The untold stories of Ollie Watkins' rise: Turning up at Jose Mourinho's house to replace Harry Kane, 1am ice baths and the non-league shock that shaped him

Jose Mourinho met Ollie Watkins in the flesh and fell in love. He loved his personality. He loved his humility.

But more than anything else, he loved the goals.

Watkins, at Brentford at the time, was having the season of his life in the Championship en route to scoring 26 goals during the 2019-20 season.

Mourinho, who was Tottenham head coach, was on the look out for an understudy to Harry Kane.

The Special One met Watkins twice. Sources close to those meetings describe the Portuguese as being particularly enamoured by the forward’s temperament.

Ollie Watkins was England’s hero on Wednesday night when he fired home a 90th-minute winner to send his nation through to the Euro 2024 final

Watkins made the most of his chance after having to wait patiently for minutes at the Euros

Watkins made the most of his chance after having to wait patiently for minutes at the Euros

Watkins met with Jose Mourinho when The Special One was in charge of Tottenham

Watkins met with Jose Mourinho when The Special One was in charge of Tottenham

Watkins was viewed as a possible understudy to Harry Kane but the move never materialised

Watkins was viewed as a possible understudy to Harry Kane but the move never materialised

The fact Watkins attended without representation also impressed.

During the discussions, Watkins is said to have explained to Mourinho that he was the man to step into Kane’s shoes.

Watkins got his chance to step into Kane’s shoes here in Germany on Wednesday night. He’s now the toast of a nation.

Even Watkins admits that what transpired at the Westfalenstadion was beyond his wildest dreams.

From being rejected by Exeter as nine-year-old to scoring a 90th minute winner to send England into their first ever major tournament final on foreign soil. That’s some journey.

That move to Tottenham never materialised. Spurs didn’t want to pay the money, which was approaching £25million at the time.

Everything happens for a reason, of course. Watkins’ reason arrived at around 9.45pm on Wednesday night.

Tottenham’s loss has been Aston Villa’s gain. England’s gain. Watkins is the humble boy from Devon who took the long route to the top.

Watkins’ journey from non-league prodigy to national hero has been a meandering one.

‘The route Ollie has taken, it gives you a resilience,’ a source close to Watkins explains.

‘He’s not hit the heights at 22. He is the one chasing the pack. It’s different for kids in Category One academy kids, everything is laid on for you.

‘That wasn’t Ollie’s journey. But there was always something in his eye that told you he would make it.’

Speak to those close to the 28-year-old and they’ll describe a player obsessed with marginal gains, no stone unturned in his quest to fulfil his potential.

His dedication to recovery is staunch, so much so that he’d often jump into an ice bath at Villa’s training ground in the early hours of the morning after arriving back from an away European match.

Most recently he’s employed his own osteopath and therapist to tackle the strains on his body in between matches. He has regular conversations with a life coach to ensure his mindset is on point.

‘He’s like a sponge, that has definitely allowed him to climb up the ladder in the way that he has,’ explained the source.

‘He is always looking for little percentage gains wherever he can.’

As Watkins enters his prime years, his attributes are easily identifiable. Pace, movement, power, speed of thought and an unerring accuracy in his finishing.

That wasn’t always the case. Watkins first trial with Exeter as a nine-year-old was unsuccessful.

But while those close to Watkins believe there has always been an underlying motivation in the forward to prove people wrong, rejection at such a young age didn’t arrive as the crushing blow it may have with other kids.

Watkins came through Exeter City's academy as a youngster

Watkins came through Exeter City’s academy as a youngster

Watkins was sent on loan to non-league outfit Weston Super-Mare after struggling for game time, and it was the making of him

Watkins was sent on loan to non-league outfit Weston Super-Mare after struggling for game time, and it was the making of him

Part of that was down to an innate belief in his own abilities; indeed he eventually signed academy terms with Exeter a year later.

But there was always a sense that Watkins was somewhat reserved as a youngster. Indeed, his father Les, a footballer himself, would often ask his son to show greater aggression on the field.

That just wasn’t him, though. He wasn’t they type. That isn’t a negative, the way in which Watkins has established himself as a Premier League striker illustrative of the 28-year-old’s brilliance.

But politeness and humility doesn’t always translate well to making the grade.

Nevertheless, it soon became apparent to the academy coaches at Exeter that they were onto something special with Watkins.

He eventually made his senior debut for the club as an 18-year-old, coming on as a 77th minute substitute in a League Two victory over Hartlepool in May 2014.

Paul Tisdale, Exeter’s manager at the time, felt Watkins would benefit from playing consistent men’s football and engineered a loan to non-league Weston Super-Mare.

‘For younger lads, the lower you go down the food chain they quickly realise how it could look for them if they end up there,’ said a source.

‘Ollie was playing with blokes who were playing to pay for their mortgages.

‘That opened his eyes up a lot, when you are that age you have to become a man really quickly. That was a light bulb moment for him.’

It it stressed to Mail Sport that one of Watkins’ biggest takeaways from his loan spell was the acknowledgement that football is largely a numbers game.

Goals and assists is what bigger clubs take notice of. Not double step-overs on the left-wing.

Watkins scored 10 goals in 18 starts at Weston Super-Mare. Tisdale had seen enough and gave him a greater role in his Exeter side during the 2015-16 season, as the forward scored nine goals in 22 appearances.

He followed that by scoring 16 in 52 games the following campaign. But by that point Exeter knew he’d outgrown the League Two side.

The Championship beckoned.

Derby were among the clubs interested in Watkins in the summer of 2017. Watkins had excelled for Exeter playing off the left and Gary Rowett, head coach at the time, believed he would fit in well to his team.

But Watkins had started to see his future somewhat differently. He believed he had the attributes to become a successful centre-forward and was keen to play for a manager who would facilitate his ambitions.

Dean Smith, who was Brentford boss in the summer of 2017, was prepared to give Watkins that chance.

Neal Maupay was Smith’s preferred option through the middle and Watkins was told he would still play down the left. Smith, however, also explained that eventually, he’d have the opportunity to showcase his talents as a striker.

‘Brentford sold their project really well, this wasn’t a move about where he could get the highest weekly wage but one about career development.’

Watkins had to adapt his game at Brentford, as he was moved to the wing to allow Neal Maupay (left) to play up front

Watkins had to adapt his game at Brentford, as he was moved to the wing to allow Neal Maupay (left) to play up front

Watkins became the figurehead of Brentford's attack when Thomas Frank arrived at the club

Watkins became the figurehead of Brentford’s attack when Thomas Frank arrived at the club

He had a brilliant 2019-20 campaign, which led to Premier League clubs showing interest

He had a brilliant 2019-20 campaign, which led to Premier League clubs showing interest

Brentford stayed true to their word, although he didn’t get a consistent chance to earn his stripes as a true No 9 until Maupay left for Everton in a deal worth £20million in the summer of 2019.

By the start of the 2019-20 season, Thomas Frank had replaced Smith in charge at Brentford.

To this day, Frank still speaks glowingly of Watkins. Never late, not one to fall out of nightclubs. Just football.

In many ways the penny dropped for Watkins at Brentford. He begun paying more attention to nutrition and strength and conditioning work in the gym.

It was all part of the natural transition required to take the leap from League Two to the Championship, but it’s one Watkins devoted his life to – to the point where he’s now installed a gym in his house.

Frank was amazed at Watkins’ devotion to improvement, though the Dane isn’t the only one at the west London club to have positive recollections of Watkins the man.

Of course, by the time Frank had taken over, Watkins’ was a key figure for Brentford. But it is the player’s spirit and respectful demeanour that is best remembered at Brentford.

It meant the world to Watkins that Frank had backed him to carry the burden left by Maupay through the middle. Watkins delivered emphatically in his first season as a centre forward – scoring 26 goals as Brentford lost in the Championship play-off final to Fulham.

The defeat left Watkins distraught. Not because it would restrict his own ambitions, he knew he would be playing in the Premier League regardless of the result at Wembley.

But Watkins wanted to take everyone with him. The fact he didn’t reduced him to tears.

Crystal Palace were closely monitoring Watkins midway through his prolific 2019-20 campaign. They’d received positive reports about Watkins’ progress at Brentford, the Eagles’ former striker Clinton Morrison had waxed lyrical in his appraisals of the forward.

But there was some concern at Selhurst Park over whether Watkins capacity to cut it as a bonafide Premier League centre-forward, viewing the attacker as someone who would be better positioned out on the left.

Smith, though, now manager at Aston Villa, was convinced his former player could become a successful top-flight central striker and eyed a reunion.

‘He has always seen himself as a No 9 but his coaches may not have always agreed,’ someone close to Watkins explained.

‘But he knew he had to earn the right to be a No 9, but he’s studied the position.

Dean Smith brought Watkins to Aston Villa after working with him at Brentford, and the striker made the step up seamlessly to the Premier League

Dean Smith brought Watkins to Aston Villa after working with him at Brentford, and the striker made the step up seamlessly to the Premier League

‘When Palace came in for him, it wasn’t an offer of them saying you are going to be our No 9.

‘Villa sold the project to him saying you are going to be No 9.’

Watkins hasn’t looked back since; 59 goals in 146 Premier League appearances under three different managers testament to his emergence as a genuine top-flight force.

His relationship with current boss Unai Emery has seen Watkins’s game elevate.

Any apprehension created by constant stories linking Villa with signing a new striker in 2022 were quickly nipped in the bud by Emery, who assured Watkins in a private conversation that he would be his middle man.

Watkins has repaid Emery’s faith and more. His 27 goal haul last season propelled Villa into the Champions League and a European semi-final.

Rival clubs have taken notice, too – Arsenal among the clubs to have taken a shining to Watkins.

But with his first Champions League campaign on the horizon, Watkins should be in no immediate hurry to look elsewhere.

Regardless, his focus is on England’s tilt at glory in Berlin on Sunday. Although, despite his heroics in Dortmund on Wednesday, Watkins – like he’s had to for much of career – had to overcome initial doubts over his international credentials.

‘When we first looked at Ollie, it was a case of going through the options if Harry Kane was not able to play,’ explained a well-placed England insider.

‘At the time there was Tammy [Abraham], [Patrick] Bamford and Ivan Toney, who was starting break through.

‘The qualities we saw with Ollie was he offered something different – his mobility, smart movements and his energy.

‘But we felt there was more not come from him in the Premier League. It was his first season playing top-flight football.

‘We knew over time that he would improve and if he had a good run he would grow.’

Watkins scored on his England debut, coming off the bench to notch in a 5-0 win over San Marino at Wembley.

Watkins scored on his England debut against San Marino, but had struggled to kick on for his country since then

Watkins scored on his England debut against San Marino, but had struggled to kick on for his country since then

He got his big moment on Wednesday night, though, and will now always hold a special place in England's football history

He got his big moment on Wednesday night, though, and will now always hold a special place in England’s football history

It should have signalled the start of a burgeoning international career. Yet, until the euphoria of Wednesday night, his England contributions have been stop-start.

Indeed, there was doubt that he would even make the squad for the Euros.

‘He isn’t one to outwardly push his own claims to play. He’s a very respectful boy,’ added the England source.

‘But the more he is in the squad, the more comfortable has become.

‘But I think why Gareth likes him is because he trains well even if he isn’t playing and won’t disrupt the culture with his attitude.’

Watkins’ will always hold a special place in the culture of Southgate’s England forever more.

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