Watkins’ meteoric rise provides timely reminder of football pyramid’s importance

Ollie Watkins has taken just six years to go from saving seaside small fry Weston-super-Mare from relegation to hat-trick hero against the Premier League champions.

After Aston Villa’s astonishing seven-goal romp against Liverpool on Sunday, Ryan Northmore – Watkins’ first manager at senior level – celebrated another compelling case for the preservation of English football’s arteries.

When Villa’s £28million striker was a model for designer label Ted Baker fashions, he would have gone to the ends of the earth to collect the match ball against Liverpool.

Now Watkins, 24, must be knocking on England’s door after beginning his career in front of 400 fans at a struggling club on the Somerset coast – where he knuckled down as an 18-year-old instead of strutting around with “stars in his eyes”.

Northmore, now an academy development coach at Southampton, is proud of the 18-year-old kid who arrived at Weston-super-Mare as a raw prospect on loan from Exeter City.

And with football struggling to cope financially with the ravages of Covid-19, Northmore added his voice to the chorus line warning that feeder clubs must not be left to wither on the vine – with rough diamonds like Watkins going to waste.

He said: “English football’s pyramid is unique and I do feel that if we leave the base to crumble it will have a detrimental effect on teams at the top.

“Before the likes of Ollie, Jamie Vardy and Rickie Lambert made it to the Premier League, there were success stories going back to Ian Wright being picked up from Greenwich Borough to remind us there is still fantastic value lower down the pyramid if you know where to look.

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“Sometimes, when League clubs send a player on loan outside the top four divisions, they give the impression that they have come down to a lower level to do you a favour, their attitude is questionable and it’s not a good fit.

“But Ollie had that hunger to succeed because Weston-super-Mare was his first taste of senior football and he wanted to prove he could handle life outside the bubble of a professional League club.

“We were seven points adrift at the bottom of what is now National League South when he joined us in November 2014.

“He made such a good impression that we became the division’s form horses for the next three months and we were virtually safe by the following February.

“That wasn’t all down to Ollie but he scored 10 goals in 25 games for us – and for an 18-year-old lad being tested in a more physically robust environment for the first time, that speaks volumes for his application.”

Watkins’ finishing against Liverpool was sublime, and Northmore was gratified that his loan star’s exemplary attitude is now reaping rewards at the top table.

The Seagulls’ former head coach said: “More than anything, Ollie didn’t come to us with stars in his eyes about wanting to play in the Premier League. His mindset was about looking too far into the future – his approach was always along the lines of, ‘What have I got to do today?’

“That was a big factor in his ability to handle the physical challenge of playing against adults every week. There will be a lot of people at Weston-super-Mare who will be absolutely thrilled for him because he has worked hard for his success.”

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