Ollie Watkins’ journey – from a "horrible" last-minute leveller against Portsmouth eight years ago to new-found status as national hero

Ollie Watkins celebrates his 90th minute equaliser for Exeter against Pompey in March  2016, his first ever league goal. Picture: Joe PeplerOllie Watkins celebrates his 90th minute equaliser for Exeter against Pompey in March  2016, his first ever league goal. Picture: Joe Pepler
Ollie Watkins celebrates his 90th minute equaliser for Exeter against Pompey in March 2016, his first ever league goal. Picture: Joe Pepler
It’s March 2016 and the Pompey fans shoehorned into the small terrace behind the goal in east Devon probably can’t believe it. Right in front of their eyes, and on only his fifth League Two start, a 20-year-old striker rescues a point for Exeter City in the 90th minute.

In his match report for The News, Neil Allen said the player “cut in from the left and wriggled through a number of tackles to squeeze home the leveller.”

Pompey boss Paul Cook, who had seen his side take the lead just after the half-hour mark thanks to a Conor Chaplin strike, described the youngster’s equaliser as “a little bit of a horrible goal, a little bit of a scuff.”

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Nonetheless, it was the fourth goal Cook’s Blues had conceded on 90 minutes or later in seven matches. Such late defensive frailty wasn’t uncommon either, Carlisle and Stevenage having both equalised in stoppage-time earlier in the season.

Ollie Watkins in action for Exeter against Christian Burgess at Fratton Park in January 2017. Picture: Joe Pepler/Digital South.Ollie Watkins in action for Exeter against Christian Burgess at Fratton Park in January 2017. Picture: Joe Pepler/Digital South.
Ollie Watkins in action for Exeter against Christian Burgess at Fratton Park in January 2017. Picture: Joe Pepler/Digital South.

A few weeks later, at the same St James’ Park ground, the same player who had grabbed the “horrible” equaliser, nets an 80th minute leveller against arch rivals Plymouth; then, again in the 90th minute, he waltzes his way past a couple of challenges before rifling a 25-yarder into the top corner. That one wasn’t a ‘scuff”, far from it.

Anyway, it’s fair to say Ollie Watkins still enjoys making a very late impact!

Cards on the table time, I’m a lifelong Exeter supporter so I know his back story, the loan at Weston-super-Mare in 2014 and all that.

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And he’s certainly come a long way, has Ollie, he really has, from the day he made his debut in front of the live TV cameras. And, in true good footballing fashion, I was there.

From the Loop Meadow, in fact, all the way to the Premier League and into the England senior squad, and now his new role as national hero.

The Loop Meadow? Surely you know it? Home of Didcot Town FC, where in November 2015 I was stood in the away terrace for an FA Cup first round tie shown live on BT Sport on a Sunday afternoon.

Because we’re Exeter City, because we’d lost to one eighth tier club the previous season (Warrington), no doubt the TV execs thought they’d pick another banana skin tie for us to hilariously slip up on.

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But no, not this time, not when we were 3-0 up and able to introduce a 19-year-old off the bench, for only the sixth time in his career, in the 80th minute.

That 19-year-old was Watkins. I’d never seen him in the flesh before, I knew little about him. I wasn’t alone in that.

Eight and half years on from the Loop Meadow, there he was again, live on TV and again coming on as a sub. But this time Ollie Watkins was replacing England captain Harry Kane in a major tournament game against Denmark delicately poised, rather than coming on for Tom Nichols against a bunch of part-timers with the match already won.

Almost three weeks later, there he is again, introduced around the 80th minute once more - again for Kane, and this time in the semi-final of the European Championship.This isn’t Didcot away, the stakes are slightly higher.

You know the rest.

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I wonder how many of the Pompey fans that stood behind Ryan Fulton’s goal in March 2016, those who were now faced with a three-hour plus trek home on a Tuesday after conceding in the last minute, remember Watkins’ close-range effort that night.

He’s gone on to net 137 more league goals, 59 of them in 146 Premier League outings for Aston Villa.

He scored a hat-trick in a remarkable 7-2 win against Liverpool in only his third top flight game, in September 2020.

Now he’s just gone and put himself alongside David Platt (v Belgium, 1990), Paul Gascoigne (v Scotland, 1996), Michael Owen (v Argentina, 1998), David Beckham (v Greece, 2001) and Jude Bellingham (v Slovakia, 2024) as the scorer of one of the top six England goals in my lifetime.

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For all Grecians fans, it has been a proud moment to see ‘one of our own’ on such a huge stage, and that was before last night. After all, how many other League One clubs - owned by the supporters as well, lest we forget - have produced an England player at these Euros? Or any Euros, come to think of it.

Exeter is not a club that buys star players, we produce our own (Watkins, Ethan Ampadu, Matt Grimes) and then sell them for big money. That’s our position in the football food chain. It’s how we survive, and we’re pretty good at it.

Did I think I was watching a future international player at The Loop back in November 2015? No, of course not. But after THAT goal against Plymouth, I knew we wouldn’t keep him for too long. Just another season, as it turned out.

His star shone all too briefly for my club, but I take comfort from the fact we helped Ollie Watkins to where he is now, the man who sent the country into rapture last night.

Our new national hero, made in Devon.

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