Ollie Watkins the unlikely toast of England after last-gasp winner at Euro 2024

Ollie Watkins the unlikely toast of England after last-gasp winner at Euro 2024

England’s Ollie Watkins celebrates at the end of a semifinal against the Netherlands at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Dortmund, Germany, Wednesday, July 10, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AP

Ollie Watkins is, in his own words, a realist.

He has never pictured himself playing at a major tournament for England — especially when, as a teenager learning his trade as a striker, he was sent on loan to English sixth-tier club Weston-super-Mare in 2015.

So imagine what went through Watkins’ mind when he saw his stoppage-time shot fly past Netherlands goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen and into the bottom corner to earn England a place in the European Championship final?

“I don’t think I’ve hit a ball that sweet before,” Watkins said after England’s 2-1 victory over the Dutch in the semifinals on July 10.

Suddenly, Watkins is the toast of England, an improbable turnaround in fortunes for a striker who had played 24 minutes at Euro 2024 — as a substitute in the group stage against Denmark — before replacing captain Harry Kane in the 80th minute for the biggest moment of his career.

Being an understudy for Kane, England’s all-time leading scorer with 66 goals, is a tough business. Minutes are scarce — Kane typically plays the full game — so every opportunity has to be grasped.

Watkins did just that with a goal that fans of the Premier League have seen time and again in his games playing for Aston Villa.

Darting behind the Dutch defense in a manner that is beyond Kane these days, Watkins controlled a pass from Cole Palmer with his back to goal then, in one movement, swiveled and fired a low shot through the legs of Netherlands defender Stefan De Vrij and past Verbruggen from a narrow angle.

“That’s my bread and butter — running in behind, causing trouble,” Watkins said.

If that sounds quite basic, then that’s the kind of striker Watkins is.

Hard-working.

Selfless.

Pretty much the ultimate team player.

“I’ve put in a lot of hard work to get to this point,” said Watkins, who was tied as the fourth top scorer in the Premier League this season with 19 goals. “It’s not just this season, it’s cumulative.

“I’ve done a lot of hard work and I’m going to enjoy every moment.”

That was evident as Watkins was engulfed by joyous teammates on the field at Westfalenstadion after his goal, his fourth for England. Two of them came against San Marino, the world’s lowest-ranked team.

“It was slow motion when I was running to the boys and celebrating… I didn’t want to leave the pitch,” he said.

“I’ve had a few messages from my friends saying, ‘Be patient, you’re going to get an opportunity.’ When I’ve been on the bench, I’ve definitely said to (backup goalkeeper) Dean Henderson, ‘I can make a difference today, I need to get on that pitch.’ Obviously I’ve taken my chance when I’ve got it and I’ve scored and now we’re in the final.”

Southgate smiled as he said Watkins had “saved us another half hour” of extra time, which England needed to get past Slovakia and Switzerland previously in the knockout stage.

“Very, very special for him,” Southgate said.

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