Bosko Balaban, Marcus Allback and Nicklas Helenius. These names resonate with Aston Villa supporters, in a similar fashion to a child seeing vegetables on their dinner plate; pure and utter distain. Unfortunately, every football club, at every level of the game has their own similar list of names which would make their fans shudder.
The simplistic beauty of a club signing a new player is the excitement and anticipation of his potential success. The sad reality is that this optimism very rarely rings true. However, in the midst of a global pandemic, Aston Villa followers can claim that their club are proving the exception to this rule.
Amongst the five signings made by the club in the summer of 2020, Ollie Watkins was undoubtedly the one who harboured the bulk of the club’s hopes of success, following their dramatic last day relegation escape of the previous season. The transfer fee of a reported Championship record of £27m was enough alone to turn the heads of supporters across the country, particularly those of Aston Villa’s nearest geographical rivals.
Let’s face it, Villa spending big on a Championship forward is nothing new. The millions spent on Ross McCormack, Scott Hogan and Jonathan Kodjia doesn’t exactly scream value for money based on their combined goal returns. But for Villa fans, the optimism of Watkins’ arrival felt different to previous years. Maybe, just maybe, Dean Smith knew what he was getting when he put his faith in Watkins. So much so in fact, that he was quite content in knowing that the only realistic back up in the event of any injury to Watkins would be Keinan Davis, with no date planned on Wesley’s return from injury.
The signs were positive during pre-season, with Watkins’ movement and running ability praised highly. A goal in the behind closed doors win against Manchester United certainly had supporters talking. This talk gathered momentum following his competitive debut and a goal in the 3-1 Carabao Cup victory against Burton Albion. Despite the positivity, the true test would be the burning question, could he cut it in the Premier League?
In his first 2 appearances, Watkins failed to find the net in the victories against Sheffield United and Fulham. 6 points from the first 2 games for Villa most definitely overshadowed any talk of Watkins not yet opening his account. No doubt the player himself however, would have been desperate to secure that first Premier League goal. In only his third appearance, Watkins well and truly announced himself onto the Premier League scene with a hat trick in the stunning 7-2 win against reigning champions Liverpool. You’d think this would be a dream for any player, yet interestingly, Watkins spoke post-match about how he felt he could have had more goals in the game.
He followed this up with a goal in the defeat to Southampton and a brace in the win against Arsenal, taking his tally to 6, before going on a run of 9 games without managing to find the net. As is sometimes the case with centre forwards, these barren patches happen without explanation. Watkins’ performances, despite the lack of goals, never came under scrutiny. He was still having a huge impact on Villa’s results and was rather unfortunate to be the victim of some extremely tight VAR and offside calls, seeing a couple of goals taken away from him. There also happened to be a missed penalty in this period, during the defeat to West Ham.
As typified by his tireless running and outstanding work rate, Watkins bounced back with a run of 4 goals in 5 games, taking his Premier League total to 10 in 22 games. At this point, with a European Championships at the end of the season, Watkins’ name began to be mentioned amongst those who may break into the England squad. It also begs the question, just how good is he?
It’s often said that the benchmark for a forward is the magical number 20. But how does that compare to famous Villa forwards of the past? Saunders, Yorke, Angel, Agbonlahor to name a few. Not one Aston Villa player has ever managed the magical total of 20 in the Premier League. Tammy Abraham did score 26 goals during the 2018/19 Championship season, but only Christian Benteke has come close in the Premier League with his total of 19 in 2012/13. The following table shows Villa’s best Premier League goal scoring campaigns:
One interesting point to note here is that Julian Joachim is the only player on the above list who reached his total without taking a penalty. Whilst Watkins has managed a single goal from the spot, he is not Villa’s first choice spot kick taker and has already stepped aside whilst Anwar El Ghazi has successfully converted 2. Dean Saunders’ total of 15 also came during a 42-game season.
Now one cannot cast aspersions and assume that Watkins will continue to score, but if he can stay injury free then it’s very likely that, in this Aston Villa side, he will do just that. So just how far into this list could he finish? With 16 games remaining, he only requires a further 4 goals to equal Joachim’s total. Could he even better Benteke’s and reach the milestone 20?
He has already surpassed Villa’s top goal scorers in 7 of their previous Premier League campaigns, including Dion Dublin’s 8 in 2001, Gabby Agbonlahor’s 9 in 2007 and Darren Bent’s 9 in 2012. All 3 of these are names you would associate with being some of Aston Villa’s best Premier League centre forwards.
One good goal scoring season, however, does not necessary earn you a place in a football club’s elite player category. It does though mean your name will not easily be forgotten, just ask Swansea fans about Michu or Bolton Wanderers fans about Michael Ricketts. Watkins will not only need to continue to score goals, but will need to do so consistently across further seasons. Dean Saunders, Dwight Yorke and Christian Benteke have each finished as Aston Villa’s top goal scorers in three consecutive seasons. John Carew, Dion Dublin and Juan Pablo Angel have also scored more than anyone else across multiple campaigns. There are players that Ollie Watkins will be compared to Villa supporters.
It’s going to be fascinating to see just how the remainder of the season pans out and just how many goals Ollie Watkins will finish on. Villa supporters would hope to see his name in Gareth Southgate’s squad, along with maybe just a few other Villa players too.
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