With every cloud comes a silver lining. A cliché yes, but one that rings true with regards to young starlet Caleb Watts and his breakthrough season for Southampton…
A trip to Leicester City proves a tough test for any team, at any stage of the season.
But with eight first-team players missing as a result of injury or COVID-19, this mid-January test had just become even tougher for Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men.
No player wants to see another injured, particularly when it’s one of your own, but these absentees opened the door for the next wave of Academy products to make their mark.
Amongst the substitutes at the King Power that evening was young Watts, who celebrated his 19th birthday as the side made their way up the A34.
“On the way up I was really nervous,” he admits, “because obviously you have to sing! But once I got that out the way it was a really good experience which I enjoyed.”
The burning question is, what was the song of choice?
“I went with Valerie in the end,” he smiles, clearly proud of the choice and with good reason. “With that one you can try and get people involved.
“To be fair it was all a bit of a blur, I was just trying to sing. I didn’t really see anything, I had my head down and was trying to get it out the way! I don’t think it went too badly!
“Obviously we didn’t get the result in the end but it was just quite surreal [the experience]. Previous to that I’d been out for two weeks with COVID-19, so it was kind of out the blue to get the call up. I didn’t expect to be involved that early.”
There wasn’t long for the youngster to dwell on the experiences of the 16th January either, less than 72 hours to be exact.
“It was funny actually,” recollects Watts with a laugh. “We did a session with all the players who were on the bench [versus Leicester] and then I went down to the bottom to do some gym.
“One of the under-23 coaches, Dave Horseman, came up and said to me, ‘I think you might be starting tomorrow’”
Horseman was referring to the upcoming FA Cup third round tie with Shrewsbury Town at St Mary’s.
“Then the next day in the session I saw I was starting. I had an awful session to be fair because I was very nervous!
“It was kind of out the blue. But when I got out on the pitch that night I settled in pretty quickly I think and really enjoyed the game.
“I think of all games it was probably the best to make your debut in because you’re not thrown into the deep end straight away.
“The only thing I would’ve changed is having fans in there. Having fans there would’ve made the experience even better for everyone really.”
No doubt the night was made all the more special for Watts as the youngster shared the occasion with many other Academy graduates.
Starting the game alongside him were Kegs Chauke and Dan Nlundulu, while Alex Jankewitz and Ryan Finnigan entered the fray late on during an evening which showcased the Southampton way.
“Me and Kegs speak a fair bit anyway so I think we just spoke about how much we’re looking forward to it,” recalled Watts.
“We were texting each other about what time we needed to be in because we both really wanted to make sure we weren’t late for any meetings and stuff!
“To have Kegs [Chauke] out on the pitch too was amazing. I was really happy for him and knowing that there’s another player in the same position on the pitch as me, who’s in the same position career wise, was reassuring.
“I saw him growing into the game and then you knew that it was one where you could both play in and be effective. I think we both had pretty decent games in the end.
“That’s how I like to play, I like to run at players and get others involved. Hopefully you’ll see a lot more of it in the next year or so as I get a lot more comfortable.
“That game, because we had so much possession, it was easy to get settled and I think once I’m settled I can be really effective.
“It’s just about getting better at settling early and playing in games that maybe don’t come as easy to the team.”
As proud a night as it was for the Saints Academy, there's no doubting how memorable an occasion it was for the Watts family watching on from back home.
Whilst they couldn’t support from the stands, they certainly made their presence heard in the family’s WhatsApp group.
“When I got into the changing room and looked at that group chat there was loads of texts saying, ‘the commentator mentioned him here, and here.’ It was so alien to them!
“I’ve since muted the chat though because some of the stuff that goes in there is just…stop! There’s too much spam in there sometimes! But yeah it was really cool.”
The reaction from the family, although clearly too much at times for the 19-year-old, is an understandable one considering the rise the young Australian international has felt in the last 12 months.
On 28th January 2020, Watts was lining up ready to face AFC Totton at Snows Stadium for a place in the quarter-finals of the Hampshire Senior cup.
Jump forward 365 days and the youngster has both a Southampton and Premier League debut to his name.
“It’s been a huge learning curve,” explains Watts, clearly loving every minute he spends within the environment. “Seeing first-team players all the time. Seeing their habits.
“Players like Prowsey, you can pick up so much knowledge and information from how they operate on a day-to-day basis.
“My target was to just get around the first team as much as possible. I thought last season I had a pretty weak season just because of the injuries etc and I knew I was capable of more.
“But if I’m honest I probably didn’t see me getting this much time in the first team, but because of injuries and how I’ve performed it’s allowed me to have quite a good year I feel.
“I think the B team set-up has definitely helped me develop. A few of us came back at the restart around the first team and it gave us a much better idea of the playing philosophy and how the manager wants to play.
“It has given us a bit of a head start because it’s a lot easier to go into the system of a lot more running, a lot more high pressing.
“You’re a lot more knowledgeable so you don’t feel so far from the deep end when you do go up to the first team. You know the principles and you’ve already done it with the B team.”
Although the Premier League season is coming to a close, Watts' development year continues with the Olympic games in Tokyo on the horizon.
The midfielder will represent Australia, his Dad’s native country; an honour which clearly already means a lot to the youngster.
“There’s a lot of national pride associated with playing for Australia. Making my grandparents proud, making my dad proud, I feel a real affinity towards the country, probably more so than I do England.
“I think that England team at the time looked quite difficult to get into, there was a lot of competition. I also really liked what the [Australian] coach, when he came to visit, had to say.
“We had the World Cup coming at the end of the year so I thought it’d be a really good opportunity.
“It was funny because I didn’t play at all leading up to it because I’d been injured with the club all year. So I kind of went in pre-injured but the coach put a lot of trust in me and the other players to go out and perform and we did a decent job.
“Eventually we got drawn against a really tough opponent, which I thought we did well against, but we got a red card and it fizzled out a bit.
“But it was a really good experience and great to play with the best players in the world in my age group.
“We have the Olympics coming up this summer which I’m really looking forward to, along with a pre-camp in June which should be good.
“I haven’t played with that team yet so I’m looking forward to meeting new players. Then also playing against older age groups which should be more of a challenge.”
The ambition is unquestionable, alongside his clear drive to succeed at the club which gave him that opportunity.
Alongside being a summer of national importance for Watts, it’s a summer to build, a summer to work and a chance to hit new heights once more.