VFTN grabbed a few minutes with Will Vaulks on international duty recently to reflect on his time at Cardiff, which has been a bumpy ride with highs, lows and four managers in three years.
It feels like your career really took off in 2019 when you were 24, making your international debut and joining Cardiff on a three-year deal. Did it feel like that at the time, like the stars had aligned for you in some way?
A little bit. It had been a long journey to that point and I had three good seasons at Rotherham. I had a year left on my contract and was fortunate to have quite a lot of interest from Championship clubs at the time. That coincided with breaking into the Welsh squad and I was lucky enough to play a few games. It felt like things were definitely on the up and it was an exciting time for me.
Neil Warnock was in charge when you joined Cardiff and he has the reputation of being someone that, once you sit across the table from him, you don’t turn down the chance to play for him. You just missed each other at Rotherham, but I’m sure his reputation there was sky high, having just kept them in the Championship. What were your first impressions of Neil and how did you find working with him?
My first impressions were very good. He’s a character you hear a lot about and I was not sure what to expect when I met him, but he was brilliant. We had a good discussion and that was enough to make me want to sign for Cardiff. He was the one that put it all together, but it was pretty much downhill from there! I only played 45 minutes and got dragged off at half-time when we played Reading away. I never played again for him, which was a shock because Cardiff had paid money for me and the way Neil had spoke prior to me signing, I was expecting to be a big part of his plans. That’s football though and sometimes managers change their opinions.
I’m the type of player to go and ask the manager why I’m not playing and what I need to do to improve, but I was never told a reason why. I was told I was training well and that my chance would come, but it never did. With the team not doing well, he maybe tended to stick with the boys he knew and I just couldn’t get in the team. When we played Middlesbrough behind closed doors, Neil did apologise to me and say that he should have given me more opportunities. It was a really frustrating, hard time because I wasn’t playing for Wales either because I wasn’t playing for my club. He’s the type of manager I thought I would thrive under, but things change and in the end, I got my opportunity.
Cardiff had been relegated the previous year, but had ended the season well and expectations were high that they could make a swift return. They didn’t start well though and from the outside at least, something felt off. Like the work ethic or hunger wasn’t really there. How did it feel from the inside?
I didn’t know the club or team too well at that point, but I think that they had been on such a ride for a couple of years and I don’t think anyone at the club thought that promotion to the Premier League would happen. It was a miracle season and that’s why Neil has the reputation that he rightly has, but maybe after relegation, when they maybe should have stayed up, it’s hard to bounce back and go again. It’s hard to have the same effect as a manager after three seasons and maybe teams had figured us out. It wasn’t a disastrous start, but probably not what people were expecting and that was why he decided to leave.
Warnock was eventually replaced by Neil Harris and he appeared to revive the squad, as a new manager tends to do. What changed when Neil arrived and did you enjoy playing for him? From my dealings with him, he seemed a warm, considerate guy.
I was pleased when Neil came in because, for me personally, it was a chance to start again and try to get in the team. I had been there three or four months and only played 45 minutes, after playing every week for three years. I was like a coiled spring! I had some good conversations with him and went to see him the first day to tell him that I wanted to do what I could to get in the team. I was going to fight for my place. I was worried that he would have looked at what had happened previously, but in the end I played quite a lot for him and we had a successful end to the season. I think if we had got past Fulham that we would have beaten Brentford in the final.
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His first season was disrupted by the Covid outbreak and lockdown. How did you find it when football stopped? You seem to be a player with a lot of interests outside of football, so did it give you the opportunity to give them more attention?
Not really because everything stopped, but I got involved with the NHS and was out every day delivering food and water to nurses. That feels like a different time and a different world now, when you could only leave the house once. I didn’t like it, like everyone else, but people lost their lives at the end of the day, so there were far worse things than being stuck in the house not being able to play football.
You were awarded the Championship Player in the Community award in 2021, which was a fantastic accolade for both yourself and the club. Has charity and using your profile positively always been important to you? What are the causes you lend your time to and how does that fit around football?
It is important to me and I had won it before at Rotherham, where I used to volunteer in a hospice. I became an ambassador for them and it was something that I really enjoyed. It was not long after I arrived here that Covid hit. It’s disappointing that I had to come off Twitter because I was reading people’s negative opinions too much. Social media was one of the platforms I would use to do some of my charity work, do a video for a fan or something for a little kid who was in hospital.
Keyboard warriors and people with opinions they probably shouldn’t have are the negative side of Twitter. I think its important and we have a responsibility as players to help out in the community. You play for the club and should have a positive impact. It doesn’t take much to put a smile on a little kid’s face or to make an appearance somewhere. It’s something I’ve always done, at Falkirk, Rotherham and Cardiff.
During that season, against all odds, Cardiff made the play-offs, as you’ve already touched upon, which was an amazing achievement. You were beaten by a strong Fulham side. Were you confident going into that and how difficult is it to end a season in that way?
I think the first semi-final killed us. We conceded late on from a free kick and it gave us too much of a mountain to climb. We played well away from home, their keeper made a few good saves and had we not conceded that second goal, I think we would have had a chance. At the end of the day, we probably didn’t do well enough over the course of the season, but like I said, had we got past Fulham, we would have fancied ourselves against Brentford. It wasn’t to be, but we can’t really have any grumbles about it because we probably didn’t deserve to be promoted.
It was a turbulent year and we started the following year as a fresh start. We thought we were going to kick on and be up there, but it wasn’t to be. I don’t really have an explanation for it, but the squad has been weakened over time and we’ve been changing between styles. The results weren’t good enough and we got ourselves in a bit of a rut. Having no fans didn’t help because Cardiff supporters are so good at home and away, but it was the same for everybody. It was disappointing to make the play-offs and then to find ourselves slipping down the league.
Things once again improved under Mick McCarthy, but seemed to turn sour very quickly and it felt like Cardiff became a miserable place to be. How does it feel working in that sort of environment?
It was a miserable place to be because results were so bad. Fans expect more and rightly so, but I haven’t got a negative word to say about Mick. He was nothing but honest and fair. He treated his players and staff very well. He was good to work for and as players, we have to take responsibility. I remember having a bit of a row with a fan that said to me that the manager should be sacked and I told hm that we were not doing enough as players. We were trying our best to get results, but it just wasn’t happening and at the end of the day, it’s always the manager’s neck on the line.
Steve Morison was promoted from the Under-23’s and it feels like he has got Cardiff back on the right track. How would you describe his impact and the current vibe at the club?
He’s had a good impact and turned results around. Like you say, we’ve had a lot of managers that have come in and had an impact. Steve has had a calming influence and a way that he wants to play. On the pitch, it’s been better and he was a face that we knew. He’s done very well and more than deserved his contract extension.
It must be great to be back in the international set-up too. It felt like your omission was rather harsh and I understand that Cardiff and Wales train at the same base, so that must have made it even tougher to take I imagine.
I was out in the cold for two years without any contact and to watch the lads train while I was in the gym with Cardiff, it was very hard. I was back in the Cardiff team and I thought I would get back in, but I didn’t. It’s a talented squad of players with plenty that play in my position, so I had to bide my time and I wasn’t expecting the call when it came. It thought my time was up, but I’m happy to be back and my aim is to try and get in the team.
I can’t not speak to you and ask about your red card against Wycombe last season. You were subbed on deep into injury time and almost immediately sent off for a rash tackle. What was going through your head at the time? It had no bearing on the result, but you must have got slaughtered in the changing room!
I didn’t get slaughtered because everyone knows me as a person. There was no rush of blood, I just went for the ball and the lad came in. When you watch it back, it looks terrible and a red card. I had been warming up and sat back down because I assumed I wasn’t coming on. The manager had looked at me a few times, but I thought I wasn’t coming on. I had played the last 20-odd games, so I wasn’t in a huff. I went on, I think Marlon headed it a bit short and the lad came out of nowhere. When it happened, I didn’t think it was bad at all, but the next thing I know, the red card is in my face! I couldn’t believe it.
The manager and TC, when you work with people for a long time, they know you as a person, so there was no issue from them. I apologised, there was no red mist and they completely understood that, but it was a bizarre minute. It was really disappointing because it meant I missed the start of the next season. Our season was pretty much done, but there ended up being four or five months between the start of the next season and I didn’t get back in the team for another six games. One moment of madness and I was out of the team for nine games.
Just to finish. Your Cardiff contract is up at the end of the season. Are you keen to remain at the club and is it difficult finding yourself in such an uncertain situation? It must occupy at least some of your attention.
If it was up to me, I would absolutely love to stay at the club. Whether or not that’s going to happen, I haven’t been told yet, so we’ll have to wait and see. Hopefully I’ll have a good end to the season and the club will want me to stay.