Watts the story? Kell speaks after signing new deal
Written by Dan King
When Kell Watts signed his first professional contract in July 2018, the youngster - then 18 - was yet to make a competitive appearance for Newcastle United's under-23s but, after becoming an ever-present at second-string level last season, he has gone on to make his debut for the Magpies' first team in China in pre-season, join League Two side Stevenage on loan for a first taste of Football League action and, this week, agree terms on a new, long-term deal with his boyhood club.
It has been a whirlwind 16 months or so for the Alnwick-born Academy product, who turned 20 last week, but Watts - who was named on the bench for United's final Premier League game of last season at Fulham - has relished every new challenge that has come his way.
"Signing my first professional contract was a dream come true - being at the club since I was eight and finally being able to say I was a professional at the club was one of my major targets - and to sign another professional contract for three years, I'm over the moon," he told nufc.co.uk. "But I know those years in football can go quick, so I think I've got to take every game, every training session, every day as it comes, not look too much into the future, and just give what I've got day by day.
"From playing every (under-23) game last year, then going to China with the first team and then now, out on loan at Stevenage, a lot has happened."
Watts has made 18 appearances so far for Stevenage, and although The Boro - whose FA Cup meetings with Newcastle in 1998 and 2011 rank among their most famous days - are struggling in League Two, the England under-19 international is enjoying the experience.
"I think it was the right time for me to get out and play mens' football," he said. "I'm learning loads - I've got a great manager in Mark Sampson who is giving me advice all the time. I've got people like Scott Cuthbert, who's played the game all his life and played the professional game for 15 years, Tom Soares, Stokesy (defender Chris Stokes), and (goalkeeper) Paul Farman behind me, another Geordie lad.
"The information I'm getting every day is just helping me to get better. It's been a whirlwind year, like you said, but I'm just keeping focused on what I need to do.
"Playing in the under-23s league, there's a lot of technically brilliant players who will get in between the lines, slide passes either side of you, and you've got to be really switched on for that. But coming to this league, you realise that there's different ways to score a goal. It's not always as pretty, but it can be effective.
"So I'm learning how to play against a really quick striker one week, then a big target man... it's just different week by week. They're bigger, stronger men who have played the game for ten, 15 years. They're more streetwise, they know how to back into you, they know how to win free kicks and fouls, so in every game I'm learning, and at the training ground I am as well, and I just can't learn enough."
Watts has played in several positions, including central midfield and the number ten role, throughout his formative years, but spent most of last season at centre-half. That's where he's played most of his football for Stevenage, too, but he has been deployed in central midfield too and admitted: "I think I'm just one of those lads where if the manager wants me to play in a position, I just play it. I've played everywhere down the middle, I've got a good understanding of all positions, but obviously playing centre half now, for over a year without changing, has been good and brought opportunities like representing my country as a centre half and going away withe the first team as a centre half.
"So I'm just trying to grab my opportunities playing there. But in the future, if a manager wanted me to step in and play in midfield, I've got no problem with doing that and I'd give 100 per cent.
"Playing through the thirds, I know what passes the midfielders want, the number ten wants - he wants it in between the lines, he wants it on the half turn, punched in so he's got more time on the ball - so I think it's really helped playing higher up the pitch. Now I know what the strikers are wanting to do, whether they're going to fake-shot, because I've been in that situation myself where I'm trying to sell the defender. So I think starting higher up the pitch has massively helped me playing as a centre half, because playing as a ten growing up, being comfortable on the ball, is helping at the back. And obviously being a left-footer as well, there's not many left-footed centre halves, so it's another advantage.
"But I think most of the characteristics of being a centre half, I think I can work on my game, keep getting better, and I've got some of the attributes you need, so I'm happy playing there. I can't thank Ben (Dawson, United's head of Academy coaching) enough, working with me last year day in, day out, off the pitch and on the pitch, because it was a new position. I was ready to learn and maybe that's where I had an advantage - I was so eager to learn because I know I had to. I was changing position at 18 years old, quite a late transition, but I think I grasped things quickly."
Watts also knows he could barely ask for a better mentor than head coach Steve Bruce, who was one of the country's best defenders during his time with Manchester United.
"He was a top centre half and I can't listen enough to him," said Watts. "If I have a career like him, I'd be very, very happy. Working with him in the future, I think I would ask too many questions, if that's possible, on everything that I need on the pitch, off the pitch, how to benefit my game, and having that from a manager gives you that advantage."
Watts will spend the rest of this campaign learning his trade with Stevenage, but his long term goal is clear. "I'm a young centre half and for young centre halves to be playing, you've got to have a lot of trust from the manager who you're playing under. So I think for me, I just want to get as many games in the professional game as I can, really get my tally of numbers up, how many starts I've made, so I can be a young centre half with experience. You don't need to be in your thirties to have experience - you can be young and have done a lot," he said.
"But long, long term I want to be living my childhood dream of playing in Newcastle's first team. To get there, as a young centre half, I think I just need to experience more, play more games, then hopefully the manager has trust in me."
Part of that learning curve means Watts is now living away from home for the first time, but he is keen to point out that he could not have reached this stage without the support of his family.
"They're over the moon - probably more happy than me if anything," he said. "The support I've always had, and always will, is just the best. It gives you that motivation... I mean, I'm doing it for myself but at the same time, at the back of my mind, I know I would make my family so proud. My dad, Tony, has been with me since day one, helping me, and it's all he wants for me. I think if I can give him back what he's given me, I'll be a very happy lad.
"My mam's been a massive support too, but I can go as far as to say if it wasn't for him, I don't know where I'd be today because he's been top class, giving me the motivation. He's a real inspiration to me and everybody in my family.
"The night before every game, they ring me - my sisters, brother, everyone, my girlfriend as well, and you feel that support. It does give you an extra ten per cent knowing you're not just down in Stevenage by yourself."
Watts added: "Anything can happen in football, it changes so quickly. At the minute I'm concentrating on Stevenage, playing professional games, enjoying what I'm doing. It's a great club. In the future, I've got my targets for Christmas, I'll set new targets after that, for the end of the season, and then in the summer we'll see where I'm at and go from there."
"Long term I want to be living my childhood dream of playing in Newcastle's first team. To get there, as a young centre half, I think I just need to experience more, play more games, then hopefully the manager has trust in me."