From Miller to Bluebell to Bluebird ... Farewell, Will Vaulks. Rotherham United will never see your like again

We saw plenty of that somersault in seasons two and threeWe saw plenty of that somersault in seasons two and three
We saw plenty of that somersault in seasons two and three
THERE was a flash of right foot, a flash of ball and a flash of red and white flying through the air.

Will Vaulks' 25-yard firecracker rocketed past goalkeeper Carl Ikeme to put Rotherham United 2-0 up inside 20 minutes at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Championship opening day in 2016.

The unknown new boy signed from Falkirk was making a dream debut and his somersault celebration was being given its first Millers outing.

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It's fair to say his career in South Yorkshire was getting off to a better start than my relationship with him.

Wolves fought back at AESSEAL New York Stadium to draw 2-2 but afterwards the ferocity of Vaulks' volley remained the big talking point.

There was only one player reporters wanted to hear from and the midfielder duly wandered insouciantly into the New York media suite. What a shot, what a goal. “You can get used to that,” he said.

That was nearly three years ago and his time with Rotherham was always going to end this summer, despite the Millers exercising their option to extend his contract by 12 months.

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The boy who once played for nothing to make his way in the game is unknown no longer. He's done too well in the Championship, impressed too many people, been noticed by too many rival managers for League One football to be an option next season.

He's now an important part of Ryan Giggs' Welsh squad. High class, high profile.

The question wasn't so much would he stay as what fee would he go for?

Derby County wanted him and so did Sheffield Wednesday. Glasgow Rangers were interested and Middlesbrough had a look. Cardiff City, managed by ex-Rotherham boss Neil Warnock are the ones to land him, paying a fee of £2.1 million, which could rise to £3.5m with add-ons, for an archetypal Warnock player.

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His move leaves a huge hole at Rotherham. A select few players may have had a similar impact on the pitch in the Millers' recent history but none have come anywhere near to making the same impression off it.

An ambassador and volunteer at Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice near his Laughton home, Vaulks is the PFA's Player in the Community for 2019, a young man who packed away his Xbox and discovered he had the X factor when it came to helping others.

He also made long throws fashionable again.

The former Tranmere Rovers prospect suffered in his first year in South Yorkshire and that goal against Wolves turned out to be his only one in a season of turmoil and embarrassment that ended in the drop.

He was Player of the Year in a second campaign that brought an immediate return to the second tier and in his third, despite another relegation, proved beyond doubt that he is a force in the Championship: the first name on the teamsheet, untold numbers of those howitzer throws, tackle upon tackle, 100 per cent effort, eight goals, seven assists.

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It's ironic that his Millers career ended with him limping off with an ankle injury at West Bromwich Albion and missing the final match of 2018/19, at home to Middlesbrough.

The 25-year-old never missed games, he never limped off. He cajoled, he competed, he set the tone, he wound up the opposition, he got in faces, put his head on everything. He stuck up for himself. And for his teammates.

The touchline push on Roy Keane in April when the Nottingham Forest assistant manager tried to impede him at a throw-in is well publicised, the subsequent flashpoint between the pair in the tunnel at half-time less so.

Out of my way, Roy

His honesty was as brutal as one of his challenges and he hid from nothing, particularly in that debut season when he was putting in as many blocks on Twitter abusers as he was on the field of play.

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No-one had to tell him things weren't going according to plan. He was the first to admit it, and with an eloquence and depth beyond many of his peers.

“How can I think about leaving?” he said when Scottish clubs were interested in taking him north of the border again at the end of his first term at New York. “I've got unfinished business here. I haven't proved myself.”

He's from good stock on the Wirral. Sister Anna is in medicine and brother Ollie works for the optician business built up by dad Gary. Mum Ruth dished out a telling-off when TV cameras caught him using the 'F' word on his Wales debut in March.

His parents gave him £80 a week to survive on when there were no wages on offer in his early Falkirk days and he was living in a tiny flat after his release from Tranmere by a certain Ronnie Moore.

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Vaulks repaid every penny when he finally starting earning, and Moore happily admits that you can't get every decision right.

Meanwhile, the player remained a touch prickly with me in that opening season; not unpleasant, but wary.

“You can get used to that.” I'd picked up on the August 6 comment and run stories about a self-assured player who was certain he'd be on the scoresheet as regularly as he had been in Scotland.

It transpired that he'd been referring to his liking for trying his luck from distance rather than his goal prowess and feared I'd made him appear big-headed.

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The following year I went to see him at Bluebell Wood and experienced the two worlds of Will.

“I wouldn't say coming here affects my approach to football,” he reflected. “I'm still horrible on the pitch and that will never change. That's just the winner inside me.

“But at Bluebell, I suppose, I get to be myself. Without being too deep, I get to be a good person, whereas in football it's very competitive. It's all about being better than your opponent, beating that lad in the other team, even in training.”

Many texts, e-mails and phone calls passed between us before the feature finally went to print and by the end of that process we had bonded.

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The cash received for a player who came relatively cheaply at around £400,000 from Falkirk represents exceptional business. Much as it hurts to see him go, it's the way forward for Rotherham whose reputation as a club capable of spotting and developing talent is burgeoning under boss Paul Warne and his staff.

Vaulks and the Millers have been brilliant for each other. Neither owes the other anything.

One-hundred-and-thirty-seven appearances, 17 goals and only one sending-off is a wonderful record for a mean hombre operating at the coalface of the conflict and prepared to embrace any confrontation.

Furthermore, he will dispute the legitimacy of that straight red card at Bramall Lane for upending Sheffield's George Baldock last March until his dying day.

Never a red, ref

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In his first year, Vaulks featured 42 times, with just that solitary goal against Wolves. The promotion campaign brought 52 matches and eight somersaults. His final season saw another eight in 45 outings. As for the rasping quality of his strikes, let's just say he didn't do tap-ins.

As he was keen for me to make clear, he isn't arrogant, just confident, and everything about him is underpinned by that searing candour. He knows the Premier League might be beyond him but is aware of his worth one level below.

Warne's central-midfield selection became Vaulks plus one. The manager once asked his player who he preferred alongside him. Vaulks was unwilling to answer and Warne respected him all the more for it.

The dressing room was led by him and fellow skipper Richard Wood. Teammates looked to him for inspiration and example, although it didn't shield him from untold stick whenever I turned up at the training ground to interview him for his weekly page in the Advertiser.

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Roundwood is a raucous place at lunch-time. The music blares and the communal room bounces to the beat of a group of 20-somethings swapping stories, insults and banter.

“Quiet, lads,” goalkeeper Lewis Price would shout. Maybe it would be winger Joe Newell or midfielder Richie Towell but usually it was Price. “Bit of respect please. Will's talking about himself again.”

Our get-togethers became one of the highlights of my week. He was funny, willing to share, honest, always honest, answering every question I cared to ask, even the personal ones that opened the door to life inside Vaulks Towers.

Fiancee Alex, pet dog Benji, his love of cooking and his hatred of the new Mary Poppins film featured in his column just as much as his reflections on the previous fixture, the merits of 4-1-4-1 and his thoughts on that weekend's opposition.

PFA Player in the Community 2019

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As we compiled a Remembrance Day piece about his ancestors who were heroes and victims in the two world wars, he unwittingly delivered a quote about the pre-match minute's silence that perfectly encapsulated the attitude that has won him so many admirers:

“The Rotherham United lads link arms and I picture it's all of us going to war. Like the old Pals Brigades, mates all joining up together. In my head, it's me and my teammates doing that.”

Not that any of this makes him perfect, mind. He's good at least once a game for a 70-yard 'diag' straight into the crowd, uses Zara aftershave because it doesn't cost much and swears way, way more than his mum knows about.

Plus, his pace isn't deceptive. He is nearly as slow as he looks.

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From day one, he was one of the lads: straight to the back of the bus, much to the consternation of left-back Joe Mattock who took instant offence at such chutzpah yet finished up being his roommate and Millers 'bestie'.

Supporters needed a little longer than the players to warm to him. They were unsure in that first troubled year. Since then, they have taken nothing but pride in his on-field contribution, his Bluebell Wood calling and the way he represents everything good about the Millers.

Vaulks understands the responsibility of footballers and the power they hold, how a small gesture can make a young fan's day. Once, as a child, he visited Newcastle United and Alan Shearer ruffled his hair. He's never forgotten how that made him feel.

I drove away from that marvellous children's hospice, moved almost to tears by what I'd witnessed during one of the most compelling afternoons of my 35 years as a journalist.

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It shone from every room how much the people there thought of him.

Cardiff fans, you have signed more than just a player. Vaulks is a captain whether he wears the armband or not, an ambassador not only for Bluebell Wood but for character, for competitiveness, for decency, for your club.

You can get used to that.

This article first appeared in the Advertiser