Will Vaulks was once paid 33p a week to play professional football but his dramatic rise on to the international stage could be about to see him rub shoulders with World Cup finalists Croatia.
The remarkable journey of the Wales midfielder saw him tipped for great things before he was released by Tranmere at the age of 19 and put in danger of being left on the football scrapheap.
Vaulks rebuilt his career at Scottish club Falkirk, where for several months he was almost certainly the lowest-paid player in football, before moving to Rotherham and catching the attention of Wales manager Ryan Giggs.
“I was always bigged up when I was young, told I was going to be the captain of Tranmere,” said Vaulks, who made his international debut in March after impressing for the Millers in the Sky Bet Championship.
“It went from that to being released when the new manager came in. But you’ve just got to stick at it and hope someone sees something in you.
“Steven Pressley at Falkirk saw something in me, gave me that chance and I had to take it.”
After a short spell at Workington in the Northern Premier League, Vaulks joined Falkirk in February 2013 determined to make a career from the game.
But Falkirk’s financial situation prevented Vaulks from picking up a living wage, and only the support of his parents kept his dream alive.
“I got 33p a week for the first three or four months – that was because they had to put me on the payroll,” Vaulks recalled.
“They put me in a flat and my mum and dad lent me some money to survive.
“I decided that was the best option for me, going back to full football rather than staying in England and playing part-time.
“My career was on the edge, but Falkirk gave me a chance and that’s why the club is special to me.
“It was a tough time. No money, four or five hours from home, but it made me work that little bit harder and I appreciate what I’ve got now.”
Vaulks moved on to Rotherham in the summer of 2016 and has enjoyed promotion and relegation campaigns in every one of his three seasons in Yorkshire.
Giggs was made aware of Vaulks’ Wales qualification through his Bangor-born mother and capped him in the friendly with Trinidad and Tobago in March.
The 25-year-old also appeared as a late substitute in the opening Euro 2020 qualifying victory over Slovakia, and could now feature against Luka Modric and company in Osijek on Saturday.
“He’s not a bad player, is he?” Vaulks, who has one year left on his Rotherham contract and has been linked with a summer move, said of Modric.
“He’s an unbelievable talent and they’ve got a great team but when you train with Gareth Bale you see what these players are like.”
Training with Vaulks has also allowed Real Madrid star Bale to witness the long throws that put his place as Wales’ main long-throw weapon into serious jeopardy.
Vaulks’ huge throws are a major attacking threat and hit the headlines in April when Nottingham Forest assistant manager Roy Keane attempted a spot of gamesmanship.
Keane tried to block Vaulks’ path as he prepared to launch a long throw into the Forest penalty area.
“People have a snobbery about it but if you have a free-kick there you’d put in the box,” Vaulks said.
“So what’s the difference? I don’t practise it too much because it hurts to do it!
“It’s developed in the last year into more of a weapon, before it was if we needed it.
“I haven’t had a competition with Gareth yet, but we’ll have to at some point.”
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