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Ollie Watkins: ‘I want to be seen as one of the killers in front of goal’

As another scintillating Premier League season draws to a climax Ollie Watkins, ever the perfectionist, already has one eye on the next, the striker determined to scale new heights to help elevate Aston Villa into jostling for a European berth. “I know I can get up to around 20 goals in this league and hopefully I can do that next year,” Watkins says. “Scoring that amount puts you into a different category. You start to be seen as one of the ‘killers’ in front of goal. People always talk about Harry Kane – he’s a very good finisher and that’s why his goal record is so good. There are a lot of players over the years that have been like that and that’s what I want to be known for.”

This week the Villa manager, Steven Gerrard, said the selfless Watkins was his own worst critic – “sometimes he can overanalyse” – but the 26-year-old is learning to be kinder to himself. He previously enlisted the help of a psychologist and listening to podcasts such as The High Performance podcast has helped shape his mentality. “I’ve tried to ease off putting the pressure on myself and I just try to go out and enjoy it and get into that mindset of not being too high or too low,” Watkins says. “I feel like physically I’ve definitely developed a lot in the gym but mentally is the big part that has changed in my game. It is just about trying to keep a level head.”

Watkins is likely to lead the line when Gerrard’s side visit Manchester City on Sunday knowing they can derail Pep Guardiola’s pursuit of a fourth league title in five seasons. He is unassuming and warm company at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath base as he discusses life as a father to his eight-month-old daughter, Amara May, adapting to Dean Smith’s departure in November, his rise from playing for Weston-super-Mare in the Conference South to relishing life in the top flight, and giving golf a whirl at the nearby Belfry club. “I had a lesson a couple of weeks back but I need to get back on it. I wasn’t too bad. Not the worst … I’ve heard Calum Chambers is good but I think Cashy [Matt Cash] is miles ahead of everyone.”

Watkins has shone for Villa this season, again reaching double figures after three goals in his past five matches, but in the short term his best chance of playing on the continent rests with England and Nations League trips to Hungary and Germany next month, for which Gareth Southgate names his squad on Tuesday. Watkins marked his first start for his country, against Ivory Coast in March, with his second international goal and says he will still feel like the new kid at school if he makes the cut this time.

“I feel like I’ve got a good chance … If I do get the opportunity I’ll take it with both hands. I’ve not been on too many camps – four or five – and so it still feels unbelievable. It still feels like my first time every time that I go. There are people who have been there years and years. I’ve grown up watching many of them and it is weird that I’m now playing with them.”

Ollie Watkins in action during England’s win over Ivory Coast at Wembley in March.
Ollie Watkins in action during England’s win over Ivory Coast at Wembley in March. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The same goes for Philippe Coutinho, who joined Barcelona from Liverpool in a £142m deal four years ago and recently signed for Villa on a permanent deal, his relationship with his former teammate Gerrard key. “I remember watching the game against [Borussia] Dortmund when they won 4-3 at Anfield [in 2016]. I remember watching so many of his goals and watching him and the gaffer play together when it was him, [Daniel] Sturridge and [Luis] Suárez up front.”

On the subject of dovetailing with Coutinho, Watkins’s modest character comes to light. “I just kind of let him do the work,” he says, smiling. “He tries to get me the ball. I’ve got to do the bit at the end and try to finish it. I’m looking forward to hopefully a whole season with him next year. I was only speaking to Calum the other day and when he got his move to Arsenal [in 2014] I was playing for Weston. It is funny how football works. Everyone has their own journeys, don’t they? It is nice that I’ve made it here and I want to stay at the top level for as long as possible.”

Ollie Watkins gives Aston Villa the lead in their Premier League game at home to Norwich.
Ollie Watkins gives Aston Villa the lead in their Premier League game at home to Norwich. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Watkins is among those Gerrard is keen to build his side around, with the Villa manager intent on strengthening the spine of his team with a view to disrupting the top six. Gerrard drives high standards. “He worked hard as a player and he demands that from us,” Watkins says. “There is no time to rest, as in when we’re out on the pitch we work hard and try to take that out into the games. He wants the team to be in the best possible place and for us to work at that intensity. This is a top, top club, a massive club and with the right investment we can easily be doing what West Ham are doing this year. Hopefully next season we will really push on.”

Villa hope to record a top-half finish – it would represent their highest standing in the last decade – and many beyond the Midlands will be paying close attention to how they fare against City. The Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, has said he hopes Gerrard can do the club a favour by taking points off City on the final day. Watkins knows the size of that task. “Unbelievable team, unbelievable players, fantastic manager,” he says. “It will be very tough, especially with so much at stake, they’ll be right up for it. We want to end the season on a high and take it into the next.”

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