WILL Vaulks was sitting at home reading a letter from a concerned mum.
Her son, she'd written, was a young footballer struggling with his confidence.
Vaulks recognised that feeling.
The midfielder is now Rotherham United's leading man: a fully-fledged Championship operator, a Welsh international, a player attracting the interest of bigger sides.
But he thought back to his first season with the Millers three years ago, when the club he joined was soon in crisis, when a chaotic campaign brought second-tier relegation, when he felt he didn't reach the standards he'd set himself.
He turned over the sheet of paper and reached for a pen.
Here are some tips for you that help me.
ENJOY IT! LAUGH! SMILE! WORK HARD! BE HAPPY!
That was last October, in the days leading up to a 1-1 home draw against Bolton Wanderers. Vaulks' touching reply to the self-doubting boy went public last week.
It was never the intention of the 25-year-old, who earlier this month was named PFA Community Player of the Year for his work as a volunteer and ambassador with Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice, for anyone else to see it.
“I think the letter was part of the application the club put together for the award,” Vaulks says. “I don't really know how it's come out.”
The player knew what he wanted to say, what the youngster needed to hear.
“I wrote it leading up to the game against Bolton at home,” Vaulks recalls. “I got a letter which had been sent to me through the club and it was a young kid's mum getting in touch.
“It said her son was struggling with confidence when he was playing football. He was a Rotherham fan and ten or 11 years old.
“He was making mistakes and giving the ball away and then not wanting the ball back. He was really worried and anxious about playing well.
“I read it in my house and his mum had asked if I could maybe have a word with him. I just decided to start writing on the back of the letter.
“I wrote it out in one go. It took me about ten minutes. I didn't pre-plan what I was going to say, it just came from the heart. I thought I'd give him a couple of tips.”
Vaulks, the driving force of the team that has defied the odds this season to be so competitive in the Championship following last term's League One promotion, told the lad to accept mistakes, to embrace them, to learn from them:
Stick your shoulders back, your chest out and go and get the ball again.
It's football and we love it so don't change that.
The Wirral-born midfielder joined the Millers in the summer of 2016 from Falkirk where he'd received no wages and lived off £80 a week from his parents until emerging as one of the brightest young talents in Scotland. He scored a stunning goal on his Championship debut against Wolves but suffered in a campaign of disharmony and disarray that led inexorably to the drop.
PFA Community Player of the Year
“The mum's letter resonated with me because in that first year with Rotherham I struggled with confidence massively,” Vaulks admits.
“You're getting groans and moans and people are thinking you're not very good. You have to continue trying to get back on it and it's hard.
“We talk about it a lot at the club these days: bravery in football nine times out of ten is not about winning a header or making a tackle, it's about going and getting the ball, showing for the ball, always trying to do the right thing even if you're losing and having a bad day.
“I just wrote all stuff about that.”
Slowly but surely, Vaulks proved the doubters wrong. By the end of his first season, he was finding his feet, in the promotion push he was Player of the Year and he has scored seven goals and led by example in 2018/19.
Rival managers notice him. International ones too. Ryan Giggs gave him his first caps for Wales in March, against Trinidad & Tobago and Slovakia.
“He's a proper Championship player now,” says his club boss, Paul Warne, revealing that Vaulks' name regularly crops up in post-match chats with his contemporaries. “I know why other managers like him.
“He has really matured in the last couple of years, on and off the pitch.
“He was 22/23 when he joined us. You forget how young they are. I didn't turn pro until I was 23 and looking back on some of the things I said and did then I think 'Wow'.
“Will is definitely a leader. I don't think there are loads of leaders in football anymore.”
Back to October 20 and Bolton matchday, Vaulks ran out on to the AESSEAL New York Stadium turf with more than his teammates for company.
Tucked into his sock was the advice he'd written off the cuff in his Laughton lounge.
“The boy's mum had mentioned where he sat at New York,” the midfield man says. “When I was doing the warm-up, I went over and gave it to him.
“Hammy (Matt Hamshaw), the coach here, knows the mum through his wife. He told me she'd said it was amazing.”
Soon afterwards, there was another letter to read.
“The mum wrote back to me to say 'Thank you',” Vaulks says. “She told me her son had come on a lot and that my reply meant a lot to him.
“It was nice to hear that I'd helped him. It was a little thing. But little things can mean a lot. If I'd have had that as a kid, I'd have been buzzing off it.
“I know where he sits now so I'm always chucking my tops at him. When we're wearing T-shirts and stuff before kick-off, I make sure he gets them.”
Vaulks received his PFA honour at a ceremony at the Grosvenor Hotel in London a week last Sunday.
Four days later, he was back at Bluebell Wood, the place of inspiring humanity and humbling bravery where he feels most at home.
“He's a really good role model,” Warne states proudly. “For him to get recognition for what he does is brilliant, but I know that awards and stuff aren't the reason why he does it.”
Six months on from Bolton, meanwhile, the word of Will is still taped to the fridge in the boy's kitchen.
“His mum told me that he reads it before every training session,” Vaulks smiles.
The Rotherham skipper's note ended with that big, bold message written in big, bold capitals.
ENJOY IT! LAUGH! SMILE! WORK HARD! BE HAPPY!
All things the PFA Community Player of the Year has managed to do on his journey from troubled Miller to the international stage.
'OF ALL MY GOOD HUMAN BEINGS, HE'S PROBABLY THE BEST OF ALL'
PAUL Warne admires Will Vaulks so deeply for volunteering at Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice because he's not certain it's something he could handle himself.
Rotherham United midfielder Vaulks is a weekly visitor to the centre in North Anston that offers end-of-life support for children and young adults and their families.
He engages with youngsters and their siblings, helps out with fund-raising and has also taken on an ambassadorial role to raise awareness for such a great cause.
“Will has given up his time to help out at the hospice and I know they think the world of him there,” said Millers manager Warne.
“It's something amazing for a young man to do. I don't know if it's something that would suit my personality or not. I think I would just get in my car most of the time and cry. Will is pretty tough and knows that what he does is for the good of other people.”
The player has been a popular presence at Bluebell Wood for the last two years and the Millers squad now pay a visit every Christmas.
“Will's had a fortunate upbringing in the nicest possible way,” Warne added.
“His parents love him and have given him good ideology and a good moral compass. He has a sister who is in medicine.
“I hear loads of people harping on about 'There's too many homeless, I wish I could do something'.
“Well anyone can go and do anything if they want to. You can go and work in a soup kitchen if it means that much to you.
“I wax lyrical about what an amazing human being he is.
“We have a dressing room full of great guys and he is probably on the parapet above them all really.”
WARNE SEES WILL BLOSSOM INTO THE REAL DEAL
ROTHERHAM United manager Paul Warne is happy to admit he has been proved wrong by midfielder Will Vaulks.
Warne was fitness coach when the player arrived from Falkirk in July 2016 and says he wasn't convinced the 22-year-old would make his mark in the Championship.
Combative Vaulks, now 25, has gone on to become a key man for the Millers as well as a Welsh international and Warne acknowledges he made a mistake in his judgement.
“That summer was a bit of a whirlwind because quite a few players came in,” Warne recalled. “I can remember Jon Taylor joined at around the same time. To be honest, he sort of took my eye more than Will.
“Will seemed pretty steady. You could engage in conversation with him, which I liked. I always thought he was pretty level-headed.
“I wasn't sure if he could play in the Championship but his attitude, the way he lives and the way he takes on information has given him a great platform for a good career.
“He's a proper Championship player now. He's not the quickest — and this league, especially in the middle of the park, is predominantly about players who can handle the ball and move and change direction quickly — but he has other qualities.
“He's a bit of a blast from the past. When he's is on the pitch, the team are better even if he is having a bad day at the office.”
Vaulks moved to Falkirk from his home on the Wirral as a teenager and initially played for nothing as he made his way in the game.
Then-manager Alan Stubbs signed him for Rotherham and the Millers were relegated from the second tier eight months later.
But Vaulks was superb in the League One promotion campaign that followed and has been a key figure this term back in the Championship.
“It was a difficult time for him to join so I didn't really see the best of him footballing-wise until probably the year after,” said Warne who stepped into the hot-seat during the midfield man's first season with the club.
“He did seem a little bit wiser than his age. He seemed battle-scarred, if that makes sense. Some of the players we signed that year had had great careers and were on the way down whereas he had had a bit of a stop-start career.
“He was more grateful than most to be at the club.”
Vaulks, whose contract runs until the end of next season, now skippers the side when Richard Wood isn't playing and is set to attract bids from second-tier sides in the summer.
“Will was always a kid who would do anything you wanted him to do,” Warne said. “His attitude was always spot-on.
“I didn't know if he would be a success at our club but I always knew that whatever he chose to do, whatever level he hit, that he would do well.
“He's chiseled himself out as a good Championship player, not just someone who can get by at this standard.”
... AND FOR THE RECORD
HERE’S the full text of Will Vaulks' letter in case you have trouble making out the Millers midfielder's handwriting!
You owe your mum for this, so you have to do all the housework for the whole week!! Just kidding!
I hear you've been struggling a little with bouncing back from mistakes and believing in yourself. Well, guess what? So do I! And nearly every professional footballer I know. But we learn little things to help, so here are some tips for you that help me.
1. Accept that you WILL make mistakes. Nobody is perfect and I guarantee that I will make more than one today against Bolton.
2. Forget what has already been done! You can't change it. All you can do is and try and do better the next time it happens. Miss a tackle? So what. Make the next one. Miss that one? Oh well, you'll make the third!
3. Try not to shy away. Stick your shoulders back, chest out and go and get the ball again. It takes bravery to do so but I think you've got it.
4. Remember, the only way to get better is to make errors and to learn from them. If you don't make any, trust me you will never improve. For example, I tried to flick the ball back to my own goalie once in a massive game and the striker got in and scored. I learnt that day to risk it only if I'm 100%.
5. ENJOY IT! SMILE! LAUGH! WORD HARD! IT'S FOOTBALL AND WE LOVE IT SO DON'T CHANGE THAT! I STILL TRY AND PLAY LIKE I'M YOUR AGE! BE HAPPY!
If you need anything, you know where I am. From Will Vaulks
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