In the first of several longer features with Falkirk Bairns past and present we spoke to Will Vaulks. The Cardiff star looked back on his time playing in Scotland and reflected on his career since heading back South of the border.
Will began his career at Tranmere Rovers. Despite being highly rated as a youngster he struggled to break through into the Rovers first team, which lead to him joining Steven Pressley’s Bairns:
“I joined Falkirk in a time where I’d just agreed my release from Tranmere Rovers back in England, because I wanted to play football. Steven Pressley had watched me play for Tranmere reserves at right back and left back and he managed to get in touch with my agent.”
“He had no money available, which is well known, but I was given a flat and I had the choice of staying in England and earning enough to survive in the Conference North or going up to Scotland and trying to get back into full time football, and obviously I took that choice!”
“It was tough at Falkirk, I didn’t really get many minutes for about four months, when I thought I was going to come up and play. Eventually I got my chance under Alex Smith, just after Steven Pressley left, he played me at centre half, and the rest is history in a way from then on.”
From his well-documented difficult start the versatile Will began to make his mark on Falkirk, becoming a crucial part in first Gary Holt, then Peter Houston’s Falkirk teams. He thinks about those times fondly, despite some heartbreak at the time:
“I absolutely adored my time at Falkirk, and we had some amazing memories along the way in my three and a half seasons. We had some really good games at Ibrox, beating Rangers at home, Hibs in the playoff games, we had some amazing memories and a great team at the time.”
“I was fortunate enough to have some massive games in the time I was there. The Scottish Cup Final was probably the pinnacle, all the built up in the town, the length of time since the club last won it, that probably tops it. It was probably the hardest moment of my football career so far l think, losing that game, still to this day.”
“The year we nearly went up, the comebacks we had were incredible. We were down in so many games but came back and won.”
“After the Rangers game at home that we won 2-1 I remember being so buzzing, I won the penalty and then scored the winner! Individually it was unbelievable, as well as part of the team.”
“The Rangers game where we won 3-2 was another crazy game. For 45 minutes we got absolutely battered! We came in at half time and it was a case of if we come out of this game only losing by two it’ll be a good result. Just before we went out, we said we’d just go for it, there’s nothing to lose.”
“Kevin O’Hara cut it back for Bob McHugh to score last minute, it was unbelievable after being battered so much in the first half.”
The pinnacle of those years was undoubtedly the dramatic journey to the 2016 Premiership play off final in a league that contained both Hibs and Rangers.
Despite heroic efforts to finish second, to then defeat Hibs in the semi-final, and to get the advantage in the first leg, it all came undone in the second. Will looks back with regret at what was undoubtedly a game too far for that side.
“The Kilmarnock game we won at home; I scored late on to win one nil. By the time we got to their place we’d run out of steam really, we never really got going somehow and it was such a disappointment.”
“It was different to the Scottish Cup Final, I was just sad after that, we gave everything, but it just wasn’t to be. The Kilmarnock game we just didn’t turn up the way we should’ve done that day.”
“You could maybe put it down to the extended season and the amount of games we played, or the efforts in the Hibs semi-final that went till the last second, but I just remember being angry after that game, feeling like we’d lost an opportunity.”
Falkirk are a team special to Will, and he struggles to see them in League One, but he is confident The Bairns can make it back up to where they belong under a management team he knows very well.
“I look back at Falkirk with nothing but happy memories. It was some of the best times of my career. It’s the first result I look at, along with Rotherham, I always look out for my old teams and Falkirk’s a team that will always be close to my heart. I know a lot of players say this about their old teams but the way my Falkirk career went and how I felt so close to people in the area, I loved it straight away.”
“I feel disappointed to see where they are at the moment, but I’m sure they’re on the way back up under Lee and Cracks, it’s good to see them back involved.”
“Cracks was my captain pretty much the entire time I was at Falkirk, and Lee Miller came in for a year or two seasons I was there. They’re two of the best guys I’ve met in football, the best captain I’ve played under in Cracks and a real good guy in Lee Miller who looks after the young players, he always did from the minute he walked through the door.”
“They’re two experienced heads that know the club, I was so glad to see the club go in that direction. I think that was the way to do it, to unite the fans around the club, and those are two guys that will definitely do that.”
Upon leaving Falkirk, The Bairns fan favourite moved to Rotherham United. What looked to be a dream move turned sour after a disastrous English Championship campaign under Alan Stubbs put his career’s progression at risk once again.
I had a tough start at Rotherham. When I went down there, I scored in my first game, I thought this is going to be easy this, Championship in England, another ten goals, easy!”
“It turned out to be the opposite of that, pretty much from that game onwards was horrendous. We got almost the record low points ever in the Championship, and I took quite a lot of stick myself. It was really tough, probably the low point of my career.”
“The second part of the season was better under the new manager Paul Warne, then I had to fight for my place there like I did at Falkirk really! I nearly left but didn’t and ended up with some amazing times at Rotherham as well.”
“I managed to turn the fans around to like me, like I said I got quite a lot of stick but by the end I was as close to the Rotherham fans as the Falkirk fans.”
That fantastic relationship with the fans is something that has followed Will throughout his career, and he puts it down to several factors, including his playstyle.
“It’s not something you actively go out and try to do. I think hard working fans, like at Falkirk and Rotherham, just want to see their players give everything, if you can keep doing that they’ll be on your side.”
“I’m not the most technically gifted, I’m not going to run past six players, but I will run till I have nothing left, I’ll tackle as hard as I can, I’ll win all the headers I can and fight for the team, it’s something I’ve always had and don’t think it will ever leave me.”
After the shock of his first campaign with The Millers, Will pulled his sleeves up and got stuck into a campaign that saw him named as Rotherham player of the season and the Yorkshire side go up via the play offs.
“Wembley was special. It was similar in a sense to the Scottish Cup Final, with the build up in the town and the fireworks as you go out, a massive, massive, occasion. Both days were boiling hot as well!”
“The way we won it was pretty unbelievable, our captain scored the goal in like the 25th minute of extra time. It probably was the best day of my career elation wise, to get over the line after such a hard season. Especially after what we’d had the season before to bounce back up was amazing.”
The midfielder’s form didn’t go unnoticed and a Wales call up was next on the agenda as football legend Ryan Giggs looked for fresh faces for his Dragon squad.
“It came out of the blue really. I was involved with Wales as a kid, from about 12 to 18, and I was called up to an 18’s game that was called off and I never got the chance again.”
“I was told Ryan Giggs was coming to watch, we were playing Blackburn at home. I didn’t play very well but I was somehow involved in all three goals! Later I had a missed call from Ryan Giggs, that obviously a call you want to take!”
“I rang him back and obviously made my debut. I’ve played a couple of games for Wales now, and hopefully would’ve been involved in the euros this year but that’s now postponed.”
“The last 18 months have been a bit crazy in my career! To from four or five years ago at Falkirk to now potentially playing in the Euros its been quite a journey!”
Will left Rotherham last summer, becoming their record sale in the process as he joined Cardiff for an undisclosed fee. He again struggled to make his mark initially under Neil Warnock but has once more fought his way back into new manager Neil Harris’ plans.
“I feel like I’m making a habit of that, signing for a club and then having to fight for it! I signed in the summer for a good fee, but it just didn’t go to plan under Neil Warnock.”
“Things that were alluded to didn’t turn out that way, and he made up his mind on me pretty quickly, I’ve made no bones about saying he decided that was it after 45 minutes and didn’t really give me another chance.”
“Under the new manager it’s been a lot better. I’ve played the majority of games now and we were in some really good form before all this happened.”
“I’m enjoying life in Cardiff, it’s a beautiful place, good people and a massive club going in the right direction. We’re getting ourselves right in the mix despite being in and out of form, we could do with a run that we were hoping to start, but now we’ll wait and see what happens and hopefully get the chance to take up where we left off.”
A bond is the dressing room is always important and thankfully Will has another Scottish Championship alumnus as one of his teammates at Cardiff in the form of Callum Paterson.
“The day I signed for Cardiff he was in the gym and I spoke to him, we played against each other and had a few battles when he played for Hearts.”
“He remembers me scoring and I remember him being absolutely horrible to play against, pinching me, running around and being busy!”
“He’s one of my really good mates here and we quite like it when the boys try to give the Scottish leagues some stick, and we have some arguments with them.”
A big part of Will’s career has been working with the community. Since being at Falkirk he has always been someone that’s happy to help where he is needed and that hasn’t left him, shown most clearly as he was awarded PFA Player in the Community 2019 for his work while at Rotherham.
As footballers, rightly or wrongly, we get put on a pedestal, especially with children. They tend to look up to us, it’s not necessarily right but that’s the way it is in our society and I think we have a responsibility to give back to people.”
“Kids in general is the big one for me, it doesn’t take two seconds to sign an autograph or take a picture with a young lad or girl that’s into football.”
“I massively enjoyed my time at Rotherham, I was ambassador for a children’s hospital called Bluebell Wood where I went every week. It was something I thought was missing from Rotherham at the time. At Falkirk I was involved with loads of things all the time, Kieran would have me doing something probably three times a week out in the community.”
“It’s a bit different down in England, it’s a bit more structured and clubs have more protocols with visits and things, so you lose that kind of freedom to just have people ask if you want to go to things or see fans, it just doesn’t happen as much. I had to take that upon myself and I really enjoyed doing it, I don’t do it for any reason other than to help and I say to people all the time it makes you feel better at the same time.”
To finish Will left the Falkirk fans with a message:
“I want to say thank you for everything they’ve given me. From pretty much minute one at Falkirk the fans were brilliant with me. I’ve probably never had that connection before, and I don’t think I will again.”
“Falkirk saved my career; now I’m playing in the English Championship with the chance to play in the Euros, had Falkirk not taken that chance on me seven or eight years ago there’s no way I’d be where I am now and the fans along the way were just brilliant.”
“My Twitter is full of Falkirk fans and I’m so grateful. Whenever I ask for anything or put anything out, they’re always there to help and I appreciate it a lot.”
“It’s a shame I can’t get up because of international duty, but I’ll always say thank you for all they’ve done and good luck for the promotion push, I really hope it does happen, and I’m sure it will.”
“Keep the faith!”