“I’m just an average lad really,” says hot-shot forward Ollie Watkins in his first interview since joining the ranks of ambitious Championship outfit Brentford from boyhood club Exeter City last month.
Yet not many 21-year-olds have been crowned the English Football League’s young player of the year and are rated one of the most exciting talents outside of the top flight.
That is the status Watkins holds after his 16 goals and 13 assists fired Exeter to the League Two play-off final in May and convinced Bees boss Dean Smith to part with a reported £1.8m to land his signature.
While the Championship remains uncharted territory for the precocious attacker, if similarities are anything to go by then Watkins is on an upward trajectory and Brentford have made a shrewd investment.
“I’ve been compared to Dele Alli quite a lot,” Watkins tells City A.M. “When I play in the No10 position I feel like I can bring goals to the team, dribble and create. He’s a very good player to be compared to.
“I’m not sure I’m the Football League’s Dele Alli but that’s who I have been compared to in the past. I’m just Ollie Watkins at the end of the day. But if I keep improving you never know.”
The Newton Abbot-born player bagged his first goal for Brentford during a 3-2 friendly win over MK Dons a matter of days after sealing his move – the perfect way to ingratiate himself with new team-mates.
“If you get bought you can’t just go straight into the changing room and start dishing out banter. You have to earn the right to play, no matter what fee it is, work hard and earn respect,” he adds.
“I hope I’m earning respect each day because I’m working hard and showing the other players what I can do. It’s a new start for me and I like being out of my comfort zone because it tests you. I’ve taken a step up but I felt like I was ready for it.”
The glitz and glamour of modern football can often mask the person behind the player. For someone like Watkins, who joined Exeter’s academy a decade ago at under-11 level, the first major transfer of a career can bring stark realities.
“It’s a big change. I’ve spent a bit of time in London previously; I have family here. But at first it was daunting moving up and living on my own. I’ve got to grips with it now, though, and I’m really enjoying it,” he says.
Taking on Terry
Of the many challenges facing Watkins this season, his eyes sparkle at the mention of tussling as equals with former England skipper and new Aston Villa centre-half John Terry, something scarcely believable not so long ago.
“I’m looking forward to it. It will be an experience, he’s a great defender, but he’s not going to have a great game every game. I back my ability to do something up against him,” said Watkins.
Already described by Smith as “a hell of a player”, Watkins’ down to earth yet self-assured demeanour is reflected in his thoughts about Brentford’s prospects this term.
The Bees secured a third successive top-10 finish last season, ending proceedings 16 points adrift of London rivals Fulham, who occupied the final play-off slot. Watkins is bullish about his new side bridging that gap.
“Promotion is the No1 target. From what I’ve seen here that’s achievable and we have to believe,” he added. “There are some big teams in the Championship but that’s the case every year.
“Everyone always goes ‘oh this year is going to be hard’ but no year is going to be easy. You can’t fear any teams. Anything can happen and hopefully we’re going into a successful year. I can’t wait for it to start.”
The big kick-off
Brentford will get their first opportunity to showcase their promotion credentials when they play Sheffield United, fresh from League One, at Bramall Lane on Saturday.
The clash is set provide Watkins with his first taste of action at this level, but whatever plaudits may be thrown in his direction in the coming months, he is determined to remain grounded and be that ‘average lad’.
“I’m here to work, develop my game and bring something to the team,” he added. “Ultimately, I just want to help my family and friends as much as possible and try to make them happy.”