Sheffield Wednesday's Will Vaulks on completing a cherished mission he never fulfilled at Rotherham United, derby days and his future

WILL VAULKS has had the good fortune to be presented with a play-off winners’ medal amid the rarefied surroundings of Wembley not once, but twice.

If Sheffield Wednesday succeed where Vaulks’ former club Rotherham United failed back in 2018-19 – following promotion on the hallowed turf at the end of the previous season – and fulfil what would an emotional Championship safety mission, the midfielder will not lift a trophy with his team-mates or receive a personal gong.

In Vaulks’ eyes, the achievement - given the circumstances - would still surpass it.

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Retaining their second-tier status has been historically difficult for the Millers, who went down in 2020-21 and 18-19 after being promoted the year before.

Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Will Vaulks, who returns to former club Rotherham United on Saturday. Photo by George Wood/Getty Images.Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Will Vaulks, who returns to former club Rotherham United on Saturday. Photo by George Wood/Getty Images.
Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Will Vaulks, who returns to former club Rotherham United on Saturday. Photo by George Wood/Getty Images.

They bucked the recent trend last season, but unless something astonishing happens, normal service will be resumed in 2023-24.

After play-off glory in 2017-18, Rotherham were immediately written off by many as cast-iron relegation certainties before a ball was kicked in August 2018.

They put up a fight before returning from whence they came.

In terms of squad depth, budget and club size, Wednesday have more natural advantages at this level. But that is not taking into account what turned out to be a thoroughly chaotic period in the modern-day history of the club following promotion last May.

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Wednesday resembled a basket case before Danny Rohl diverted attention and brought some order on the pitch.

In a normal season and circumstances, staying in the Championship would not be a big deal to Wednesdayites. This season has been far from normal.

Vaulks, speaking ahead of Saturday’s trip to the Millers, said: “The way the year has gone, this has been a harder season (than last season) if I am honest.

"For me, this is a harder challenge. If we do stay up after the position where we are, it’d be like celebrating mediocrity to a degree.

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"But with the way things have aligned, if we can stay in this league, it’s bigger (than promotion).

"We were buzzing with promotion last year, but that was our job and we just about did it. That was on the job interview when I signed - we had to get promoted.

"To stay in this league is where we should be and that’s what the challenge is and it’d probably be a bigger achievement.”Back in that aforesaid 18-19 season, Vaulks was in the home line-up in this particular fixture just over five years ago in mid-February 2019.

A madcap finish ended with the visiting Owls scoring a 100th-minute equaliser courtesy of a goal from Dom Iorfa on his debut. Vaulks has mentioned it to his team-mate a fair few times since.

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On Saturday, they are both on the same side in a match-up which may not be viewed as ‘the’ derby by Wednesday followers, but is still one which assumes major importance in the context of their survival quest.

The Wirral-born player has previously played in one huge derby in Cardiff versus Swansea and some other lesser-known ones in Cardiff against Bristol City and Falkirk versus Dunfermline. Not to mention all-Yorkshire affairs for the Owls and Millers.

His experiences north of the border early in his career were a particular eye-opener.

Vaulks added: “That (Kincardine) derby, you might not have 30,000 there, but it’s a feisty derby and they absolutely hated each other.

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"I remember a (Falkirk) lad headbutted one of their players and got sent off. The fans cheered that more than when we won the game! I am not condoning that, but it was feisty and I remember we won 1-0 away.

"Having those games quite early in my career really helped me. It’s about managing the occasion and harnessing that bit of fight. It’s the wrong thing to blank it completely and pretend it’s not a derby because these games mean more to the local people.

"I’d had managers who have done that in the past and sat in a ‘Q and A’ not long after the game and fans not believing he wasn’t bothered we’d lost the game. I know, being a football fan growing up, what it means to people.”

It is days like Saturday which you suspect Vaulks will miss when he calls time on his playing career, although certainly not for a good while yet.

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With his contract ending at Hillsborough in June, it remains to be seen if the end of Vaulks' stint at the club is not too far down the line. He definitely hopes not. It could well hinge on events between now and May 4.

"You only get contracts or moves by doing well on the pitch, and hopefully at the end of the season we’re in this league and the club want to talk to me," Vaulks added.

"But if they don’t, then that’s the club’s choice. I’d love to be here, but it’s not always up to us as players - even if some people think that it is.”