Big interview: Kell Watts
Written by Tom Easterby
Amid the unease of lockdown and with his 21st birthday approaching, Kell Watts’ elder sister Jade told him she had the perfect present lined up. “I had no idea what it was,” says the Newcastle United defender. “She was saying, ‘you’ll never get a present this good’ and all this. I was thinking, ‘what on earth?’ Are you not just going to get us Lynx Africa?”
When it arrived last month, it was special. Jade had had a photo book professionally printed, adorned with photos of her brother’s footballing journey dating back to 2008, the year he joined United’s academy. The images were arranged in order, leading to one he cannot forget. The final photo is from 26th July 2020; it is of Watts, in the number 49 shirt, passing Danny Rose, mid-stride, as he ran on for his Premier League debut.
Five months have passed since one of the defining days of Watts’ life. His debut at St. James’ Park came against the newly-crowned champions Liverpool, a largely inconsequential match but one seared into the youngsters’ memory. It had been 12 years in the making.
Born in Alnwick, Watts’ family moved to Seahouses when he was a child but had to rethink when Newcastle showed an interest in him. “At eight years old, moving from Seahouses to Newcastle, I didn’t really appreciate it, what my sister and brother had to do as well, having to move school and that,” he explains.
Logistically, with the constant travelling, it was tough for his parents, Susan and Tony. Watts would go to school in Ponteland and then arrive at Benton for his 6pm training sessions two hours early, “because I had nowhere else to go. I would do a couple of hours beforehand and my sister would do all her homework in the tent, where the media rooms are now. I’d finish training at eight and then get back to Seahouses at half nine. That was our standard day.” It became a useful habit; even after moving back to Newcastle, and as the long journeys became less frequent, he would get there early and practice.
There is another memory from Watts’ teenage years that time can do little to erase. He was 14, sitting in his mother’s car on the way home from Ponteland School. “I remember just being in the car with my mam. My dad normally did all the school runs for me and my sister, but mam said, ‘I’ll pick you up from school today’.
“I wasn’t thinking too much about it. My brother was at the hospital with dad when they did all the scans and stuff. My mam rang up, it was just my brother saying, ‘get here as quick as you can’. I sort of knew something wasn’t right but I was still a bit young, 14, and didn’t really think too much of it.
“We all got in the car all together and then my dad just said ‘they think it’s this, sort of thing’.”
That ‘sort of thing’ hangs in the air. Tony, who had worked as a printing design manager, had already beaten cancer once, when it was found in his throat before Kell was born. “He actually got told it was terminal. They said he had about two weeks to a month to live. There was an operation they wanted to do where he had a very, very slim chance of coming out of it, of coming out of theatre. But they said it was the only real shot.”
He came through it but had to learn to speak, chew and swallow again. Kell and Jade were born soon after, joining their siblings Laura and Alex. Learning of Tony’s second diagnosis – of bowel cancer this time – in his mum’s car is still clear in Watts’ mind. “The club were class with us. Joe Joyce and Jimmy Nelson were getting us to training, getting us back, supporting us through it,” he says. “It was different class. So was my school – Ponteland School were brilliant with us, giving us extra time for handing in bits of homework, but I did try to get it all in on time. My sister was a bit older, she was doing her GCSEs, and they were helping her too – it’s stressful enough anyway, when you’re going through exams.
“But to be honest, it’s crazy. I’m talking about Newcastle and school, but the biggest person who kept us going was my dad, and he was the one who wasn’t well. He was the one always making sure I was playing, training, keeping everyone right.”
There was always that grim uncertainty to grapple with (“getting it again after going through that, you’re not thinking the best”), but Tony’s second all-clear flicked a switch. “He would say, ‘if I’m doing this, beating cancer twice, you can do anything you want. Go and do it’,” says Watts. “Do anything you want to do in life. If people say you have such a slim chance of doing something, why not just be that slim chance? If someone can say that in two weeks you’re not going to be here, and then you are, then anything can happen.”
In his apartment in Plymouth, Watts has been catching up on sleep for most of the afternoon. Peterborough away on a Tuesday night, even with a slighter kinder 7pm kick-off, is an arduous trek. Most journeys are for Argyle. He didn’t get back until 5:15am.
Life is different down by the English Channel and this is what he is now acclimatising to. One recent session was concluded with a dip in the sea. “It’s a really nice place to live,” says Watts, who is on loan at Home Park until the end of the current campaign, “and as a collective, we’ve had a very good start to the season. We’re the new boys in League One after getting promoted last year, so we came into the season with a bit of momentum despite the disruption of Covid.
“We haven’t lost at home yet – we’ve had some good wins there – but in terms of adapting to being at the other end of the country, I think I’ve just got my head down and thought, ‘I want to do all this for a reason. I want to do all this to eventually come back and play for Newcastle in the Premier League’. If this is what I need to do, then it’s not really a major problem.”
At the start of 2020 Watts, borrowed by Stevenage for the first half of 2019/20, was at the foot of the EFL. It was a torrid season and a jarring introduction to football’s brutal realities. “Every game, for us, was huge. At Stevenage, with where we were in the league, with managers fighting for their jobs, and putting you in the team to make sure you make them keep their job – it was a lot of pressure,” he reflects. “I went there as a 19-year-old lad, and getting thrown in there, I learned loads. I would have liked to have been at the top of the table – maybe it would have been a bit more relaxed! But for my first loan, as a defender, it was a mental experience that I took so much away from.”
At Stevenage, Watts emerged as a promising left-sided centre back, but versatility was his calling card when he was younger. The last time we spoke on the record was back in December 2017 before an FA Youth Cup tie at Brighton, when he was a different kind of player. When did he feel it all beginning to click? “Well, I was playing striker then. I went out and played in a front two that day and scored a hat-trick. So to be honest, I thought things were clicking then, as a striker!” he laughs. “I thought, ‘I’m sorted here, I’ll just keep banging the goals in’.
“I liked playing higher up the pitch, I’d played there my whole life, but when you’re playing for your country at centre back, and you’re on the bench in the Premier League as a defender and these loan opportunities are coming up as a defender, I sort of just took them and thought ‘if I’m getting all these opportunities as a defender, I must be doing something right’. There wasn’t really a moment that happened. Since I was a kid, I think if you work hard, and you’re a nice lad, good things just seem to happen.”
Those days up front seem a long way away now. “But everywhere I’ve went, when the lads get to know us and get to know I played striker for so long, I think every club’s called us ‘Shearer’, no matter what,” he chuckles. “All the lads call us it now. In training, if we’re doing say a four-on-four or a mini-game and I have any sort of shot, they all just shout ‘Shearer!’ at us.”
It was no different at Mansfield, where Watts scored his first senior goal. That loan was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic in March and confusion reigned for a few weeks. Unsure of whether the lower leagues would continue, he returned to Tyneside and got the call to return to training. “It was good, to be honest, just to get out the house and go to training, just to go somewhere! Even better that it was with Newcastle’s first team.”
Having already played for two clubs last season, Watts was ineligible to feature for the Magpies, until special dispensation was granted as injuries mounted towards the end of the extended campaign. He got the green light before the penultimate game at the Amex, where he netted that treble as an 18-year-old. “The gaffer pulled me aside, and said he’d been thinking about whether to start me or not,” he remembers. “Because it’s my debut and I hadn’t played for about five months, he said, ‘I don’t want to throw you in on your debut and it not go right for you – not because of anything you’ve done, but because you haven’t played for so long’.
“I respected his decision. Although I wanted to play and I wanted to start the game, it was probably with good reason. He was just protecting us, and I respected that.”
Six days later, on the final day, it happened. “I was just thinking it’s the last game of the season, this weird season, and we’re playing Liverpool, the champions – I was just excited, to be honest. Sitting on the bench, when Danny Rose came over and said his hamstring was a bit tight, I looked around and thought, ‘if they need an option, it’s probably going to be me’. I just stayed ready, and when the chance came I was buzzing.
“I didn’t really soak it all in at the time, it was more afterwards when you realise ‘I’ve just made my Premier League debut for Newcastle’. It’s what I’ve dreamed of as a kid and what I’ve worked for every single day, and all the sacrifices all my family have made for us. You realise that it was all literally to get moments like that. I’ve finally played in the Premier League, and for Newcastle as well is even better.”
He went out for a meal with his girlfriend, Katie, after the game, before meeting some of his teammates. Dwight Gayle sidled over. “He said, ‘there he is, the Premier League debut boy’ and all this, and to be honest, that’s when it really hit us. Bloody hell. I’ve just made my debut! It’s mental. Under those circumstances it was a bit more crazy – with no fans, how I wasn’t meant to be able to play and had to get permission. It was a crazy experience and I loved every second of it.”
Watts comes on in place of Danny Rose to make his Premier League debut against Liverpool in July
There was a quick holiday in Santorini and a truncated three-week pre-season before he was “whisked off” to Plymouth, the next stop on his journey towards making it. There wasn’t much time to turn things over in his head, but there was a little sadness that his big moment came in an empty, silent St. James’, with none of his family or friends present.
“I know they were all watching us, trying to get the game on,” he shrugs. “I know my family and close mates were all glued somewhere to a screen. But other people will have been in a similar situation, making their debuts in the last nine games, and their families won’t have been there either. Making my debut was the main thing. That’s what my mam and dad said.”
Watts moved in with Katie’s family in March, conscious of not wanting to inadvertently affect Tony, who was classed as high risk. The night of his debut, he left his dad to enjoy the moment. “I think I needed to give him that night, to be honest. If I went over he wouldn’t have stopped talking to us. I had to give him that night of ringing absolutely bloody everyone.”
The next day, keeping his distance, he went round to see him. “I just looked at him, shaking my head. I couldn’t believe it,” he smiles. “When I first went into training, I kept telling him I couldn’t play – I’d played for two clubs, it had to be exceptional circumstances. Honestly, I was getting a bit annoyed, because the first couple of weeks I would go in and he would say, ‘you’ll make your debut this year, keep working hard, work the hardest in training’ and all this.
“I was like, ‘Dad, I will work hard in training, but I can’t play! They’re not changing the rule, it needs to be exceptional!’ He said, ‘just keep going. You’ll make your debut. You’ll play.’ I was just thinking, ‘how does he know things like that?’ He actually knew it would happen.”
There are a few precious mementos from his debut day, along with the birthday present from Jade. One is his own shirt, signed by the team. Another is Mo Salah’s from that game. “Andy Carroll was very annoyed at us – he wanted it after the game,” grins Watts. “Mo Salah gave me his shirt down the tunnel, and Andy went looking for it, but (Salah) was like, ‘I’ve given it to the young lad’. He had a few strong words.” Steve Harper then presented him with Virgil van Dijk’s shirt. Watts is moving house soon; there will be a special place on the wall of his new home reserved for those tops.
The final one is the most treasured. It is a photograph, taken by Watts and posted on his Instagram account, of his father, Tony, proudly holding the shirt his son wore against the champions that day. It is worth more to him than any of the jerseys.
“Everyone was taking a photo with it, and then I gave it to my dad and he turned around,” he says. “He was smiling ear to ear, buzzing to be holding it.
“As I’m taking the photo, I’m welling up. I’m thinking, ‘this is everything I’ve wanted to do’.”
"It’s what I’ve dreamed of as a kid and what I’ve worked for every single day, and all the sacrifices all my family have made for us. You realise that it was all literally to get moments like that. I’ve finally played in the Premier League, and for Newcastle as well is even better."