He watched all the Polish matches. The hero of England spoke: “I swear!” Football

The visualization was supposed to help him from a solid striker to a great striker and advance to the national team. A year and a half was enough for him to develop his imagination to such an extent that he was able to predict even scoring a goal that would make it to the Euro finals many hours before the match with Holland. During the break, he told Cole Palmer that the two of them would lead England to advance. “I swear on my child's life that I told him: today we're going to advance, you pass it to me and I'll score a goal. And that's what happened,” the Aston Villa striker gushed after the 2-1 victory over Holland.

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It was the 91st minute, with the second semi-final heading into extra time. Watkins and Palmer came on at the same time for Harry Kane and Phil Foden. Ten minutes were all it took to turn everything upside down. The midfielder received the ball in the Dutch half and effortlessly played it into the alley between Virgil van Dijk and Nathan Ake, leading his team-mate into the penalty area. And then came two golden touches, straight out of a footballing handbook that will be shown to young strikers in academies across England. A reception and a shot. The ball went between Stefan De Vrij's legs and just wide of the far post. The algorithm predicted that the chance of scoring in this situation was just 0.06 (xG). Watkins had to be close to perfection to ensure England's qualification for the final.

England in the final! The reserve team's performance decided their advancement

For the whole team, it was a match of redemption. England completely failed to use their potential at the Euro and slipped through to the next rounds. First, they made it out of the group with a goal balance of 2:1 after a win and two draws, then they miraculously avoided elimination in the match with Slovakia in the 1/8 (Bellingham equalized in the 95th minute, and Kane scored the decisive goal in extra time), and in the quarter-finals with Switzerland they played only slightly better and still needed a series of penalties to advance. The players and the coach were criticized. And no one can criticize as harshly as tipsy English fans, pundits with powerful names and tabloids without any inhibitions. They had almost written this team off, sacked Gareth Southgate, and confidently included Harry Kane and Phil Foden in the eleven of the biggest disappointments. They were irritated by the lack of a plan, the reluctance to attack and take risks, the arrogance of the game and the conviction in the dressing room that they were great, which was not visible on the pitch.

Everyone wanted a change. Except Southgate, who had a solid eleven and forgot about the reserves that any coach in the world would envy. Even France's Didier Deschamps would have killed for a selection of forwards like Kane, Ollie Watkins and Ivan Toney. Meanwhile, Watkins had played just 22 minutes in the group match with Denmark before the semi-final, and Toney 42 (half an hour of which was extra time with Slovakia – he was brought on for the last action of the regular time).

And suddenly, England, criticised from all sides, played their best match of the entire Euro against the Netherlands. Finally, they were brave from the start. They responded quickly to Xavi Simons' goal and after Harry Kane's equalising penalty goal, they kept going. Foden was very dangerous, his first shot from the line was cleared by one of the defenders, and the second – almost identical to Lamine Yamala's in the match against France – bounced off the post. Kobbie Mainoo shone in the middle, Bukayo Saka was active on the wing. Finally, England were a pleasure to watch. Finally, their game did not lull us to sleep. The second half was already weaker, and England more conservative, but then Southgate came in with changes. Brave ones – we should add, because taking Foden and captain Kane off the pitch was not easy. Palmer and Watkins did their job, though. England scored again at the end. Again, they were saved by the substitutes. If for years it has been working towards being labeled as a team that falls at the first obstacle, now it is a team that can get out of any trouble.

Its strength on the bench is incredible. Watkins sits there, who scored 19 goals and had 13 assists in 37 league matches for Aston Villa last season. Palmer – the author of 22 goals and 11 assists, single-handedly pulling Chelsea. Anthony Gordon – 11 goals and 10 assists for Newcastle United, one of the most important players in this team. Eberechi Eze (11 goals in 27 matches for Crystal Palace), an extremely energetic artist who will probably move to a club more suited to his potential for a lot of money at any moment. In addition, Jarrod Bowen – a star of West Ham United and Trent Alexander-Arnold, a defender-midfielder designed by Juergen Kopp. In a word: wealth!

And although the whole of England is celebrating the success, and criticism has been replaced by compliments, some fans and pundits are timidly reminding us that Southgate waited too long to make changes in the match against Holland. Apart from removing Kieran Trippier and introducing Luke Shaw during the break – until the 81st minute, when heroes Palmer and Watkins appeared on the pitch. He is saved by the fact that he scored so brilliantly and advanced to the second consecutive final of the European Championship.

He watched all of Poland's matches at the World Cup. “He's my best friend”

Watkins had to wait a long time for such a chance – Kane's position is unquestionable, and Southgate admitted during this tournament that he always hesitates to take him off the pitch, because even if he is not doing well in a given match, he has the talent and skills that allow him to change the course of the match at any moment with one magical touch of the ball. The same is true of Jude Bellingham, which was best confirmed by the match against Slovakia. Strikers do not have it easy in the squad. And while Toney has already had his moment at the World Cup, because he made a successful save in the match against Slovakia and confidently took a penalty in the penalty shootout against Switzerland, Watkins has still watched the matches from the bench.

Fortunately, he had already learned the lesson of patience – the most painful one came during the World Cup in Qatar. He was already in good shape, scoring goals in friendlies and dreaming of being called up. This tournament was all the more special for him because his brother lives in Doha, so the whole family planned a dream vacation – they were supposed to live with one son and go to the other's matches. But it didn't work out, because Gareth Southgate, despite including him on a long list of call-ups, ultimately took only two center forwards to Qatar – Kane and Callum Wilson from Newcastle. Watkins, on the other hand, went to the Aston Villa training camp in Dubai during the World Cup. Even geographically, he felt that he was close to the team. And it frustrated him incredibly. He had time to think everything through. It was then that he gave an interview to “The Athletic”, in which he declared that he wanted to change his game – to move away from being a striker who is always happy to share the ball with his teammates, help the team build the action, run to the wing or drop back into the middle, because ultimately only goals make a player in his position properly appreciated.

He watched the World Cup very closely, although it bordered on masochism. He suffered because he wasn't there. Someone else was fulfilling his dream. But there was another, non-obvious reason why he could suffer in front of the TV. – I watched mainly the strikers. It may not be obvious, but Enner Valencia from Ecuador made a big impression on me. I also love watching Kylian Mbappe. Jude Bellingham is unbelievably good – he shared his conclusions. And he admitted that he watched not only all the England matches, but also the Polish national team. – I watched every one of their matches because of Cashy. Matty is my best friend – he said.

They know each other from playing together at Aston Villa, and often go out for dinner together. Now the roles have been reversed and it is Matty Cash, not called up by Michał Probierz for the Euros, who watches his matches. After the match with Holland, he posted a photo of the TV on Instagram. Watkins was giving an interview at the time. Cash wrote: “Very proud, brother!”

A lesson in patience

The World Cup was a turning point in his career. It had always been moving forward, but very slowly. Exactly a decade ago, when he was 18, he was playing in the sixth division for Weston-super-Mare and helping the club avoid relegation. At the time, he was on loan from fourth-tier Exeter City. Teammates his age were already coming out of the fancy academies, starting to knock on the first teams, and the more talented ones were already making their Premier League debuts. He, on the other hand, spent two hours a day in the car commuting between Exeter, where he lived, and Weston-super-Mare, where he trained, wondering whether he would ever make it to professional football. He had almost no money from it, and the prospects weren’t the best either. The chairman of the club to which Watkins was loaned recalls that due to traffic jams, the hero of the match against Holland was constantly late for training, so according to the internal regulations, he had to pay a small fine each time. It was only a few pounds, but there were so many delays that at the end of the season his penalties alone were enough to finance a camp trip for four juniors.

Later, he accelerated his career at Brentford – one of the most interesting clubs in England, which has a great scouting department and is able to perfectly diagnose the potential of players from lower leagues or those at the turning point of their careers. He broke through to the Premier League, but still lacked goals. He was a solid striker, but he was far from greatness. A lot changed after meeting Unai Emery. It was during the training camp during the World Cup that the new Aston Villa coach had the opportunity to talk to Watkins for a longer time, get to know him better and start working on extracting his potential. It was the Spanish coach who suggested that he should focus on scoring goals.

He changed the team's tactics and told him to focus on the penalty area. He delegated his assistant to work there after training on proper movement in front of the opponents' goal and – in Watkins's words – “finding the right corridors”. This was helped by the clips that Emery prepared for him, showing the model behaviour of his previous strikers – Carlos Bacca from Sevilla and Edinson Cavani from PSG. But the most important work was on finishing the action. Tedious, sometimes boring, carried out in solitude. Cross – shoot. Reception – shoot. Turn – shoot. And so on thousands of times.

But the effect was worth the effort. In the match against Holland, Watkins first found the right corridor, then received the ball, struck and hit it perfectly. The award for the best player of the match is, in his case, a reward for patience.

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