Still just 24 years old, is Ollie Watkins the best striker in the Sky Bet Championship?
What makes Ollie Watkins so special? That’s easy, goals. It is his natural ability to find the net that has won him so many admirers in recent years.
Before the current postponement of English football, Ollie Watkins was busy lighting up the Sky Bet Championship. The sharp-shooter has fired Brentford into the Play-Off places this season, with 22 goals so far - a tally only bettered by Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic (23).
Pace, power and a natural finishing ability, Watkins is just as happy running at defenders as he is heading home a cross from close range. His ability to lead the line, score from range or find pockets of space in the penalty box to get his shot away creates uncertainty for opposition defences, and are just a few of reasons the striker has made the headlines this season.
A lower-division beginning with a Premier League dream, Watkins is one of many raised in the EFL tipped to reach the top. We take a look at the 24-year-old's flourishing career and his rise from League Two to the top of the Championship.
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 .
Having previously failed a trial with the club at the age of nine in 2003, Torquay-born Watkins joined the Grecians’ academy at under-11 level, progressing through the ranks to sign a scholarship. Signs of his potential were evident as the teenager netted 30 goals for the under-18 team in its 2013/14 Youth Alliance South West Conference-winning season.
Unsurprisingly, a two-year professional contract followed and his debut wasn’t far behind either as the youngster came on as a substitute for the final Sky Bet League Two match of the 2013/14 season.
The following season, Watkins was frequently named as a substitute by Paul Tisdale, but despite scoring his first senior goal in an EFL Trophy fixture, he made just three appearances before departing on loan to Weston-super-Mare for the remainder of the campaign.
Nineteen years of age at the time, Watkins impressed for the Conference South side, scoring 10 goals in 25 appearances during his loan spell.
After failing to be named in the first-team squad during the opening two months of the 2015/16 season, Watkins made the substitutes' bench in October 2015, followed by his first appearance of the season later that month. In December, he made his first start for the club and a first goal of the season followed shortly after in an FA Cup Round Two victory over Port Vale.
He had to remain patient, but by March 2016 Watkins had finally broken into the starting line-up. 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, it seems, Watkins never looked back.
His goalscoring run extended into April as he finished the season with ten goals in 22 appearances overall - two of which he’s unlikely to forget, coming in the Devon derby against Plymouth Argyle - the second of which was subsequently voted as the club’s Goal of the Season.
His performances in the final two months of the 2015/16 season saw him enter the following campaign an established member of the first team and it would be the 2016/17 season that put him in the sights of 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 (including a first professional hat-trick) saw him pick up the EFL Young Player of the Season Award at the 2017 EFL Awards ceremony.
Across three seasons, Watkins had racked up 26 goals for Exeter, which was enough for Brentford to make their move in the summer of 2017.
Ten goals in his first two seasons in West London saw him make an important contribution to Brentford’s frontline, but it will be the 2019/20 season that he’ll be remembered for the most, having already more than doubled that tally with 10 games still remaining.
Newly introduced tactics from manager Thomas Frank, resulting in a slight change of position for Watkins, have seen the 24-year-old thrive in his new centre-forward role.
A clinical finisher able to score with his head and his feet, Watkins has turned into a proper no.9. In fact, just three players across the EFL have found the net more often than the Bees marksman in league action in 2019/20, with his goals giving Brentford a very realistic chance of promotion.
He was recently named the EFL Player of the Year at the London Football Awards in recognition of his fine season to date, but things haven't always been rosy for the youngster, and his journey to where he is today has been both challenging and unexpected.
Earlier this season, on a special edition of the Official EFL Podcast, former Exeter City manager Paul Tisdale told the story of the defining moment that changed Watkins’ career.
Many may find this hard to believe, but the striker wasn’t always necessarily on the path to success. A player who apparently ‘hit a wall’ when turning professional, Tisdale identified a huge change in mindset as the key to Watkins’ changed fortunes.
In a recent interview with Sky Sports as part of their ‘At home with’ series, Watkins himself also admitted that he didn’t have the easiest journey, putting the challenges down to lack of hard work.
“Coming through as a young lad, I felt like I was a first-team player even though I wasn’t and I think a lot of young lads get caught up in that,” he said.
"You train with the first team but you’re not a first-team player until you’ve played 50 games or so. I thought after making a few substitute appearances that I’d made it when, really, I hadn’t.
“I was always confident in my ability, so I backed myself but I didn’t do the hard work.
“I was only good on the ball, I was probably a liability off the ball and I just wanted to stand out on the wing and beat people and try to create things instead of actually getting stuck in. That’s where I got utilised a lot at Exeter; I was playing left-back, centre-mid, I probably played every position except centre-back and goalkeeper. I just got thrown into the mix and Paul Tisdale challenged me, saying not to complicate my game, just run around, tackle, head it and there was no real pressure on me.
“It was kind of like Sunday league, I was able to go out and express myself.”
An out-and-out striker these days, Watkins does his talking on the pitch and his exceptional form has been invaluable to Brentford this season. With 22 goals to his name, one thing's for sure - he certainly knows where the back of the net is.
You can watch all of Ollie Watkins' goals for Brentford this season here: