Matt Maher: Darius Vassell’s England story can be an inspiration to Ollie Watkins

When Ollie Watkins scored against San Marino last month it brought back happy memories for Darius Vassell.

Darius Vassell equalizes with a bycicle kick
Darius Vassell equalizes with a bycicle kick

Since the Second World War, only three Villa players have achieved the feat of scoring on their England debut.

Gerry Hitchens, who scored after just 90 seconds against Mexico in 1961, is one. Vassell and now Watkins are the other two.

“It is something I will never forget, certainly up there with the proudest moments of my career,” says Vassell of his goal against the Netherlands in February 2002.

For anyone who might have forgotten it, a quick internet search is well worth the effort. Rarely, at any level, can debut goals have been more spectacular than Vassell’s acrobatic volley from David Beckham’s cross which earned the Three Lions a 1-1 draw in Amsterdam.

At least in terms of opponent, a goal against the Dutch carries rather more prestige than one netted against minnows from San Marino. Yet the psychology is the same.

“It is certification to everyone that at the highest level you are capable of performing,” says Vassell, who would go on to score five more goals and win a further 21 caps for the Three Lions. “To be able to make a statement on your debut, it eases the anxiety. You have shown people your qualities. I started up front against Holland alongside Emile Heskey. Michael Ricketts and Wayne Bridge both made their debuts in that game too.

“You are nervous. It is the test of playing with the best players and when it is thrown at you, so soon and so suddenly, you have to get yourself prepared psychologically. It is a little bit different. The players are so good around you, you know opportunities are going to come. You want to be able to put them away. Ollie did that.”

Explaining a striker’s mindset forms a large part of the work Vassell does now at Wolves academy. Since injury finally forced him to call time on his playing career in 2016 he has been employed at Compton Park and currently assists the coaching of the club’s under-15s and 16s, while also passing on his knowledge to forwards at all age groups. He keeps a keen eye too on what is happening at Villa, his boyhood club for whom he made more than 200 first-team appearances. In Watkins, he likes what he sees. “I think he has been brilliant,” he says. “I’ve had a good look at him, the way he plays. I think he suits Villa to a tee.

“When I came through being a striker was very much about playing as a pair, a two. Certainly it was for myself, not being that tall. The game has changed slightly now and strikers are being asked to do different things.

“But Ollie brings an almost old school element back, without having to have the pair because he does a bit of everything.

“He works the channels really well, torments defenders and draws centre-backs out of position. He wins his headers and is obviously a danger in front of goal. Managers who experiment with formations, when you have a striker who can cover two jobs, it helps. He’s the kind of player who would suit most teams.”

The question now is whether Watkins, having matched Vassell’s achievement of scoring on debut, can further replicate his predecessor by forcing his way into England’s summer plans.

Currently he would appear something of an outsider, considering the dominance of Three Lions skipper Harry Kane and the form of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who appears to have pretty much cemented his position as manager Gareth Southgate’s second choice. But that is a similar position to the one a then 21-year-old Vassell, experiencing a breakthrough Premier League campaign, found himself in 2002. Not only did he make the plane to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, he ended up starting the first group match against Sweden.

“Ollie certainly has a chance,” says Vassell. “The difficulty he has got now is his rivals are also performing and scoring.

“But in terms of timing, leading into the summer, he is certainly going to be in the manager’s thoughts.

“He is one of those players who if he is there in the background, on the subs bench, there are a multitude of reasons why you might put him on. It is not just because you need pace down the wings, not just because you need someone who can hold the ball up.

“You never know what is going to happen with injuries either. Opportunities can always present themselves. In terms of his all-round game, the way he holds the middle of the pitch, he might be the closest player to Harry Kane that England can call on.

“You always play with a question mark. Can you perform with this team? Can you perform on this stage? Can you perform against this player? That is how you raise your game, you keep answering those questions, keep plugging away. Once you have proved you can do it, you have to keep doing it all the time. From what I have seen of Ollie, he deals with the challenges which come his way pretty well. There’s a resilience about him.”

Watkins’ fate, of course, lies in the hands of a man who was on the bench the night Vassell scored his debut goal. The success Southgate, his former team-mate with both Villa and England, has enjoyed with the Three Lions has come as no surprise. “I always thought Gareth would be a manager,” says Vassell. “At Villa he was my captain, the man who set the standard, said the right things and showed us how to deal with the media.

“He has an abundance of hard decisions when it comes to picking his squad but they are the kind he will relish making.”

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