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‘I had to be greedy’: Watkins revels in journey from Exeter to England heroics

Ollie Watkins came off the bench to score a late winner for England against the Netherlands.Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

England’s history-making hero Ollie Watkins described his disbelief after a “special moment” that he had not dared to imagine earlier in his career.

Watkins propelled England’s men to their first major tournament final on foreign soil with a brilliant ­last‑minute goal against the Netherlands, cracking in low from an angle to spark jubilation in Dortmund and beyond. The Aston Villa forward explained such scenes were a distant prospect when he was coming through as a youngster at Exeter, but revealed he and his fellow substitute Cole Palmer had predicted they would combine for the winner.

Related: Ollie Watkins’ bolt from blue stuns Netherlands and sends England to final

“I said to Cole that we were both going to go on the pitch and he was going to set me up at half time,” ­Watkins said, pointing to the pass Palmer provided to create his chance. “I manifested it and as soon as he turned I knew I needed to make a move. You don’t get that opportunity very often so I had had to be greedy, I had to take it. I don’t think I’ve hit a ball that sweet before. Obviously it’s such a special moment as well.”

The biggest emotion for Watkins came in recalling how, when battling for a first-team spot in League Two and spending time on loan with the National League South club ­Weston-super-Mare in 2014-15, breaking boundaries with England barely crossed his radar.

“I never thought I’d be playing in the Euros for England,” he said. “Obviously you can dream but I’m a realist. I was just focusing on getting back into the first team at Exeter. I’ve worked hard to get to this point and I’m going to enjoy every moment. I can’t lie to you and say I’ve dreamed about that. ­Obviously scoring for England is amazing but I didn’t think I’d be doing it in a tournament like that.”

Watkins scored 27 goals for Villa last season as they secured a place in­ the Champions League. But he has been firmly ­second fiddle to Harry Kane at national‑team level and had only made one substitute appearance in Germany, in the group stage against Denmark, before this intervention on Wednesday. This time he replaced Kane, who had scored a penalty earlier but laboured in the second half, with nine minutes left and was able to banish the disappointment of his bit-part role.

“To be honest, recently I got a little bit frustrated,” he said. “I don’t like to be on the bench, I’ve had the best season of my career. I’ve had a few messages from my friends saying: ‘Be patient, you’re going to get an ­opportunity.’ They feel like I’ve got a big part to play in the tournament. The amount of people that have messaged me today ­saying I’m going to score tonight when I come on is ridiculous. Hopefully they can do the same for the final, or even give me the lottery numbers.”

Gareth Southgate hailed Watkins’s momentous impact and paid tribute to his attitude. “For Ollie to produce that moment when he did saved us another half hour and was very, very special for him, I am delighted for him,” the manager said. “[He]has trained like that every day, he has been ready for his moment and the whole group have been.”

England’s coaching staff must now plot a way past Spain, who were able to enjoy a day of relative rest after beating France on Tuesday. Nonetheless Southgate allowed himself to bask briefly in their achievement.

“We have had some ­incredible nights in the last seven or eight years,” he said. “The only reason I did the job was to try and bring success to England as a nation. To be able to take the team to a first final overseas, I am immensely proud. But we have come to the final to win; we play the best team in the tournament with a day less to prepare.”

Southgate suggested it was too early to say whether Kieran Trippier, who had a groin problem and was replaced by Luke Shaw at half-time, would be fit for the final on Sunday in Berlin. He also said Kane had taken “quite a big knock” in the collision with Denzel Dumfries that, after a VAR review, earned England that controversial spot‑kick and a chance to equalise Xavi Simons’s superb opener.

The Netherlands were furious about the decision, ultimately made by the referee, Felix Zwayer, to award the penalty. “What do you do as a defender?” their manager, Ronald Koeman, asked regarding the incident, in which Dumfries had seemingly been attempting to block a Kane snap-shot. “This is not a ­penalty. Dumfries wanted to block the ball. Then the shoes collide. Such VAR decisions destroy football.”

The captain, Virgil van Dijk, made little attempt to hide a similar view. “The referee ran back inside straight after the full-time whistle, that says a lot,” he said. “I had no time to shake his hand. But it is what it is, the game is done, we lost, certain moments were obvious that they should have gone our way, but they didn’t, whatever the outcome.”

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