Darius Vassell interview on how Gareth Southgate inspired him and taking that into his coaching career at Wolves

It is no surprise that Gareth Southgate did extra training as a player. What is less well known is that Darius Vassell, one of the youngsters he recruited for those sessions, not only believes it pushed him to greater heights but is still being inspired by it to this day.

Vassell went on to be an England team-mate of Southgate’s but back then he was just another teenage hopeful trying to break into an Aston Villa side that included Dwight Yorke and Stan Collymore. Being asked to train with the captain was a huge step.

“I just remember how it made me feel,” Vassell tells Sky Sports.

“It is a big thing as a youth-team player to be asked to do one-against-ones with a first-team player. It does not really happen, to be honest. Coaches would never go to a youth-team player but he wanted it. That is why I saw it as a big thing. He demanded it.

“Maybe he wanted an easy ride, I don’t know. But I remember how I felt afterwards. I felt like I was close to being good enough. I needed to feel that way because I was not one of those players with confidence. I needed those little things to boost me.”

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Vassell scored his first Premier League goal for Aston Villa in 2001. The very next year he was sat next to Southgate on the England bench as Sven Goran Eriksson’s side faced Brazil in a World Cup quarter-final. Southgate did not get on the pitch. Vassell did.

He played 22 times for his country, scoring six goals and even made the move from Villa to Manchester City long before Jack Grealish, although he does not recall the same amount of fuss. “I think that has something to do with the fee. The fee was a bit different.”

Now 41 and long since retired, the memories of those sessions with Southgate resonate as strongly as ever because he is the teacher these days. An academy coach at Premier League club Wolverhampton Wanderers, he relishes the role that he has held for four years.

“Some of the players who were 13 when I first came to Wolves are now 16, 17 and 18, playing for the U23s and stuff like that. They have grown, matured. It is exciting to watch them develop. Where is their journey going to go? How far will they get?

“I watch them and I can relate to them, thinking that I would have done the exact same thing at that age. I can see them beginning to understand how they have to think as a professional. It is exciting to think that they are at the start of a journey that I completed.”

Vassell is speaking at the FA and McDonald’s Grassroots Football Awards at Wembley and it causes him to reflect on his journey dating back to those early days with Romulus Boys in Birmingham. “I still go back to my Sunday league team and hand out the awards.”

The game has changed a lot since then.

“I went into Wolves four years ago and listened to how the youngsters spoke about strategy and performance and it blew my mind. I could not believe that they were so aware of their in-possession strategies, their out-of-possession strategies, their formations.

“Now, the tactical, psychological and social stuff is immense. It was not like that when I was younger. It was just like grassroots football, I just wanted to play. But the game has developed now. You really do need to understand the strategy.

“Academy youngsters nowadays are battling against players who are more ready to play so they need to be on top of the tactical side, the strategy of it. Young players research teams before they play against them. I did not care who I was playing against.

“I never really thought about what other players were doing in their positions as a youngster. It was a more simplified version and that worked for me. But as a coach, I have to make sure that the guys get the best experiences and the best opportunities to learn.”

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There is a natural expectation that Vassell’s time working in Wolves’ academy is a stepping stone to a more high-profile role. He does not see it that way. “If money were a driving factor, then possibly, but I do not know if I would enjoy it as much,” he explains.

“Not many people seem to just want to coach youngsters. I always speak to the hierarchy at Wolves because they want to know what I want to do, what my end goal is. I don’t know the answer to that yet but I do know that I really enjoy what I am doing. It is fun.

“People say I would be good at it because of the way that players respond to my coaching. Even though I do not feel like I do, they tell me that I know a lot about the game. Sven Goran Eriksson would always tell me that I was a very intelligent player. I was like, ‘Really?’

“Having coached now I do get what he meant. The game can faze a lot of young players and some do not make it for that reason. They worry about things too much. The game never fazed me. I had a way to get over a moment of anxiety. I try to pass that on now.

“Hopefully, they can shape those ideas into something that works for them. Some things you just don’t need to worry about, you really don’t. I can help players with that so that the only things they worry about are things that are going to make them better.”

He sounds like a natural but they are lessons Vassell began to learn almost a quarter of a century ago now – at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground when a young Gareth Southgate turned to some enthusiastic youngsters to help him prepare.

It was a recent incident at Wolves that triggered the memory.

“One of the young players nutmegged me,” laughs Vassell.

“By accident,” he soon adds. “It was not a real nutmeg. But he ran off. ‘I have just nutmegged an ex-England international.’ Because I am competitive, I was like, ‘You little….’ And then I relaxed a bit. I remember how that feels. You have to enjoy that moment.

“He probably had to Google me but I can still do a bit, to be honest. As much as I enjoy joining in, I know that they get something from things like that because they will be testing themselves against me. With moments like that, they get to know that they are close.

“And I know just how important that is.”

Darius Vassell was attending the FA and McDonald’s Grassroots Football Awards, celebrating the heroes who go above and beyond for the grassroots game. Find out more at www.mcdonalds.co.uk/football

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