Olyroos midfielder Caleb Watts says his "surreal" Premier League debut for Southampton FC in January, 2021 didn't truly sink in until congratulatory messages began flying in from his Australian family members and fans.
Watts made his dream Premier League bow against English giants Arsenal in the weeks that followed his 19th birthday and his senior debut in a starting role against Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup on January 20.
The teenage midfielder says texts from his Perth-based Grandmother and the countless social media posts and messages from those watching on down under helped confirm the reality of an unbelievable experience he hopes to experience with regularity as his burgeoning career progresses.
As kick-off against Argentina on July 22 draws closer for the Olyroos, read on as Watts discusses the "surreal" experience of making his Premier League debut, and his pride in representing the Green and Gold as socceroos.com.au provides you with a chance to get to know every member of Graham Arnold's squad that little bit better.
SQUAD ANNOUNCEMENT: Australia Men's Football Team
Olyroo Profile: Caleb Watts
Place of Birth: England
Club: Southampton FC
Former club: Queens Park Rangers
International experience: Joeys, Australia U-23
Did you know? Watts made his Premier League debut against English giants Arsenal on January 27, 2021, replacing Danny Ings in the 74th minute of the Saints' 3-1 defeat to Arsenal.
Watts became the 52nd player to represent Australia in the Premier League in a game where Socceroos 'keeper Mathew Ryan sat watching on from the Arsenal bench.
A "surreal" debut in a mega month
January of 2021 will go down as one of the most memorable months of Australian teen Caleb Watts' young life.
Watts turned 19 on the January 16, before Saints boss Ralph Hasenhüttl handed his rising midfielder a debut in the senior side, playing from the start in a 2-0 win over Shrewsbury in the third round of the FA Cup.
After featuring as an unused substitute against Leicester City in the Premier League days before, An encouraging display against Shrewsbury led to Watts' involvement in Hasenhüttl's squad to face Arsenal on January 27.
Watts went on to earn his Premier League debut, coming on with little more than 15 minutes to play in his side's 3-1 defeat.
"I remember I phoned my brother after the Arsenal game," Watts said.
"I was saying it just felt surreal almost, going out and playing against Arsenal. It kind of just feels like you haven’t done it, almost, like it didn’t happen.
"But when you have time to really process it, it was a proud moment for sure. When you look at the photos back, and obviously I wish I did more when I was on the pitch, but it’s just a moment to be proud of, I think, and one I won’t forget.
"I didn’t really have time to overthink or react to anything," Watts added, when assessing his experiences in January.
"It came at me quite thick and fast. There was an injury crisis at the club, so you kind of hope you get an opportunity but you never really know what could happen in football.
"I wasn’t expecting anything but to be given a shot by the manager was really exciting."
Watts was unable to get a handle on the reality of what he had experienced against the Gunners in the hours after making his debut.
But as word of his Premier League debut reached Australian shores, and the messages of support went back in his direction, Watts was able to get a greater grasp on the enormity of his achievement, becoming the 52nd Australian to have featured in one of the world's elite leagues.
"My grandma who is in Perth, when she woke up and saw it she was sending me texts, my parents and my cousins as well," he said.
"I saw some of the social media posts and all. To be fair I thought that was part of the reason I had realised what happened almost.
"After the game it kind of felt surreal, then when I was seeing all the posts and stuff it was like ‘oh yeah, I actually came on in the Premier League’."
Ward-Prowse the perfect role model to rising Aussie star
Watts couldn't have picked a better player to model his work ethic off than James Ward-Prowse, Southampton FC's dead-ball technician inspiring the Olyroos midfielder to become a mainstay in the club's first team squad whilst progressing through the ranks of the Australian national side in the years to come.
Ward-Prowse is the latest in a string of exceptional talents to have grown through the ranks of the club academy to star on the world stage, including the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and the great Alan Shearer and Matt Le Tissier.
Like Watts, all of the aforementioned players spent time in Southampton's esteemed academy system to break through at Premier League level and forge standout professional careers.
As the Australian U-23 international prepares to represent the Green and Gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Watts revealed his admiration of Ward-Prowse, Southampton's consistent star and consummate professional, as he looks to develop his own game to benefit both his club and country.
"He’s the model Southampton academy player," Watts said.
"Came up through the academy, played really young and has been in and out of the team before but has really cemented his spot in the last couple of years.
"He’s definitely our most consistent performer, he’s what I think is the model pro. He does a lot of work off the pitch to stay fit and play as many minutes as he can.
"I think for all the academy players, to see that as an example is important. To know that’s what you need to do, regardless of how talented you are to get a shot and stay around the first team you have to be able to do all the extra work, and that’s what he does."
U-17 World Cup experiences spurring Watts toward Olympics
Watts is eager to sink his teeth into the challenges posed by Australia's Olympic 'Group of Dreams', with memories of his experiences at the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup living fresh in his mind as he heads to Tokyo.
The teenager represented the Joeys at the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Brazil, getting on the scoresheet against Hungary in one of four appearances as Australia bowed out in the Round of 16 in a 4-0 defeat to France.
"The World Cup was great, really," Watts said.
"You get to see what else there is around the world, the standard of players you need to be better than, really, to make a decent career in the game.
"We got knocked out in a way none of us liked, but looking back it was a great experience and I have no doubt a lot of those French players will go on to make big names for themselves.
"We had some really good players, if we got another crack at it we’d probably do a bit better.
"The World Cup was a great experience, it added a lot to my footballing experience and how I play now.
"When I saw the (Olympic) group, I was really excited. Obviously there are no slouchers in this tournament, but we’ll be against some of the best teams here, and the best players here.
"I don’t think you can not get excited about something like that. To test yourselves against some of the best young players in the world is a dream come true, really."
Stay tuned to socceroos.com.au and the Socceroos' social pages for more in-depth profiles of Australia's Men's Football Team at Tokyo 2020. You can check out all of our exclusive pre-Olympic content here.