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Watts the story? Introducing young defender in line for debut at Brighton

Written by Dan King

Kell Watts - who could make his Newcastle United at Brighton & Hove Albion on Monday evening - already has fond memories of playing at the Amex Stadium.

The 20-year-old has been added to Steve Bruce's squad for the Magpies' penultimate fixture of the season due to United's injury problems at centre-back. With Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark (ankle), Fabian Schär (shoulder), Florian Lejeune (thigh) and Paul Dummett (foot) all ruled out, Federico Fernández is the only other fit recognised centre-back at Bruce's disposal and so Watts could be tasked with helping to keep the Seagulls out on Monday.

But on his only previous appearance at Brighton, in a FA Youth Cup third round tie in December 2017, Watts' job was to score goals - and he netted a hat-trick in a 5-0 victory. 

Watts played up front that night and has turned out in several different positions since joining the Magpies as an eight year old. But over the past couple of seasons, the former Ponteland High School pupil has established himself as a ball-playing central defender and now, having built on last term's displays as an ever-present for United's under-23s with loan spells at Stevenage and Mansfield Town this season, he could make his competitive bow on Monday.

The Alnwick-born ace, who represented England at under-19 level, has played for United at first team level once before - a pre-season Premier League Asia Trophy clash against Wolverhampton Wanderers in China almost exactly a year ago - while his Football League debut came for Stevenage in a 0-0 draw at Leyton Orient last August.

Speaking to nufc.co.uk's Luke Vinton in March, Watts said: "My debut was one I'll never forget. I'd only trained with the squad once, the day before the match. We were playing a back three with the skipper in the middle (Scott Cuthbert) and Terence (Vancooten) on the right-hand side.

"They both went to block the same shot, putting their bodies on the line, and they both injured each other and had to come off early in the first half.

"Because I wasn't familiar with the lads, I didn't even know who was on the bench or who could be coming on. We changed our defence to a back four and brought on a 17-year-old centre back. He's making his debut and I'm making mine, two teenagers at the back and this is only ten minutes into the game. However, we managed to keep a clean sheet and drew 0-0. It was one of those days which I won't forget."

Watts in action against Wolves in pre-season

Watts went on to make 20 appearances for Stevenage in the first half of the current campaign before his loan spell was cut short by injury, and while the Boro endured a difficult campaign - they were eventually relegated from League Two - Watts took a huge amount from his time at the Lamex Stadium.

"I moved away from home for the first time and I was living at the other end of the country," he said. "It's a stop off from London on the train so that was a challenge in itself but one that I really enjoyed and made the most of. The lads I lived with in Stevenage helped me settle in and I was really close with them.

"I still speak to them now and they helped open my eyes to this level. There are people working hard very hard to get higher, either to gain promotion or to stay up in the league, which was my situation at Stevenage.

"The message I got there was that the weakest get left behind. You were playing on a Saturday and doing big, heavy gym sessions in between that. There was a resilience from everyone saying 'today is a new day, let's get it,' so I learnt a lot in terms of that."

Watts' family - particularly his father, Tony - have been huge influences on his career while he doesn't need to look too far from home for footballing advice; his girlfriend, Katie, is the daughter of former Darlington defender Craig Liddle, so he can always pick the brain of a man who remains a legend with the Quakers. 

And he has also enjoyed learning from another renowned former centre-back in United's head coach Bruce, who has taken a close look at the youngster in training over the last few weeks and handed him the number 49 shirt.

After recovering from the injury which curtailed his time at Stevenage, Watts was on the bench for Newcastle at Wolves in January before heading back out on loan, this time to Mansfield, where he played seven times and scored his first senior goal - a header against Leyton Orient - before the coronavirus outbreak brought the Stags' season to a halt. 

"It's a season where I've definitely developed a lot," he said. "I've played for two different clubs; one down south and one in the Midlands. I've worked under four different managers at professional level, all packed into one season, so I've learnt and experienced a lot in terms of things you don't get every day.

Watts scored his first senior goal during a loan spell with Mansfield Town earlier this term

"I think making my professional debut and scoring my first goal for Mansfield as well has been good and I made ten games, which then turned into 20, and I was on course for 30 before the interruption.

"I am one to set targets. I like to know where I'm going and if you don't have any, you can sort of drift by and not accomplish anything. In football, anything can happen so it's hard to do long-term targets but I feel short-term are ones I can control, which can help to ultimately achieve my goals."

A Premier League debut would undoubtedly be another target ticked off. Should it come at Brighton this week, Watts will probably be hard-pushed to match the three goals he scored on his last visit there - but three points would do very nicely indeed.

"I am one to set targets. I like to know where I'm going and if you don't have any, you can sort of drift by and not accomplish anything. In football, anything can happen."

Kell Watts

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