Exeter City manager Matt Taylor feels the career path of Ollie Watkins is the perfect example for any youngster in the club’s Academy wanting to realise their dream of becoming a top professional footballer.
Watkins got a move to the Premier League last week when he left Brentford for Aston Villa in a deal worth an initial £28 million. It came three years after he left the Grecians for the West London club having come through the club’s fruitful Academy and become a key first team player at St James Park.
It was far from a straight path for Watkins, who had his challenges along the way. Soon after signing his first professional contract, Watkins suffered a crisis in confidence and ‘hit a wall,’ according to former boss Paul Tisdale, who asked Watkins to play at left-back in a pre-season tour game in Scotland.
Having struggled to perform, an upset Watkins was at rock bottom and, prior to a reserve game against Reading, Tisdale challenged him to make three headers, three tackles, three interceptions and recover three loose balls in the first half of the game before repeating it in the second.
Tisdale says that accomplished challenge changed the way Watkins thought and he started to play with more freedom. His confidence and form picked up; he was soon in the first team and has never looked back, ultimately earning a £1.8 million move to Brentford in the summer of 2017 after some outstanding performances for the Grecians, which earned him the prestigious EFL Young Player of the Year award in 2016/17.
Taylor feels that by taking that path, and experiencing other aspects of men’s football with loan spells at local non-league clubs, players can learn things that perhaps youngsters in Academies, Under 18 or Under 23 teams at Premier League clubs wouldn’t, which can stand them in good stead for their future.
“We feel Ollie is the prime example of the right way to do it,” Taylor said. “He signed a contract when he was 16, played in the Under 18s and had a two to three year spell when he was in and around the first team.
“From 18-21, he was finding his feet, he went out on loan to Weston-super-Mare, so it wasn’t straightforward for him, but he was learning. He was developing and he built himself physically to the best possible shape he could be and then he really started influencing League Two football.
“His goals record and his performances – certainly in his last season – were outstanding and then he deserved his move and he was ready for his move. It is no surprise that when he gets that move, he is then ready for the next level, which was the Championship, and he goes on and has success at that level as well.”
City have seen too many young players leave before they have really made it at first team level. Ethan Ampadu and Ben Chrisene both broke the record as the club’s youngest ever player, but left at 16 when Chelsea and Aston Villa, respectively, came knocking. Jay Stansfield is another, joining Fulham, while there were many others before them, who ultimately fell by the wayside.
Since leaving in the summer of 2017, Ampadu has made only 19 first team appearances for Chelsea and RB Leipzig, where he was on loan last season. This year, he has been farmed out to Sheffield United, but had he stayed at Exeter, he would have made considerably more first team appearances, which is surely a better way to develop than by playing reserve team football at best.
“We want our young players to play for this football club and I have said time and time again it is heartbreaking when you lose players at 16, 17 because you don’t get the serious years to work with them and that transition into the first team – even our fans don’t get to see them,” Taylor added.
“At least our fans got to see Ollie Watkins – and they got to see the best of Ollie Watkins whilst at Exeter City – and Brentford will be able to say exactly the same for their fans and hopefully Aston Villa will be able to say the same in the Premier League.”