Watkins’ last-gasp winner becomes England dream come true

DORTMUND, Germany — Ollie Watkins lived the dream in a split second in Dortmund, the one that all schoolkids repeat day after day in the playground. A winning goal in stoppage time, which sends your country into a major final, after coming off the bench as a substitute. Beat that.

And what a goal it was. With his back to goal and Netherlands defender Stefan de Vrij marking him tightly on the edge of the 6-yard box, Watkins received the ball from fellow substitute Cole Palmer, spun himself around and fired a low strike beyond goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen to seal a 2-1 win for England in the Euro 2024 semifinal and a first major final on foreign soil for the Three Lions.

But the 91st-minute winner that sealed a final date with Spain on Sunday was beyond the stuff of Watkins’ dreams. The Aston Villa forward never dared to dream of this.

“I didn’t dream about that to be honest, I can’t lie,” Watkins said while receiving his Player of the Match award at the end of the game. “Scoring for England was amazing, but I didn’t ever think I’d be doing it in a tournament like that.

“But the amount of people who messaged me today saying that I was going to score when I got on was ridiculous. They put it out into the universe and it happened, so hopefully they can do the same on Sunday and give me the lottery numbers!

“I’m lost for words really. When you score, the emotions come through your body, but this is just a different feeling. It was slow motion when I ran to the boys to celebrate.”

When the 28-year-old walked into the news conference in Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, before he even sat down he was told by one reporter that his life would never be the same again.

Hyperbole, perhaps, but there is also a grain of truth in that remark. Some will rightly point out that Watkins only scored the winning goal in a semifinal and it will mean much less if England fail to beat Spain in Sunday’s Euro 2024 final in Berlin.

But big goals in big moments can change the course of a player’s career and elevate them to another level. And even if that isn’t the case, no England player or supporter — or even manager Gareth Southgate — will ever forget the instant hit of adrenaline and joy that the goal delivered.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær became a Manchester United legend by scoring a stoppage-time winner in the UEFA Champions League final in 1999, while David Platt was simply a promising Aston Villa player when he scored a last-minute winner against Belgium in the 1990 FIFA World Cup. That goal propelled Platt to stardom and earned him a career-changing move to Serie A weeks later.

Who knows what this goal will do for Watkins? Forget the long-term for now, the big question is whether he will have done enough for Southgate to start him ahead of England captain Harry Kane against Spain on Sunday.

That’s an unlikely scenario, but Watkins offers the pace and pressing that Kane has been unable to provide and he has now scored a huge winning goal in a huge game. He is certainly knocking hard on the door. Watkins is already a Premier League star at Villa, but he has spent this tournament in the shadow of Kane, who scored a penalty equaliser on 18 minutes following a stunning opener from Xavi Simons 11 minutes earlier, and fellow forwards Palmer and Ivan Toney.

When Southgate introduced him into the action on 81 minutes, it was only the second time Watkins had appeared at the tournament and the first time since a substitute outing against Denmark in England’s second game.

At 28, he is at the peak of his career — a player who has put in the hard yards to get to this point. Ten years ago, he was a youth team player at EFL League One side Exeter City and was loaned out to non-league team Weston-Super-Mare, a sixth-tier side, to gain experience. The tiny club were quick to tweet their congratulations to Watkins after the game.

Weston-Super-Mare to the Westfalenstadion is a journey that no player at Euro 2024 can claim to have made, but by doing so, Watkins is not only a hero to all the young kids who dream of playing for their country but also those players who think their careers are heading the wrong way and just need a break to climb the ladder.

“I’ve put in a lot of hard work to get to this point and I’m going to enjoy every moment,” Watkins said. “I didn’t want to come off the pitch at the end, I just wanted to soak it all in.

“I never thought I’d be playing in the Euros for England [when I was at Weston-Super-Mare]. You can dream, but I’m a realist and it was day by day, one step at a time. At the time, I was just dreaming of being back in the first team at Exeter.”

But despite the Watkins story having an element of fairytale to it, being a fringe player at a major tournament can be tough. Long weeks of being on the “other” side in training, putting on a smile when your teammates are being selected, wondering if it would have been better to have a long break on a sunbed rather than kill time in a hotel room at a training camp for five weeks.

And while he was happy to enjoy the moment, he made it clear that he is not simply in Germany to help make up the numbers.

“It’s been frustrating because I don’t like to be on the bench,” Watkins said. “I’ve just had the best season of career, but my friends have said to be patient and that I will get opportunities. But when I’ve been on the bench, I said I can make a difference and I’ve now taken a chance and scored.

“I said to Cole [Palmer] at half-time that we were going to get on and he was going to set up me and I managed it, I manifested it. I don’t think I’ve hit a ball that sweet before.”

It was a sweet finish, and Watkins will do well to have another moment like that in his career. But he might just have that chance Sunday to do even better.

“Now we’re in the final,” he said. “One last game. They are a great football team, lots of depth, and it’s the most important game of our lives. But for now, we want to celebrate this one.”

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