(Photo: Action Images)
By Jack Miller
OLLIE Watkins knows he has a hard task on his hands if he is to improve on a breakthrough 2016 – but that isn’t going to stop the Exeter City striker from trying.
As Big Ben struck midnight on December 31, the Exeter City academy product was able to look back on a calendar year that saw him became a mainstay in Paul Tisdale’s first team.
From March 1, Watkins started 12 of the Grecians’ final 13 league games, coming off the bench for half an hour in their last game of the campaign against Luton.
During that run, Watkins repaid Tisdale’s faith in him with eight goals (adding to one he’d scored earlier in the season in the FA Cup), and that red-hot form has carried over into the first half of this season and he had the same number of league goals to his name heading into 2017.
That was largely thanks to a first career hat-trick in a 4-1 victory at Newport County on New Year’s Eve, one that arrived 24 hours after his 21st birthday.
“Yes, 2016 was a breakthrough year for me and a first hat-trick was a brilliant way to finish it,” agreed Watkins, who enjoyed a loan spell at Weston-super-Mare in 2014-15 where he scored 13 league goals.
“Quite frankly I couldn’t have seen myself where I am now a year ago.
“At the start of the year I was putting too much pressure on myself and not enjoying it as much as I should have, mostly because I wanted to do so well. But I’ve got a lot more games under my belt and I’ve got out of that stage where I was putting too much pressure on myself, and hopefully it is showing that I am really enjoying my football at the moment.
“It will be a hard year to top. In the long run, promotion would be amazing and that’s what we’re aiming for.
“We want to build up the table progressively and, on a personal note, I would like to score more goals than last season.
“I came into the team during March and did quite well to finish with nine goals that season, but I’ve got that already this time (aside from his eight league strikes, he also netted in the Checkatrade Trophy win against Chelsea U21s) so I’d like to double that tally by the end.
“Getting into the play-offs seemed like a long way away a month ago, but even when we were at the bottom of the league I still believed we had the squad to do it.
“It’s down to us now after the last month we’ve had, and hopefully at the end of the season we are in the play-offs.”
Watkins isn’t alone at being on a good run at St James Park at the moment, with the Grecians last tasting defeat on November 22, having climbed out of the relegation zone to head into this weekend’s action in 11th and just five points off the play-offs.
Watkins is quick to highlight the support of those around him, especially when it comes to fellow striker Liam McAlinden – with whom he has formed a great understanding since the 23-year-old arrived in Exeter this summer following his release from Wolves.
“Liam is a great player. He knows what I want, and I know what he wants, so we complement each other well,” Watkins said.
“We’ve now got a good understanding as a whole team of where people’s strengths are.
“Liam and I do that particularly well, and we bounce off each other. He’s set up three of my last five goals, so hopefully I can return the favour soon.”