: “I never thought I’d be playing in the Euros for England. Obviously you can dream, but …I’m a realist. I just take it day by day, one step at a time.”

It’s why at this point, inside the Dortmund stadium, he was reflecting on that struggle to even break back into the professional ranks a decade ago when Exeter sent the teenager out on loan to non-league.

“I put in a lot of hard work to get to this point,” he said. “It’s not just this season. It’s cumulative and I’ve worked hard to get to this point and I’m going to enjoy every moment.”

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‘Spain doesn’t know what’s coming’

Watkins had an outstanding season for Aston Villa Pic: AP
Image:
Watkins had an outstanding season for Aston Villa Pic: AP

And Southgate had no doubts about bringing Watkins on to try to conjure a winner – confounding those who questioned his substitutions and timings of them.

The manager said: “Ollie Watkins has trained like that every day and he’s been ready for his moment, no matter how frustrated he might have been at not playing.

“He’s been ready and the whole group have been. And the way that they’ve formed, it’s a group with a lot of new players in it and half of them had never been to a tournament.

“But they’ve bonded so well and they’ve all got each other’s back.”

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‘England’s performance was exceptional’

Watkins was patient – having only featured in 20 minutes of one of the previous five games here in Germany.

“To be honest, recently I’ve obviously got a little bit frustrated,” he said.

“I don’t like to be on the bench. I’ve had the best season of my career, and I’ve had a few messages from my friends just saying, ‘be patient, you’re going to get an opportunity’ and they feel like I’ve got a big part to play in the tournament.

“The amount of people that have messaged me today saying I’m going to score tonight when I come on, this is ridiculous. And obviously they’ve put it out into the universe.

“So hopefully they can do the same for the final or even give me the lottery numbers.”

Watkins will already feel like he’s won the Lottery – putting England in a final.

He’ll always have Dortmund. But he’ll be hoping Berlin brings more – silverware to end the Three Lions’ years of hurt since ’66.

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