Why Will Vaulks is so important in the Rotherham United v Sheffield Wednesday derby

Will VaulksWill Vaulks
Will Vaulks

AS the players walk out, primed and pumped up, for the match that matters more to Rotherham United than any other today, there are few guarantees.

Paul Warne accepts there is little he can control once his team step over the white line at AESSEAL New York to do battle with Sheffield Wednesday.

However, the Millers manager can be sure of one thing amid the Owls enmity and derby-day discord: Will Vaulks will set a captain's example.

The midfield man may not even be wearing the armband. That honour will go to Richard Wood if the centre-half makes the starting 11

But Vaulks plays like a skipper, cajoles like a skipper, sets the tone like a skipper.

"He's quintessentially Rotherham," says Warne quietly. "That's how I see him."

Rotherham, collectively, missed a big chance to embarrass their South Yorkshire rivals at Hiillsborough in early December.

The clash ended in a 2-2 draw but Wednesday, disillusioned and disjointed by the death throes of Jos Luhukay's reign, were there to be taken.

Vaulks, individually, missed the biggest chance of all, firing wide in the 77th when the net gaped as glaringly as the opportunity to write himself into red-and-white folklore.

Not for a second did the 25-year-old try to hide away from his mistake afterwards.

"No-one knows better than me that I should have scored," he said. "I snatched at my shot. You've got to take chances like that. It really hurts.

"It wouldn't have been a problem if we'd won the match but because we drew it's festering with me."

It's that kind of honesty, that unflinching brutality of approach, that will make Vaulks such a key figure when the Owls come calling under new manager Steve Bruce.

Warne says: "Even if Will isn't having the best game ever, he's a motivating factor on the pitch. He literally gives you everything he has."

Wednesday, with Bruce at the helm, are looking to brighter times after the ugliness of Luhukay’s recent past. Just as two and a half months ago was a great time to be facing them, now is a worse one. Rotherham need their leaders.

"Will is like a younger version of Woody, I think," Warne says. "He's worth more than just his footballing ability.

"He tries to draw in the team, he can rap into a tackle, he tries to gee up his teammates. When him and Woody are on the pitch together, it's like having two captains."

Vaulks could be Warne's adopted Millers son. The boss was a byword for hard work in his playing days, a man who maximised his talent by never taking liberties with it and was able to do damage to opponents blessed with silkier gifts.

Alan Stubbs got little right during his short managerial spell with Rotherham in 2015 but bringing Vaulks, unheralded and unknown in English football, from the Scottish Championship to New York was a rare piece of inspired business.

Th 5ft 11in former Falkirk favourite has scored six times this term in a side in the lower reaches of the table and as often as not his strikes from distance are Goal of the Season contenders.

His freakishly-good injury record has seen him rack up 127 appearances in little more than two and half seasons, he can cover - reluctantly, it has to be said - several positions and his far-reaching throw is a crucial part of the Millers' attacking armoury.

Despite the uncompromising nature of his game, he has missed just one match in this campaign, the 1-1 draw at Blackburn Rovers, and that was only through suspension.

No wonder the midfielder with the spectacular goal celebration has the gaffer doing somersaults.

"He's got a rocket shot, obviously," says Warne who is defying the odds to keep the Millers in with shout of survival in their first season back in the Championship.

"He's a good organiser. His long throw is great for us.

"Considering his height, I think he's our best attacking threat from set-pieces. I joke that it's a pity that he doesn't launch the long throw and then run on and head it himself."

Warne recalls the 0-0 draw at Millwall a fortnight ago. "We were a big side," he says.

"We had Crooksy (Matt Crooks) at well over six feet, plus Icky, Michael Ihiekwe, Woody, Smudge (Michael Smith), Semi (Ajayi) and Robbo (Clark Robertson). Out of all of them, only Woody is as aggressive as Will in the air at set-pieces.

Vaulks, described by his manager that afternoon as "virtually irreplaceable", labelled his own performance "distinctly average".

So, the derby stage is set. New York. A full house. Resolute Rotherham v reawakened Wednesday.

After three successive home defeats against the enemy from across the M1, the Millers will defend their territory with all they can muster.

Over to the players. Over to Vaulks who won't shy away from the responsibility if a 77th-minute opening to shoot comes his way.

"For the way we are and the way we play, Will is fundamental to any success we have," says Warne. "I just think he is one of the most competitive players out there really."

A younger version of Woody. A younger version of someone else. Suddenly, the boss catches a flash of himself in a timeless, internal mirror.

"Will Warne," he grins.

A version of this article first appeared in the Advertiser