Ricardo Vaz Te's journey back to the Premier League has been rocky in more ways than one and former teammate David Preece recalls how his breaking became his making.
This time last year, Ricardo Vaz Te had just been told by Hibernian that he was surplus to requirements, as clubs tend to put it, and over the course of the next few months, it transpired that nobody else wanted him either. Fast forward exactly a year later and Vaz Te was playing at Wembley in front of seventy eight thousand people, scoring a goal that is worth a minimum of £90 million to his club, West Ham United. Which all goes to show that football’s not just a funny game, it’s f**king hilarious at times and at this very precise moment, Ricardo Vaz Te should be p*****g himself laughing. I spent six months playing alongside Vaz at Barnsley and within that time I saw him transform from a bit part player to Hammer’s hero.
That’s not to say this was a straight forward story of a footballer swigging from a bottle in the Last Chance saloon and ending up with him resurrecting his career. There’s much more to it than that. If anything, you could describe it as Rocky-esque.
Beneath the top tier of English football where it’s awash with the riches of Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern Sheiks, you can still unearth the odd fairytale that continues to make us refer to it as the beautiful game. Vaz Te is exactly that. Last summer when he turned up at Barnsley it was his last throw of the dice. Not only had he arrived at Oakwell on the back of rejection from Greek side Panionios and the SPL’s Hibernian, he’d ended up stranded in South Yorkshire after a proposed trial at Sheffield United had been withdrawn after they decided he just wasn’t what they were after.
Down and almost out, our gaffer, Keith Hill, decided to invite him to train with us so he could have a look at him. There was no catch, it was a risk free opportunity to see if he could add something to our squad that we were lacking. So in he came. I didn’t know much about him to be honest and what I had been told was that he was all show and no substance but in that first training session he proceeded to drift in from the left wing and smash the ball past Luke Steele and myself. There was no doubting he definitely had something. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to compare him to the likes of Ronaldo and Nani as his long loping stride, lightening step-overs and the preposterous amount of deviation he got the ball to do was totally reminiscent of them both.
It’s the way he strikes the ball that’s his biggest asset. The power and movement he can generate means any shot on target is a difficult for the goalkeeper to deal with. If he didn’t score directly, other players would mop up the seconds after the keeper had failed to deal with it adequately. Skill, he had in abundance, but there was obviously something missing and as quickly as I picked up on his strengths, his weaknesses were glaringly obvious too. Defending and simple passes were alien to him. As a goalkeeper, I abhor anyone who neglects defensive duties as it’s usually us who pays the price for it. We’d fall out after he’d failed to track his man which would often result in me calling him a c**t. In the heat of a game there isn’t time for pleasantries and this seemed to get my point across. People make mistakes, you have to accept that but when someone decides not to defend because it’s too much like hard work, I tend to blow a gasket. The first ten minutes after training was usually spent apologising to him for making it so personal but that was my way and I tended to be harshest on those I truly want to succeed and Vaz was one of them because I knew that he did care, just not enough to chase back after he’d lost possession.
It wasn’t just those occasions where I would explode with rage at him either, as he’d often make me look a fool with some of the tricks he’d pull off when coming through one-on-one with me. And that was Vaz to a tee: hugely frustrating but occasionally genius-like.
. . . at this very precise moment, Ricardo Vaz Te should be p*****g himself laughing
As a person, you couldn’t meet anyone nicer and to a certain degree, he was very unfootballer-like. He’s a quiet, humble, almost shy character. It’s probably not the image everyone has of him because of his flamboyant hairstyle and seemingly egotistical style of play but that’s him. He wouldn’t even give interviews to the media guys at Barnsley for the match day programme so as to not bring attention on himself.
After signing a year long contract with us, things didn’t go too well for Vaz. The gaffer and his assistant, David Flitcroft, recognised this and set about rectifying his lack of team ethic on the pitch. They knew they had a job on their hands but they did it the only way they knew how. They broke him. They quite literally ground him down so they could begin rebuilding him from scratch. Every day in training, whenever he didn’t do as they asked they would give him dogs abuse. Some days it was so ferocious even the rest of us thought they were taking it too far but in retrospect it was a calculated gamble. They wanted to drill into him the importance of becoming a team player and thought that their policy of totally stripping him of confidence would either make him or break him. It was military-like. If it didn’t work, as he had been brought in on a fairly modest salary then they could’ve just shrugged their shoulders and admitted defeated. On the other hand, if he responded then all their psychological games with him would have paid dividends.
The watershed moment for Vaz was to be the 15th of October and it came in the shape of his worst performance of the season. In that first forty five minutes in Portsmouth, Vaz’s feet did everything to evade any ball that was passed in his direction. Every attempt he made to control the ball either rolled under his foot or bobbled over it and it became too much for the gaffer who had seen enough and somewhat inevitably produced the old shepherd’s crook and dragged him at half-time. All of us sitting on the bench looked at one another and thought “That’s it. He’s finished now.” and I’m positive that’s what the manager thought too. I think he even intimated to Vaz that week that perhaps he should start looking for another club. That was the week Ricardo Vaz Te’s professional floor had been reached.
He was dropped back to the bench for the next game but after a prolonged pep talk on the sideline from David Flitcroft, he managed to come on late in the game and score in a 2-0 win at home to Burnley. Then it all just clicked. He scored in our 2-1 win over Leeds United at Elland Road and then later proceeded to smash the ball past Julian Speroni after barely nine seconds of the game against Crystal Palace. It was the fastest goal in Barnsley’s history and the goal that began to arouse interest in other clubs. I suppose the moment I knew it had all turned full circle for him was when we came up against Leeds again in December and after speaking to a couple of the their boys we discovered how relieved they were that he was starting on the bench. Unluckily for them, Vaz had to replace the injured Jacob Butterfield after fifteen minutes and proceeded to help himself to a hat-trick.
Teams began fearing him and when that happens, you can bet the managers of those begin to shoot admiring glances in his direction too. It happens so often in football. A player might just have two great performances a year but if they are against the same team, their manager will sign them on the back of that.
They broke him. They quite literally ground him down so they could begin rebuilding him from scratch
Back at Oakwell, it was now panic stations. People were declaring their interest in Vaz whilst simultaneously, we were desperately trying to put together a package which would keep him at Oakwell but it was a lost cause. If you’re at Barnsley, once a club like West Ham come in for you with their Premier League ambitions and superior financial clout then it’s as good as a done deal. And although there was initial uproar from the fans accusing Vaz of abandoning the club which gave him a chance when no-one else would, the rest of the squad didn’t begrudge him his move and even the manager couldn’t bring himself to stand in his way.
Getting half a million pounds for a player who had arrived on a free transfer and had hardly drained the club of it’s financial sources whilst giving the same player a realistic chance of Premier League football, seemed to be a good deal for everyone. It’s difficult to accept when your club can’t compete financially with many teams in the same division but it’s just a fact of life that you will lose your best players. It’s all well and good saying he should’ve stayed loyal to the Tykes and rewarded us by adding to the eleven goals that played such a huge part in our survival but chances like his need to be grabbed not only with both hands but all ten toes too, when they eventually come along.
I’ve seen it so many times when a big club comes in for a player and a bid is turned down, there are no guarantees that he will get that kind of opportunity again. When I was in the youth team at Sunderland, one of my teammates was the subject of a £250,000 from Man Utd and the club rebuffed the offer saying he was the future of the club and would not be letting him go for less than £1 million. Eighteen months later and he was playing for Whitley Bay in the Northern League.
It’s a “Sliding Doors” moment in a player’s life where the fork in the road leads to the exact opposite of ends of the scale and as I watched Vaz slam home the winner at Wembley I almost celebrated as much as he did. A few of us were texting one another other saying how pleased we were for him. Surprisingly and very unstereotypically, not one of us actually used the phrase “we were over the moon” for him but every single one us was glad to see that someone who had suffered such hard times in his career, had been catapulted in to the stratosphere of the Premier League and proved that sometimes, just sometimes, the good guys do win.
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