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The moment that changed Ollie Watkins' career

30 July 2020

Nineteen years of age, struggling for confidence and left out of Exeter City's 24-man pre-season tour squad, things haven't always been rosy for Brentford striker Ollie Watkins.

Only Fulham's Aleksandar Mitrovic found the net more often than the Bees marksman in regular league action this season, with his goals giving Brentford a very realistic chance of playing Premier League football next season and making him one of the Championship's most sought-after players.

Now 24 years old, Watkins moved to Griffin Park from Exeter's St James Park in 2017, having come up through the ranks with the Grecians from an early age. But, as his former manager Paul Tisdale has explained, the forward wasn't always necessarily on a path to success.

Speaking in a special episode of the Official EFL Podcast earlier this season, Tisdale says a change in mindset for Watkins in turn changed the striker's fortunes.

Below, in his own words, the former Exeter and MK Dons boss tells the story of the moment which turned things around for someone who is now one of the EFL's star players.

“I prefer managing to playing, without a doubt. It’s the control; as a player, you don’t have control of your life of the moment. Being a player, if I think about what I really enjoyed, there are moments where you just play on instinct and that happened to me a few times in my career.

"I can think back to a game where I just played, but would have to go back to the age of 11 or 12 to remember enjoying playing football, and it’s a conversation I have with a lot of players when they’re having a problem with their confidence. You have to break it down – how did you feel when you were 10 years old and playing football? You just wanted to play and win, because then you’d get another game next week. Football is the most perfect and simple game, that’s why it’s the global sport, but it can get confused with development, strategy and positioning. My first step is to take them back to when they played with freedom and instinct.

“I always want a balance where you’ve created a comprehensive and organised structure which becomes second nature so that you can play with that freedom. One player I remember, and who won’t mind me saying this, is Ollie Watkins. He came through and happened to be there for my whole time at Exeter; 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; when the goalkeeper got it, he was thinking ‘I might head this, I’ll call for it’. It wasn’t about what happened technically, it was about how he thought, and he played so well.

"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.

"He’s doing superbly at Brentford now and it’s great to see; he’s still that same engaged player. It’s a good example of taking a player at 19 or 20 that was over-thinking everything, and turning it around."

You can listen to part one of the Paul Tisdale podcast episode in full here.

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