From Southern League to Premier League; The story of one of football’s most remarkable rises

Back in the mid 1990s I had a season ticket for the the Dell. I distinctly remembered that during this period one young player came from seemingly nowhere to appear in the Premier League before disappearing just as quickly . I decided to do some research and came across this most remarkable tale which perfectly captures the highs and lows of attempting to make a career out of football:

Fleet Town 1996/97. Just six weeks later Russ Watkinson - third from left in the top-row - would make his Premier League debut against Tottenham Hotspur in front of 15 000 fans. Fleet would go on to finish 20th in the Southern League Southern Division
Fleet Town 1996/97. Just six weeks later Russ Watkinson – third from left in the top-row – would make his Premier League debut against Tottenham Hotspur in front of 15 000 fans. Fleet would go on to finish 20th in the Southern League Southern Division

“It just goes to show that dreams can come true.” Words spoken in the wake of his Premier league debut, Russ Watkinson could perhaps, like any young player, be forgiven for the hyperbole, but then his story, far more than most, actually did resemble a fairy-tale.

It was just a matter of weeks before when as a reserve at Conference side Woking the eighteen year-old’s fledgling career had received a major setback. Told he was not part of the clubs immediate first-team plans he found himself pushed-out on loan to Fleet Town – a club who were at the start of the 1996/97 season embarking on their second season in the Southern League Southern Division and hoping to improve on their previous placing of 19th out of 22.

But from disaster sprang opportunity and with the ink barely dry on the Fleet Town team photo fate would intervene to produce a dramatic reversal of fortune. It was Southampton reserve-team coach Ray Clarke who would play fairy-godmother. Visiting Fleet with his side for a pre-season friendly he would be impressed by the pacey winger who he would invite back to the premiership club for trials, leading to the offer of a one year professional contract. Poetically the club who spurned him, Woking, didn’t receive any fee from the deal as they’d neglected to even put the player on a contract – a fact which they reportedly scrambled to rectify without success.

On arrival at Southampton any thought of first-team football was, initially at least, far from the players mind and with recently installed Southampton manager Graeme Souness promising to deliver an influx of talent from across the continent – revealing in his opening set of programme notes that along with his staff he had “travelled all over Europe looking at players, ones who will excite the crowd.” – fans were feverishly scanning the horizon for a big-name overseas arrival allowing the player from Epsom, Surrey to slip past virtually unnoticed.

Souness’s European wanderings were however, taking time to bear fruit leaving the moustachioed Scot with a threadbare squad seriously bereft of attacking options. Having only just made his full-debut for the reserves, in which he had helped the side to a 3-1 victory with involvement in two of the goals, Watkinson was handed a surprise call up to the first-team squad for the upcoming league clash with Tottenham, only learning of his inclusion in the afternoon before when asked by first-team coach Phil Boersma what he wanted for his pre-match meal.

With the saints going down 1-0 to a Chris Armstrong penalty and fellow attacking substitute David Hughes, carrying an ankle injury Watkinson found himself thrown on to take his place amongst the elite of the Premier League in the 67th minute. A turnaround which would have the local paper, the Echo, excitedly surmising that “the Woking managers face must have been a picture”

Although failing to change the outcome of the game Watkinson showed, according to the paper’s obesrver, “flashes of his pace and potential”. Certainly it was enough to secure a place on the bench for the next league match against Wimbledon. An unused sub in that game Watkinson would manage to make appearances from the bench in the next two games, a league cup tie against Peterborough and a 4-0 home win against Middlesbrough.

The dream would however, be short-lived. As Souness began to build his squad Watkinson found himself once again surplus to requirements and the Middlesbrough game – two weeks after his debut – would be his last. Spending the remainder of his time in the reserves his professional career would come to a close shortly after a period on loan at Millwall, towards the end of the 1997/98 season, ended without an appearance.

Returning to non-league obscurity Watkinson would make appearances at Kingstonian, Aldershot Town and Chesham United. It was with Aldershot that Watkinson would make a return to the Dell in 1999. Ending in triumph as Aldershot defeated Basingstoke Town 1-0 in the Hampshire Senior Cup final it was if not quite a fairy-tale ending at least a happy one.

Postscript: An internet search reveals that Russ Watkinson has since 2002 been passing on his skills to subsequent generations through his children’s soccer school, RAW Skills.

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