Villa sign Watkins in record deal

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Ollie Watkins’s £33million move to Aston Villa on Wednesday made him the most expensive Championship player EVER
Watkins scored 26 goals for Brentford last season as they missed promotion
Brentford boss Thomas Frank urged Watkins to watch Netflix’s The Last Dance
Michael Jordan’s career, detailed in the documentary, worked as motivation

With the world locked down, and football at a stand-still, Brentford boss Thomas Frank turned to Netflix for some renewed inspiration.

He landed on The Last Dance, the story of Michael Jordan and his remarkable Chicago Bulls dynasty. Soon Frank picked up his phone and texted Ollie Watkins.

‘You need to watch this,’ he told the forward. The manager hoped the 24-year-old would take something from the ‘remarkable’ skills and single-mindedness of Jordan, of course. But also learn the value of patience.

‘Another thing we need to remember in sport is that (MJ) suffered for seven years before he won his first NBA championship,’ Frank later recalled. ‘Normally it’s not just one year, bang, and then you do it. It demands a lot of work from organisations or clubs normally to win or achieve something big.’

Those lessons have come in useful over this shortened summer.

Ever since Brentford fell at the final hurdle in their push for the Premier League, Watkins has had to play his own waiting game. It looked certain that he – and Said Benrahma – would end up in the top flight despite defeat by Fulham.

But only on Tuesday did Aston Villa agree a deal for Watkins which could rise to £33million – the highest ever fee for a Championship player.

It’s the latest step on an impressive rise for a 24-year-old, who reportedly cost just £1.8m when he signed from fourth-tier Exeter only three years ago.

For Brentford, however, this is a well-worn path by now.

The west London club may have swapped the cramped confines of Griffin Park for their Kew Bridge new build but their modus operandi won’t change. Under co-directors of football Phil Giles and Rasmus Ankersen, they continue to recruit untapped talent on the cheap and turn it into diamonds.

It’s a philosophy that has fuelled their success of recent years.

It does, though, come with one small bug: once those hidden gems begin to shine, other eyes begin to take notice.

Only last summer, Brighton came sniffing and snatched Neal Maupay for 10 times what Brentford had paid for him. It blew a huge hole in their forward line, so Frank converted Watkins into a centre forward and now the negotiators have done the rest.

Watkins is a brilliant prospect – his 26 goals last season attest to his threat – but it’s remarkable that the Championship side have stood firm and secured more than their asking price, all while admitting they were willing to sell the 24-year-old.

When the deal goes through, Watkins will eclipse James Maddison as the costliest player to emerge from the second tier.

Maddison’s move to Leicester has worked out for both club and player, with the midfielder shining under Brendan Rodgers and even earning England call-ups.

For Villa, too, this could be an inspired piece of business given Jack Grealish was their only player to hit double figures last season. They were in desperate need of a striker and manager Dean Smith knows all about Watkins’ quality, having been in charge at Brentford when he arrived from Exeter.

But let’s be clear: this is also a sizeable gamble from Aston Villa.

Until last season, Watkins played off the wing and even after moving inside, he was the spearhead of a well-oiled machine.

Brentford’s promotion near-miss was built on the goals of BMW, with Watkins sharing the plaudits with Benrahma and Bryan Mbeumo.

Winger Benrahma could soon follow him to the top flight, while captain Pontus Jansson believes 21-year-old Mbeumo could end up the best of the bunch. Together they formed a devastating triumvirate of pace, trickery and invention – thanks to their individual talent but also the tactical nous of Frank.

Individually, none would look out of place in a team like Villa’s but Watkins’ move does beg questions: Were BMW greater than the sum of their parts and will Watkins be such a threat – at least initially – without such understanding with his new team-mates?

His knowledge of playing both down the middle and out wide should help. So should his attitude.

Frank operates a ‘no d***heads’ policy, inspired by the New Zealand All Blacks, with Brentford’s number-crunching recruitment policy underpinned by an insistence on signing the right characters.

And last season Watkins embodied their selfless, tireless pressing.

As their push for promotion went down to the wire, team-mates made a habit of pinpointing the importance of the forward’s defensive work.

Watkins is only growing in stature, too. Despite his age, he began to take on more of a leadership role during his final months at Brentford. Shaking off the shackles of shyness was the main lesson he took from Jordan.

‘It made me hungry and want to get the best out of everyone so we can try and achieve something special,’ he said.

‘All the leaders are not nicely-nicely all the time. You have to get fired up because you want to win. They’re not saying it personally because they want to hurt you or damage you. They are doing it because they want the best out of you and you want to win the game at the end of the day.’

Now the next challenge awaits.


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