Ollie Watkins exclusive: Aston Villa forward on non-league, perfectionism and the need for physicality

Watkins, the most expensive player to be signed from the Championship, talks to Sky Sports about how his progress through the leagues has moulded him; Watch Southampton vs Aston Villa live on Sky Sports Premier League from 7.45pm on Saturday Night Football; kick-off 8pm.

Ollie Watkins Aston Villa exclusive

"Imagine if I'd scored five against Liverpool…"

That's Ollie Watkins all over.

His perfect hat-trick in Aston Villa's 7-2 win over Liverpool in October - left foot, right foot, head - was good, but not quite good enough by his standards.

In his post-match interview he referenced two missed chances, and nearly four months on they linger.

"I still think about those two chances now. Imagine if I'd scored five goals against Liverpool? That would have been unbelievable. That's me as a person."

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In October, Watkins became the first player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool in a decade

In case you hadn't noticed, Watkins is a perfectionist. He speaks to Sky Sports before training, where he will keep goalkeeper Jed Steer out for 30-45 minutes afterwards for finishing drills.

"This is no disrespect to the youth keepers, but I try to get a first-team keeper, Premier League quality, so come the match day it's more realistic.

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"I look at clips of defenders, if they are aggressive or not, what they are good at, what they are bad at, and try to use that to my advantage. So going into the game I'll know what they do in certain scenarios."

The 25-year-old moved from Brentford to Villa in the summer for a fee that could total £33m, just three years after playing in League Two with Exeter, and five years after a coming-of-age loan at Weston Super Mare in the sixth tier.

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Watkins has been thrown into Premier League football, physically and mentally, playing every minute for Villa this season.

That loan at Weston, where Villa boss Dean Smith first spotted Watkins before signing him for Brentford in 2017, was a career growth spurt.

"I'm not sure how the manager spotted me, but he said he first saw me at Weston Super Mare. I never knew that until he signed me at Brentford.

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The best of Watkins' final season at Brentford, where he scored 26 goals

"To be honest, it made me think: 'I don't want to come back here, so I need to make sure I work hard, and aim to be playing at a higher level, and try to be successful in my career.'

"And that is in no way disrespectful to non-league, but it gives you the determination to push on, and motivates you."

Watkins has scored eight in 18 appearances, and though he'll admit he has missed big chances, he impacts Villa's game massively whether on the scoresheet or not. His physicality - clever, not unruly - surprises many, and he embodies the requirements from a modern-day striker with his tireless running off the ball.

As far as Premier League forwards go only Sadio Mane has won more duels than Watkins this season, and there's no waiting around for the ball to drop - he has covered more distance and made more sprints than any Villa player.

"I think throughout my whole career I've not been that aggressive person. Sometimes I would come off the pitch and my Dad, who isn't into football that much, would say: 'You weren't that aggressive!'

"I was thinking: 'I don't need to throw myself about,' but it's about being clever. I try to use my body to my advantage now, and it's something I developed.

"As soon as I go on the pitch, the number one thing should be to work hard, and don't leave anything out on the pitch. I feel that's what I do to help.

"Goals and assists are a bonus, so I just try and run as much as I can, and bring something else to the team.

Ollie Watkins wheels away from goal after his opener
Image: Watkins has played every minute in the Premier League for Villa this season

"I think people who watch football closely will see if I am taking two defenders away, it frees up space for other people. I try to do that."

Having originally been rejected as a nine-year-old by Exeter, his local club, Watkins worked his way back through the ranks before getting a pro deal in 2014. But more comebacks were needed. After that loan at Weston in 2014/15, Watkins was the 24th member of Exeter's 24-man squad for a pre-season tour in Scotland, edging in due to an injury at left-back.

It made me think: 'I don't want to come back here, so I need to make sure I work hard, and aim to be playing at a higher level, and try to be successful in my career.'
Watkins on his non-league stint

That tour didn't go according to plan, so then-Exeter boss Paul Tisdale sat down with Watkins a few weeks later to regroup. Tisdale's advice changed Watkins' thinking about how forwards are judged.

Tisdale said on the Official EFL podcast last year: "I told Ollie: '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."

Watkins remembers his time at Exeter fondly, particularly the odd-jobs younger players had around the ground and training facility.

Ollie Watkins during his time at Exeter
Image: Watkins during his time at Exeter under manager Paul Tisdale

"I definitely look back and remember it as being fun, actually. Every individual player had their own jobs, so it was banter. If someone was sweeping the veranda, I'd go and throw more mud on it, so he has to sweep it again. It was a good laugh.

"But it's different now, the youth team boys don't have jobs like that, and the facilities here… I walk past the Academy pitches and think: 'Wow, I wish had pitches to play on when I was younger!'"

From playing on boggy pitches in the Conference South to the Premier League in five years must come as a cultural shock. Watkins is clearly level-headed, but admits some aspects of this level are eye-opening.

When seeing Villa Park for the first time upon signing, Watkins' mother wanted to feel the grass with her bare feet. His older brother mimicked a celebration in front of the Holte End. He stood speechless.

Watkins in front of the Holte End after signing for Villa
Image: Watkins in front of the Holte End after signing for Villa

"When I saw the stadium, I was taken back. I was just speechless the whole time, I hardly said anything to my family, I was walking around smiling and trying to embrace it all.

"And flying away to Southampton, that's different, I've never been on a private jet, so flying away to a game is different. We never did that in the Championship."

He's the most expensive player to be signed from the Championship, but far from being framed as a risk, Watkins brings a priceless, real-life football experience with him.

"I don't see it as a risk. I feel like with my mentality, I would never let it be that way, I'd never be comfortable, and too cautious that people think I'm a flop. I would never let that happen, so I keep working hard and try and prove them wrong."

Ollie Watkins celebrates his opening goal with team-mates Ross Barkley and Bertrand Traore
Image: Having survived by the skin of their teeth last season, few would have expected Villa to have European ambitions

Villa turn the bend of this Premier League season with a trip to Southampton, live on Sky Sports on Saturday Night Football. Having survived by the skin of their teeth last season, few would have expected Villa to impress to this extent. Has expectation risen?

"Yeah, I think so. I think more from ourselves. We started the season so well, got off to a good start, so each game you win and creep up the table, people expect more from you.

"And we expect more from ourselves, we believe in ourselves, and we realise that top eight is achievable.

I don't see it as a risk. I feel like with my mentality, I would never let it be that way, I'd never be comfortable, and too cautious that people think I'm a flop. I would never let that happen.
Watkins on being most expensive Championship player

"It's really positive, since day one. It has all been positive. Everyone said when I went in that this would be a more successful season, everyone was confident, but it is one thing saying it and another thing doing it. Everyone is enjoying it, and I still think there is more from us in the second half of the season."

The air around Villa is light-hearted and optimistic, a far cry from this time five years ago, where fans felt toxicity inside a crumbling club preparing only for relegation.

Now the dressing room is bouncing.

"John McGinn is the main character, and Jack Grealish. Ginny is always doing something stupid, but you've got to have people like that around the changing room, he's a great lad, and an even better player.

"I think it helps the morale. There's always a laugh and a joke. It's a great feeling around the camp."

Both club and player have progressed immensely. Villa are in a strong place and building but progress in football is never linear. They may never get a better chance in the coming years to qualify for European competition.

For Watkins, despite being that perfectionist, personal targets aren't pre-occupying his thoughts.

"I'm about both targets and the journey. I haven't set a target this year, but every striker wants to score 20 Premier League goals and play for England, but they're a given. I just take it as it comes."

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