England: How Ollie Watkins became a national hero with a goal beyond his wildest dreams

England: How Ollie Watkins became a national hero with a goal beyond his wildest dreams

Ollie Watkins thought he was over his imposter syndrome. This morning, he might just have to think again.

Not in his wildest fantasies, he admitted after the final whistle, did he imagine he would be here, and that this would be him, the comic-book hero of national lore.

“I never thought I’d be playing in the Euros,” said the Aston Villa striker, having just done much more than that by sending the country into its first men’s major final overseas with an arrowed, last-minute winner past the Netherlands for a place in the Euro 2024 showpiece.

“You can dream, but I’m realistic. I can’t lie and say I’ve dreamed about that. Obviously, scoring for England is amazing, but I didn’t think I’d be doing it in a tournament, like that.”

And how could he, really, when at the moment Gareth Southgate was reluctantly taking charge of the national side, he was still making his way at Exeter City in League Two, not long back from a loan stint playing the penny falls at Weston-super-Mare?

As Southgate’s new England rode wave in Russia, he was playing out wide at Brentford in the second tier, Thomas Frank’s career-changing decision to convert winger to striker not coming until Neal Maupay, of all people, was sold the following year. Frank spoke often at that time of having to teach Watkins what, to most great goalscorers, comes as instinct. On last night’s evidence, though, the lesson stuck. “I had to be greedy," Watkins said of the half-chance slipped his way with seconds remaining. "I had to take it.”

Even three years ago, as England geared up for a home European Championship, Watkins was scoring but struggling internally at  Villa, not immediately comfortable with Premier League status and a £30million price-tag.

“I was still unsure whether I deserved to be there,” the 28-year-old said in a sit-down with journalists in Blankenhain between England’s second and first group games last month. “Even now my mates still pinch themselves that I’m here. We were sat around watching the last Euros in a beer garden or around the house having a barbecue.”

Yet the beauty, in what can only have been the most surreal, unexpected, alien experience, was that this was his goal, the one he’d scored dozens of times before.

The diagonal run from deep made with urgent intent. The touch to carry the ball just wide enough to open the angle without closing it. The use of the body, to hold off Stefan de Vrij, who must have told himself he’d done enough in steering the striker away from goal, not realising is was actually he would had been dragged. Then the strike, fierce and on the swivel, through the centre-back’s legs by no fluke, across the goalkeeper and into the only corner of net from which it could not be saved.

Muscle memory; memories made.

And then what about that celebration? All a bit Marco Tardelli, arms wide, eyes wider, running for what seemed like running’s sake, hoping the arc and the moment would never end.

“Whenever you score, there's emotions that run through your body but this is just a different feeling,” Watkins said. “It was slow motion when I was running towards the boys and celebrating. I didn't want to get off the pitch.”

Later, it emerged that what looked a spontaneous charge to England’s bench had been pre-planned, a signal to all fellow substitutes that this was their goal, too.

Like so many of them, Watkins has spent much of this summer frustrated, fresh off his finest club season of 40 combined goals and assists, but until last night confined to one cameo against Denmark in the group.

He seemed to have slipped behind Ivan Toney in the pecking order, but Southgate’s insistence he had brought two Harry Kane understudies to Germany as horses for different courses was no joke.

So, it’s on to the final, the kind of occasion around which, having lost Wembley playoffs with both Exeter and Brentford, Watkins has admitted he feels a bit of a personal block.

“It's the most important game of our lives,” he added. Whatever happens in Berlin on Sunday, though, this night will always be his.