The final interview: From low point to legend ... Will Vaulks looks back on his Rotherham United career

By Paul Davis | 14/07/2019

The final interview: From low point to legend ... Will Vaulks looks back on his Rotherham United career
Will Vaulks

THE date, the destination, the despair, they're all scarred on his soul.

December 3 2016, Burton Albion away.

Will Vaulks would go on, eventually, to become a Rotherham United legend.

Yet on this winter's afternoon, against the humble backdrop of a stadium by the name of Pirelli, his Millers career was skidding towards ignominy.

It was Paul Warne's first match as caretaker manager and the boss was close to tears after his side lost 2-1 in a Championship season that would end in relegation. Warne suffered. But maybe not as much as Vaulks.

“Burton,” the midfielder recalls with a shudder. “That's the game that stands out. The fans were singing to me: 'You're not fit to wear the shirt.'

“I was bad that day and I probably deserved it! Honestly, though, it really got to me.”

A fortnight ago, Vaulks left Rotherham in a deal that could be worth as much as £3.5 million to join Cardiff City's bid for an instant return to the Premier League.

By then, he'd proved himself as a competitor, as a character, touching Millers supporters in a way few players have ever managed with his on-field contribution and off-field work with Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice.

“Leaving feels quite sad,” he says. “I had some good times at Rotherham. I got on really well with all the lads there and the gaffer and the staff. It is quite emotional to be leaving, but it's part of football.

“If you want to further your career you can't possibly turn down moves like this. However, I will miss the club and the town and the people, definitely.”

Vaulks did well for Rotherham and both did well out of the 25-year-old, joining up with ex-Millers manager Neil Warnock at the City of Cardiff Stadium.

Seventeen goals and his general, unflinching contribution in 137 matches across three seasons hadn't gone unnoticed.

“There was quite a lot of interest in me,” the Wales international reveals. “Cardiff felt like a good fit. They have just come down from the Premier League and the manager has a great success rate of getting teams promoted from the Championship.

“He sold it to me, how strong Cardiff are and how much they want to go back up. Now I'm playing for Wales, joining a Welsh club was a big pull as well. It suits me. The style of play isn't too dissimilar to Rotherham's.

“I spoke to Neil and he was great. He made a show of how much he believed in me and how much he wanted me to join the club. That's all you can ask for from a manager really.”

For now, Vaulks is staying in a hotel with fiancee Alex. Mum and dad are looking after pet dog Benji while the couple sell their Laughton home and a Bluebirds liaison officer helps them with their house-hunting in South Wales

“It's going very well,” he says. “It's been hectic. “Things happen very quickly once you've been bought. The morning I signed, I trained with Cardiff that day.

“I feel like I'm settling in. The lads have been really good and it's helped that I already know (former Millers teammate) Danny Ward. I'm enjoying it.”

I catch up with him on the phone. Judging by the noise in the background he's either outside, driving or his hotel room comes with complimentary tea, coffee and pneumatic drill.

The surroundings are new but it's the same old Will crackling down the line: frank, expressive, good-humoured, happy to give his time.

He mixes up his tenses, sometimes referring to Rotherham in the past and sometimes in the present, as if it hasn't quite sunk in yet that his Millers adventure is over.

“It's been like a big dipper at Blackpool, Mate,” he says, reflecting on life in South Yorkshire after his switch from Falkirk three summers ago. “Up, down, up, down the whole time.

“I had a really rough start and then kind of came into it a little bit. I really loved the League One promotion season in my second year. To be honest, since Paul Warne took over as manager I've absolutely loved it.

“I feel that the club is so lucky to have him. He's transformed the club in two years. It's unrecognisable from when I joined.

“He's such a good man-manager. He's just a genuine person who wants to improve you. He was sad to lose me but he was genuinely happy for me.

“It's not like I've joined someone local for a little bit of extra money or something. It's a big move for me. He was pleased for me and wants to see me progress in my career.

“He's helped me a lot while he's been in charge. We get on really, really well. I'm sure I'll speak to him throughout my career; for all of my life really.

“I can imagine me getting a bit older and me asking him for advice with coaching and stuff like that. I see him now as I see my agent (ex-player David Reeves) who I've been with for years. He is someone now who I would look to for guidance and a chat. He's great like that.”

Burton will never be forgotten. Vaulks could have hidden after the air turned ugly in East Staffordshire. Instead, bit by bit, game by game, performance by performance, he justified his jersey.

“I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me up and to never play for Rotherham again,” he remembers.

“I did get stick when I first joined. You just have to show a bit of resilience. I've done that all through my career so far. It comes good in the end if you work hard enough.

“'You're not fit to wear the shirt' ... to go from that to the connection that I now feel I have with Rotherham supporters — the majority anyway; I still haven't won them all over! — is brilliant.

“It was just by showing them every week that I would give them everything I had. That's all they ask for really. I did that from day one. My quality improved, I think, as the team improved.”

Is he a better player now? “Yeah, definitely. Without a doubt.”

Him becoming a Bluebird is a blow for Bluebell, the wonderful end-of-life centre near Dinnington where Vaulks was greeted by humanity and uncovered his own as a volunteer and ambassador.

Wembley winner

“I'll miss everything involving the Rotherham players and the staff. I'll miss everything involving the training and seeing the boys,” he says. “I'm not a football snob and I liked it that the training ground wasn't great and stuff like that.

“But what I will miss most of all is Bluebell Wood. Obviously, because of the geography, I won't be able to be there as often as before.

“The past two years involved with the hospice have been the most rewarding and heartwarming of my life. I think it also helped in my relationship with the fans. It showed the kind of person I really am.

“I'll still do everything that I can to help. It's going to be a lot harder because I won't be in Rotherham, but I'll play as big a part as I possible.”

Ironically for someone who grew to love playing at AESSEAL New York Stadium, Vaulks' best moment for the Millers came away from Rotherham's home.

“Wembley is the obvious one, isn't it?” he says. “Beating Shrewsbury in extra time in the League One Play-off Final. Just to get to play at Wembley was unbelievable. Then to win so late on ... there's nothing really that can compare to that.”

By then not only promotion was won but also the battle to convince the doubters. Not even relegation in his final season could diminish his stature because his own standards in a brave survival fight were higher than ever.

“When I left Falkirk, I knew I had a really good relationship with the fans there,” he says. “Without wanting to sound arrogant, we were a successful side and I knew I had that connection. But at Rotherham, to start with, it wasn't like that.

“Now, though, I've read every message on social media that I could see and not one has been, like, 'Next one' or 'Good riddance'. It's all been really positive, wishing me all the best and thanking me for what I gave to the club and what I gave to the community as well.

“It's been really nice to read all that because I don't think I was expecting it so much. Maybe I thought there was still a bit of baggage from that first season.

“Now, I do feel like I can hold my head high in Rotherham. I know that I gave everything I had. In the end, I got on brilliantly with the fans and they backed me.

“They just want you to work as hard as you can and they know they would always get that from me. In the end – after games, clapping them and stuff - I did feel like I had a good relationship with them.”

Like mentor Warne, Vaulks has come a long way since that cold December dart of Burton brutality.

“I am proud of how I overcame that because it could easily have ended in disaster,” he reflects. “I finished up being captain of the club for a lot of games. It completely changed.

“I've not had to block any Rotherham fans on Twitter for about two and a half years. There are a few still left in the blocked pile, though!”

Warne was one of the first to congratulate him when the move to Cardiff was confirmed.

“It's 'Warney' to you now,” his former boss texted.

That didn't – still doesn't – sound right to Vaulks. Like his bond with the Millers faithful, some things take time.

He texted back his thanks and called him 'Gaffer'.

 

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'I'LL BE BACK ... I JUST DON'T KNOW WHEN'

WILL Vaulks wants to pay his old home a visit as soon as he can but accepts it could be a while before he's spotted at AESSEAL New York Stadium again.

The midfielder is keen to catch up with Rotherham United friends after joining Cardiff City in a deal worth up to £3.5 million last month.

However, the 25-year-old international's playing commitments with the Bluebirds and Wales could keep a Millers reunion on the back-burner.

“I'd love to come back to New York to watch some games but, obviously, I'll be playing in matches for Cardiff at the same time so it will be difficult,” he said.

“If I can stay in the Welsh squad, I won't be able to watch Rotherham during the international breaks either. It will be tough to fit in a trip back.

The midfielder says it's not just Millers playing pals he will miss after moving to South Wales.

“There are loads of people who work at the stadium day to day who I'd love to speak to and catch up with,” he said.

“I want to keep my connection with people who aren't necessarily your manager or your chairman or your teammates.

“It would be nice to see fans and the people who I used to live near as well.”

Vaulks came to relish matchdays at New York during his three-year spell in South Yorkshire.

“Playing at the stadium was lovely,” he said. “I really enjoyed home games.”

These articles first appeared in the Advertiser


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