It was a phone call that Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins didn’t want to make.
“I got a WhatsApp message from our club secretary, Sharon Barnhurst, asking me to give her a ring,” he recalled.
“Two days prior to that, I’d spoken to her because she said, ‘I’m sorry, but you’ve received a club fine’ – it was just for a couple of small issues at the training ground.
“Obviously, I thought it was about that again. Anyway, I got through to her and said, ‘Hi Sharon, you’re chasing me for this money, aren’t you?’.
“And she said, ‘No – I’ve got better news for you, you’ve been called up to the England squad’.”
It’s a fresh chapter in the fairytale for the 25-year-old striker. From the footballing not-so-hotspot of Devon to the national ranks via a non-league loan and a double-quick rise through the divisions, starting at Exeter City.
One £33million move from Brentford and 10 Premier League goals later, Watkins has been given a Three Lions call-up.
He added: “I honestly couldn’t believe it. I had to sit down with the shock.
“My girlfriend was on a work call, so I couldn’t tell her until she had finished.
“After I’d told her and she went back to work, I had to sit there, on my own, for two hours not being able to tell a soul. There was an embargo on the news. I couldn’t even ring my mum – because she probably would have told every Tom, Dick and Harry out there.
“I had no signal on my phone, anyway, I had to walk around the place trying to find 3G.
“I couldn’t get hold of my dad, either.
“He’s a carpenter – he was on site. Eventually, I rang him and all I could hear was tools going off in the background.
“It was a nightmare.
“When I eventually got through he had already been told by his work colleagues, which was a shame. But when I got some coverage my phone was pinging constantly.”
There are few tales in football as uplifting as those which show that hard work and dedication, when applied to some talent, can pay off.
It’s been a long and winding road for Watkins.
All the way from his home town of Newton Abbot then up through the Exeter City ranks from the Under-11s on, having been rejected by the club at nine.
Watkins wanted me to name-check his best pals, one of whom, Matt Jay is banging in the goals for the Grecians in League Two. Hello then, to ‘Chis’ and ‘Connor’.
But it was only when Watkins went out on loan from Exeter to non-league Weston-super-Mare, that he realised the tests that lay ahead.
He said: “Going to Weston opened my eyes. There was a lot of physical contact. I was used to youth-team games and reserve-team games.
Where does Ollie Watkins rank among England’s best strikers? Have your say in the comments.
“Non-league helped me to develop a lot. There were older players, perhaps not as fit or as quick as me but able to use ways to stop me with the odd niggle here and there.
“Or they’d just foul me if I went past them.
“It was completely different to reserve-team football.
“I was always a skinny kid and I wanted to be more powerful and be holding my own, so I started to invest in myself then. Going to the gym.
“I’ve always been a lucky person. I’ve thought ‘Why me?’ – but I think I’ve worked hard and overcome any obstacles.
“Even if I’ve had the best game possible, nothing is ever perfect. I’m still looking for perfection – I know that’s not real, but it keeps me pushing for more.
“When I join up with the England lads, I’m just going to take it in my stride, enjoy the whole camp, and live each day like it’s the last. I’m going to give it my all, and whatever happens, happens.”
And what about that club fine? “I’m hoping I can swerve it,” Watkins added.
“Then again, knowing Sharon, I won’t be able to.”
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