Academy manager Simon Hayward talks about Ollie's journey from under-10 to EFL Young Player of the Year
Following the likes of George Friend, Dean Moxey, Sean Goss and in more recent times, Matt Grimes, Exeter City’s academy have no doubt unearthed another special Devon talent in Ollie Watkins.
The 21-year-old’s name will now be listed alongside the likes of Gareth Bale, Dele Alli and Nathaniel Clyne after he was awarded the prestigious honour of EFL’s Young Player of the Year last month following a string of impressive performances for Paul Tisdale’s side this season.
However, his journey to professional football hasn’t always been plain sailing and it is evident that his time in the Exeter Academy has helped him mature into a decent young man and a talented footballer.
DEREK BAKER caught up with Exeter City Academy manager Simon Hayward to chat about Ollie’s journey with into the first team at St James Park, which began back in 2003.
“I remember seeing Ollie as an under-9 player and we felt he wasn’t quite ready to become one of our registered academy players,” recalls Simon Hayward. “Sometimes you get the feeling that certain players won’t be able to make the transition between their grass-roots club to the academy at that point in time.
“It's a new environment, with new team-mates and new coaches to work with and we just didn’t think Ollie was completely ready for that change.
“In many instances, players who don’t get taken on at that age are still on our radar. We keep an eye on their progress, suggest what they can work on and we set a time and date in the future when we can assess them again.
“It was never our intention to reject Ollie, and that applies to any player we don’t take on, we just wanted to sign him when the timing seemed right and when we felt he was ready.”
Ollie benefitted from that situation and was offered a registration as an under-10 a season later. It was evident from a young age that his strengths were in the attacking aspects of the game, whilst demonstrating a real fondness for running with the ball and scoring goals.
The forward continued to develop his game over the next few seasons, before reaching the under-15s age group where things started to become serious for the teenager.
“Some time ago the academy decided to merge the under-15s and under-16s together to try and mimic what the scholars experience at under-18s,” said Simon. “This meant recreating the environment of playing and training with older players and playing matches against older players.
“We wanted Ollie to understand the seriousness of his footballing situation, as well as maintaining a love and passion for the game.
“He initially faced some challenges at under-16s, but he matured step-by-step to earn himself a scholarship and a chance to represent us for at least another two seasons with the under-18s.”
During the 2012/2013 season, under the tutorage of former ECFC under-18s coach Kevin Nicholson, Ollie played as the striker in a very effective 4-4-1-1 formation. His link-up play with fellow academy graduate Matt Jay saw the duo form a formidable attacking partnership where both players enjoyed a fantastic season achieving double figures in not just goals, but assists as well.
Lee Skyrme replaced the outgoing Nicholson for the next season and in the lead up to Ollie’s make-or-break year, Simon, Lee and Ollie discussed what lay ahead for the youngster in his final season of youth football.
“Ollie came in before the season began and asked if he could play wide-left, despite my feeling that he was more effective in the middle of the pitch he was very head strong,” said Simon. “We try to work with the players as ultimately it is their careers, but we do our best to try and guide them towards the right paths. However Ollie was insistent that he wanted to play wide.”
Ollie had his wish granted and featured on the left of a front-three. The scholar had another good year and despite not being quite as effective, in terms of goals and assists, as he was in the previous season, he still did more than enough to earn a professional contract with the club at the end of the season.
Despite the positive news of earning the professional deal, Simon admits how difficult it can be for some of the graduates to make the transition to men’s football.
“It can be a tough period for the younger players after they earn their professional contract,” he said. “It’s the first time the players would have experienced open-age football, going up against seasoned veterans with 300-odd league games under their belts, and the first time in their careers where they are not top of the pecking order, and unable to even make the match-day squads.”
Ollie was sent out on loan to Weston-super-Mare during the 2014/2015 season to continue his development and gain more experience of men’s football, but it wasn’t until he returned when things started to take a turn for the good.
Having already made his first-team debut in May 2014, it was the 2015/2016 season when the youngster really began to have a real impact on Paul Tisdale’s team. Simon acknowledges the work the manager and his coaching staff put in to develop Ollie into the player that he has become today.
“A lot of praise has to go to Paul Tisdale and the first team staff,” said Simon. “They deserve a lot of credit for seeing the potential in Ollie and helping him get over the hurdle that is the transition phase from youth football.
“The manager wanted to play Ollie centrally because he saw traits in his game that would prove to be effective in that area. I was pleasantly surprised when Ollie was picked for the match against Plymouth Argyle in November 2015 as he started on the right of a diamond in midfield, a role he had never played in before during his academy years.
“Ollie had a good game and from that point he’s really kicked on and has now ended up in a more attacking midfield role. I’m glad he still demonstrates some of the attributes he had when he was playing academy football in his role today.
“He’s very fit, powerful and dynamic and it’s nice to see he scores a wide variety of goals. He is finally getting the rewards for the work he has put in. Defensively he can man-mark at set pieces and his ability to cover a large amount of ground in his recovery runs is really pleasing to see.
“We have a DVD we often show to the academy players which shows a number of clips of Ollie making these recovery runs and defending counter attacks demonstrating his work-rate and desire to defend. Then the video shows Ollie scoring a load of goals for the first-team. Our message to the young players watching those videos is that if they put in the hard work, and want to defend, then the icing on the cake can be the goals you score up the other end, but if you don’t work hard enough to get selected in the first place then you don’t get the chance to score the goals.
“It is fantastic to use Ollie as a role model for the younger guys. He’s worked fantastically hard for the individual honour he just received, and his award has given the academy and the club another bit of well-deserved recognition once again.
“It’s amazing to think he is in the same bracket as Gareth Bale, Dele Alli and Nathaniel Clyne, but it will be more valuable to the football club if the team were to gain honours at the end of the season too by gaining promotion to League One.
“We are all eager to see if he can turn himself into a top player and hopefully he can perform at the top level on a consistent basis.
“Credit has to go to him for helping the first team get to where they are currently, but if Ollie were the next player from our academy to go onto bigger and better things, we hope he, like others before him, will be able to make the transition from lower league football to a higher level without too much difficulty.
"We like to think we have a production line at the academy, and we can develop players who can step into the first-team year on year. We are optimistic that we may be in the process of training up the next pro-footballer to step into the fold because we see each player that makes it as another achievement for the club and staff.
“We are extremely proud Ollie has won his EFL Young Player of the Year Award, and we are confident that he can continue to contribute this season which will hopefully end in upbeat fashion with a promotion."