Friday, 25 May 2012

Mistakes Are A Portal Of Discovery

West Ham's Wembley matchwinner Ricardo Vaz Te is determined to make the most of his second chance. The Portuguese winger was on the football scrapheap two years ago after being released by Bolton, but the Hammers' £500,000 January recruit looks like a bargain after scoring that dramatic late play-off final winner to sink Blackpool 2-1 and earn West Ham the estimated £90million promotion to the Barclays Premier League brings. Yet the Hammers hero is not just satisfied with firing the club back into the Premier League – he insists they must stay there. "We must get there with the mentality that we’re a Premier League side and not there to fight for relegation," he insists. "It is another step, a big challenge. West Ham is a great club. We are all going to go there and give it our best. I started the season at Barnsley and I’ve been blessed with a second chance in my career and I'm cherishing it."

Vaz Te's redemptive journey back to the Promised Land has been rocky in more ways than one. This time last year, he 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. "Which all goes to show that football’s not just a funny game, it’s fucking hilarious at times," chuckles former teammate David Preece, before adding, "at this very precise moment, Ricardo Vaz Te should be pissing himself laughing." Preece spent six months playing alongside Vaz at Barnsley and within that time saw him transform from a bit part player to goalscoring 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, reveals Preece. If anything, he says, you could describe it as Rocky-esque as he recalls how his breaking became his making. 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," recalls Preece. "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." It will gladden the hearts of Hammers fans everywhere they have again indirectly profited at the expense of the Blades, but in truth it was concerns over Vaz Te's troublesome knees that scuppered a move to Bramall Lane.

Down and almost out, Tykes manager Keith Hill decided to invite him to train 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 the squad that they 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," admits Preece. "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 Vaz Te 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," agrees Preece. "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 the point across. Preece states: "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."

His teammates past and present agree you couldn’t meet anyone nicer and, to a certain degree, more unfootballer-like. "He’s a quiet, humble, almost shy character," says Preece. "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." Similarly, in a radio interview two days ago, West Ham's Matt Taylor spoke of how Vaz Te could be found alone and in tears in the dressing room after Saturday's Wembley victory while the other players celebrated on the pitch. "It was a hugely emotional day for Vaz," said Taylor. "He's had alot of injuries and I think it meant so much because he thought maybe his career was over."

It all serves to make the authority with which Vaz Te now addresses the media all the more surprising, given the freedom and joy that have underpinned many of his performances in a claret and blue shirt. It’s also unexpected, writes The Mail's Laura Williamson, from a quick, 6ft 2in player who is most relaxed when talking about his trademark Mohican hairstyle, love of Disney films (Beauty and the Beast is his favourite), travelling on the bus or tube ('I love it') and energetic goal celebrations. Vaz Te recently took his three younger sisters to see the musical The Lion King when they visited him in London. The forward has already been once before and thought it was 'amazing'. "How the lions greet each other is by doing this movement," he says, demonstrating by scooping his head upwards, in the manner of a big cat cleaning itself after devouring its prey. "They came to watch the game so I thought, 'If I score today I’m going to do it'".

At Barnsley he used to do a celebration with team-mate, Jim O’Brien. "There is this song called 'All Day, all night...' (Loca People by Sak Noel)," he enthuses. "When the beats kicked in he just pulled these crazy moves, so I thought we should do this in a game. And the one I did against Cardiff: one of my older brothers, Fernando, he says when he scores he gives a concert. So I just did that for him." Having plundered 12 goals in 18 league and play-off games since his move in January, Vaz Te's creative ingenuity continues to be sorely tested.

Still only 25, Vaz Te grew up in Guinea-Bissau in west Africa with his father before moving back to Lisbon just before his 12th birthday. There he met Manchester United winger Nani. The pair used to play five-a-side together in the street and still keep in touch. "In Portugal that’s where you learn," said Vaz Te. "You get kids aged 13 playing with 18- year-olds. But if you’re good enough, you play. You get bullied at times but it toughens you up." The youngster spent three months being professionally coached at Sporting Lisbon, then moved to the Algarve and joined the under-19 team of SC Farense. "I was at Sporting Lisbon when I was eleven but didn't last long because it was a hassle for my mum to take me to training. It was tough for her because she was at home with these kids - seven of them, by the way. So I just played locally, and started playing five-a-side. I did a pre-season with Sporting and stayed for three months but when school started and the results weren't so good, my mum said enough is enough. They would train a couple of days a week. At that time, (for me] football was a serious thing, but I just think it's a fun thing."

His fun-loving outlook translates into an often-languid style on the pitch that certainly impressed Bolton scouts in Portugal and in England's north-west in 2003. "I went on trial at Bolton for a day, and signed the same day," recalls Vaz Te. "Obviously, my mum didn't want to let me go. But she came, she saw the club, and they guaranteed to look after me." In truth, his first experience of football on these shores was a bewildering one. A callow Portuguese kid who had developed his game mainly on the streets of his homeland and Africa was being urged by a Bolton youth team coach to track his runner, use the channels, and apply tactics to his play.

"When I came (to Bolton] I was a bit lost," he admits. "(They said] track your runner, you need to play with that ball. For me, I had no responsibility - I just did my own thing. I had to grow, basically, had to take it seriously. I never took (football] so seriously, only when I came to Bolton. You have to run backwards, forwards, (do things] tactical-wise." The forward, who has scored 24 goals in all this season, said: "I was always a mummy’s boy and I always had one of my older brothers with me, but I had to lose all that, to be alone. I couldn’t speak any English and it was really tough because I’m quite a talkative person, I like to socialise. But I dealt with that in three months and I loved it. Every day, at my digs, I used to eat pasta and tomato sauce — with cheese on top. And every Sunday was roast dinner. It was great."

Vaz Te quickly metamorphosed into a talented enough player to make his Premiership debut at Old Trafford a year later. Mother Maria doesn't normally travel to see her son play, but one of her proudest moments was watching him score a late equaliser to pinch a point for Bolton in the UEFA Cup - a game against Vitoria Guimaraes, based near Lisbon, that she attended on the insistence of one of Ricardo's brothers. A succession of knee injuries curtailed his rapid progress at the Reebok Stadium and eventually put paid to a new contract, the then-winger leaving after 88 first-team appearances and eight goals.

He started only 10 league games in seven years at Bolton. "I had injuries in my career which didn't help," reflected the 25-year-old. "I had one knee injury after another, a niggle here, another there. Then it was like, "Woah, you haven't played for two-and-a-half years" - and you start losing it. They said it was something to do with my leg length difference, but I wear insoles now." He says the physiotherapists 'lost faith' in him after a final 'career-threatening' knee ligament injury, which prompted that underwhelming spell at Hibernian and one in Greece with Panionios, where he went 4 months without receiving any wages. A career that had shown such promise, including an appearance at Wembley in 2008 for Portugal Under 21s, was in danger of dying out before it was resurrected this season. "It was very tough," he said. "I remember going to see specialists and them telling me, 'That’s a career-threatening injury. There’s a possibility of you not getting fit again.' I was only 21 or 22. A lot of people lost faith in me: the physios lost faith in me and obviously I struggled to come back. But you learn to deal with it. I had to do it the hard way, but it made me learn and appreciate football more."

These days, Vaz Te seems desperate to justify his talent, openly reciting the mantra: mistakes are a portal of discovery. "No matter what they tell you, you have to learn for yourself," he says. "There are many things I could have done differently. There was so much I could learn from all these people (at Bolton] who had been everywhere and won so many things, but I was so young. You're naive, you don't think two steps ahead, only one. I learned as much as I could in time, but there was so much more I could have achieved and learned, just by being humble and being able to listen, to try harder. I'm much older now, but when there's too much information at once it's hard to digest - there's a lot going on, and I didn't know how to deal with it. Obviously, it's hard because everywhere you go people know who you are, you do something and everybody worships you. Me and one other kid (Joey O'Brien, now a West Ham teammate] were the only ones who made it to the first team aged 17. It can get to you. Although I was never 'big time', looking back there were moments when I was too much there or too much here."

After eventually signing a year long contract with Barnsley, things still didn’t go too well for Vaz. The manager and his assistant, David Flitcroft, recognised this and set about rectifying a perceived 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," recalls Preece. "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 Te 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," remembers Preece. "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," says Preece. It was the fastest goal in Barnsley’s history and the goal that began to elicit interest from 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," continues Preece. "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," reveals Preece. "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. 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."

Not that there weren't regrets. Barnsley boss Keith Hill says he has learned a lot from the departure of his star striker. "It's important when we have good players at the club that we can retain them," he told BBC Radio Sheffield. "In hindsight we would have kept Ricardo, but I don't know what frame of mind he'd have been in. It was difficult because if we'd sold him and gone down then we would have lost a lot more money than we'd have made on the transfer. We need to look at getting our better players on longer term contracts so that when we sell them it's because it's right for us."

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," thinks Preece. "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."

Preece states he has 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. "I watched Vaz slam home the winner at Wembley and I almost celebrated as much as he did," admits Preece. "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."

1 comment:

JimBob said...

This is another great article but why has it not shown up on newsnow? Do i need to check directly here now to get your stuff?


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