Express & Star

How former Walsall boss Dean Smith discovered England Euros hero Ollie Watkins

Villa forward Ollie Watkins entered English football folklore with his famous last-gasp winner against the Netherlands on Wednesday night.


That set-up a second successive European Championship final for the Three Lions and a first on foreign soil, as England go head-to-head with two-time winners Spain at the Olympiastadion in Berlin on Sunday evening.

Watkins has enjoyed a remarkable rise to the highest echelons of the professional game, which included a loan spell at non-league Weston-super-Mare.

And it was during his stint with the Seagulls that Dean Smith, then manager of Walsall, stumbled across his auspicious talents for the first time and plotted his upward flight to the top.

"He [Dean Smith] was the one who spotted me when I was on-loan at West-super-Mare," he said in an interview with Gaffer World.

"Even before I broke into the team at Exeter, he spotted me while he was Walsall manager. So it's all spiralled from there basically."

Smith added on Sky Sports last year: "He'd gone on loan there from Exeter and I went to watch him. I just liked his attitude, everything about him.

"He is a team player. He works really hard and he talks about how he wants the grass in front of him because he'll chase things."

A move to Bescot never transpired but his performance planted a seed in Smith's mind and his 16-goal haul during his final campaign at Exeter City in 2016-17 prompted Smith, who had since moved to Brentford, to bring him to the capital.

"He was definitely worth it," Smith continued. "Everyone knows the process Brentford goes through to get players.

"We tried to get him the year before but it took a while but he is blossoming."

Watkins scored 49 times in 143 outings for Brentford, including 26 goals in 2019/20 as they narrowly missed out on promotion into Championship play-off final.

He was reunited with Smith at Villa in 2020 as he capped a remarkable journey by finally landing in the Premier League.

The 28-year-old has gone onto hit double figures in each of his four Premier League seasons and has reached new heights altogether under Villa boss Unai Emery.

His 26 goals were critical to Villa achieving UEFA Champions League qualification but Watkins is forever grateful for the role Smith played in his journey.

In a touching interview between the pair on Sky Sports, Watkins said: "I always text him and say that I owe it to him because I wouldn't have been at Brentford or Villa if it wasn't for him showing faith in me.

"So even though he isn't at the club anymore (at Villa), we still have a good relationship and we still keep in contact."