Advertisement

'My mate just scored the winner for England'

Connor Riley-Lowe and Ollie Watkins
Connor Riley-Lowe and Ollie Watkins have been friends since they were teenagers [Connor Riley-Lowe]

"It's so hard to get my head round my mate doing that - it's just incredible what he's done."

Connor Riley-Lowe has known Ollie Watkins since he was a teenager, but nothing could prepare him for the reaction his friend evoked after his last-minute winner to send England into the final of Euro 2024.

Riley-Lowe, who is captain of National League South side Truro City, played alongside Watkins at Exeter City's academy as they came up through the ranks together.

"It's really hard to get my head around it, he's just a lad from Newton Abbot to me really," he told BBC Radio Cornwall, the morning after England's 2-1 win over the Netherlands in Dortmund.

"I'm a little bit used to it in terms of his Aston Villa career, but it's just another level really."

Riley-Lowe played 14 times for Exeter before moving into non-league football and becoming a PE teacher.

The pair played together nine times for Exeter City, including a famous EFL Cup win over Watkins' future employers Brentford in August 2016.

"I managed to Facetime with him last night just before he got back on the plane to go back to camp," Riley-Lowe said.

"That was a really nice moment. It was quite emotional, but it was incredible.

"The first thing he said was 'I knew I was going to score'.

"He said 'I had a feeling all day', and I don't know if you watched his interview after the game, he said to Cole Palmer 'I'm going to score and you're going to set me up'.

"That sums him up really, he's just so confident, even though he's not played a massive part in this tournament for him to still think that throughout the day just sums up his mindset."

'We produce good people, not just good footballers'

Watkins' rise has not just been great for Exeter's reputation, but for their bank balance as well.

The Grecians sold him to Brentford for £1.8m in 2017, and when he made his £28m move to Aston Villa they made another £4m from a sell-on clause and a further £750,000 in additional performance-related add-ons.

But he also created some memories that will last forever for Exeter City fans.

"I was in the old grandstand when he scored against Plymouth and I just think that was a sublime moment," Exeter City Supporters' Trust chairman Nick Hawker told BBC Radio Devon.

"Not only was it a fantastic goal, but one of your own scoring against your arch rivals is really special.

"I remember at the time we were trying to raise money for the academy and one of my lines when I was going around asking people for money was 'we produce good people, not just good footballers'.

"I think that work ethic that we hopefully will have instilled in Ollie carries through, and if we're still doing that there would be other Ollies in the future."

Ollie Watkins playing for Exeter City
Ollie Watkins made his Exeter City debut in May 2014 aged 18 and went on to score 28 goals in 99 appearances for the club [Rex Features]

Watkins 'always asked how to get better'

Watkins' first club was Buckland Athletic - a side whose first team currently play in the ninth tier Western Premier League.

But 20 years on, Watkins is still fondly remembered by the people who first introduced him to the game.

"He comes from a really, really lovely family which you could see last night when he saw his mum and got into the crowd and he was giving her a big kiss and a cuddle," said Buckland's co-chairman Nigel Holmes.

"The coaches that worked directly with him said he was very respectful and willing to learn.

"He used to do extra sessions with the coaches and if you speak to them they've got nothing but praise for him.

"He was always asking 'What can I do to make me a better player?'

"It just goes to show that all the hours that our volunteer coaches put in at grassroots level, it just makes it all worthwhile for them."