In the absence of Harry Kane, Ollie Watkins continued his hot goal-scoring form on Friday to lead England to a 1-0 win against Australia at Wembley Stadium.
Watkins has already scored two hat-tricks for Aston Villa this season and seized his chance to make an impression ahead of next year’s European Championship as Three Lions coach Gareth Southgate named an experimental team for the friendly match.
In his first appearance for his nation in 19 months, he slid in to convert from close range in the 57th-minute for the only goal of the game as England warmed up for Tuesday’s Euro 2024 qualifier against Italy with a win.
“I knew I wasn’t going to come off this pitch without the goal, that was in my mind,” Watkins said.
Southgate showed his appreciation by greeting the striker with a hug when he was substituted later in the match.
Watkins is one of a host of forwards hoping to make Southgate’s squad for the Euros, should England qualify for the tournament in Germany. Along with the likes of Callum Wilson, Eddie Nketiah and Ivan Toney, he is competing to take up the role of understudy to Kane, England’s captain and all-time leading scorer.
That is why games like this, with Kane among a host of regulars rested, take on extra meaning for the players who need to make a point to Southgate.
“It has been a long time coming. I have been waiting a long time for the next call up. I was looking forward to it and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip,” Watkins said. “There’s so many good forwards around scoring goals and it is about taking your opportunity when you are on the pitch.”
Watkins had scored on his England debut against San Marino in 2021 and then again on his first start for his nation against Ivory Coast the following year.
He hadn’t played for England since then, but his impressive club form earned him a second start and he was on the scoresheet again for his third international goal.
Watkins capitalised when Trent Alexander-Arnold’s diagonal ball into the box found Jack Grealish, who drove a low cross to the far post. Watkins slid in to meet it, break the deadlock and ultimately secure the win.
The 27-year-old striker has now scored eight goals for club and country in 14 appearances this season. His England call up came after hat tricks for Villa against Hibernian in the Europa Conference League and Brighton in the Premier League.
“There was a few times before I got called up and didn’t think I deserved it, but now I am coming in confident in myself off the back of good form,” he said. “I was not nervous and just tried to perform in front of all these fans. I scored, it was a good night.”
Watkins was part of a much-changed England team against Australia that included a senior debut for Chelsea defender Levi Colwill. Sam Johnstone, Lewis Dunk, Fikayo Tomori and Jarrod Bowen were also named in the lineup as Southgate benched many of his regulars.
Watkins might have added another goal when he was fractions away from opening the scoring in the first half after taking the ball around Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan and hitting the post.
Australia then came close to taking a halftime lead, but Dunk cleared Ryan Strain’s shot off the line.