Darius Vassell won 22 England caps in the company of the likes of Beckham, Lampard and Gerrard, and was a key figure in the Premier League for the best part of a decade. He has plenty of other memories, too – like the missed penalty that sent England home from the 2004 Euros…and making eye contact with a sacrificial goat.
Now retired at 37 and coaching Academy youngsters at Wolverhampton Wanderers, (at the time of writing, top of the Championship), Vassel has, to his surprise, found that such memories have brought him another career as a successful writer. He has a popular blog and now his bestselling autobiography, “The Road to Persia”, gives a candid and thoughtful account of a career full of unexpected twists and turns which can border on the surreal.
“I enjoy writing,” Vassell told us, “I think there’s another book in what I’m doing now. You never know what might be around the corner.”
Certainly, after leaving Manchester City in 2009, Vassell was expected to be snapped up by another Premiership club but to everyone’s surprise, he turned his back on England.
“I didn’t want to become a journeyman footballer. Aston Villa was the only club I’d wanted to play for, and I’d grown to love Manchester City, but I didn’t want to go through all that again in England.
“I told my agent that a move abroad was the only option. I was capable of moving abroad, learning a new language and adapting to a new culture so I felt it was a great opportunity.”
Real Madrid? Barcelona? Paris? Saint Germain? Turkish Super Lig club Ankaragucu was not exactly in that league, but Vassell decided that it would be an experience for a season, and it was certainly that.
He remembers: “When I arrived in Turkey, I simply wasn’t ready for the welcome I received. There were thousands of supporters there to greet me, with flags, shirts and holding welcome banners. Flares were set off and every TV camera was pointing at me.”
It wasn’t long before he realised how different life would be from the Premier League. “The dressing-room toilets were just a hole in the ground. And at one home match, the team coach stopped outside the stadium for a goat to be sacrificed before the game.
“I felt the goat looked at me just before it was killed and it was a point in time when I realised I was most definitely an animal lover…”
While he was a hero on the pitch, there were problems off it. The club reneged on paying his hotel bills, their numerous sackings within the club and a change of manager. “Even so, I loved my off-the-field time in Turkey. Who knows, if things had worked out differently, perhaps I would have stayed there.”
It was all pretty far removed from Villa Park, which for as long as he could remember had been the centre of Vassell’s world. The Aston Villa ground was not much more than a corner kick from the family home in Gravelly Hill in Birmingham and at 12 he cheered his heroes from the Holte End stand.
“My dream was always to wear the claret and blue shirt,” he remembers and after he had scored a record 46 goals for his youth league club, including six in one match, it became reality.
At 16 he was signed by the club’s school of excellence, set a youth team record by scoring 39 goals in a season and got his first team chance at 18 as a substitute striker in a 3-1 win against Middlesborough.
Soon Vassell was a local hero. He was a goal-scoring predator, brave, quick and agile and over the next seven years made 162 League appearances, often coming on as a “super-sub” to worry a tired defence with his exceptional pace.
They were golden days for the young striker, playing alongside his idol Dion Dublin, banging them in regularly at the Holte End and revelling in the glory of goals.
One oddity of his career is that he scored 46 goals without finishing on the losing side, only recently losing the record to Liverpool’s James Milner. Another is that he is the last man to score for England against Iceland.
Vassell admits that his sudden move from Villa in July 2005 came as a profound shock. A new manager, David O’Leary, wanted to put his own stamp on the team and when changes came, Vassell was one of the first casualties. He was sold to Manchester City for £2 million.
“I had not had the best of seasons,” he remembers. “I needed to show that I was back and here to stay. When I heard that Villa had accepted an offer for me, I was devastated. Of course I wanted to stay – Villa will always be my team.”
His Manchester City career started brightly. He formed a winning partnership with Andy Cole, scoring ten goals in 40 appearances until manager Sven Goran Eriksson pushed him into an unfamiliar wide midfield position and he struggled to find his best form.
Eventually he was released when his contract expired at the end of the 2009 season. He had made 103 Premiership appearances and scored 17 goals
By now, Vassell was a seasoned England international but out of his 22 games for his country he knows that the one people most remember is “that penalty.” It was when England’s “Golden Generation” spectacularly crashed out of Euro 2004, losing to Portugal on a penalty shoot-out.
It was the squad of Young Lions David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and a young Wayne Rooney. Before the quarter-final Rooney broke his metatarsal and Vassell took his place. He remembers that he didn’t want to take a penalty but was suddenly called on when the game went to sudden death.
The rest, sadly, is history. Portugal goalkeeper Ricardo saved Vassell’s spot-kick and England went home. Skipper Beckham tried to console his distraught striker but over a decade later it’s a day Vassell still can’t forget.
After his Turkish adventures, Vassell was unexpectedly reunited with his former Manchester City and England boss Sven Goran Eriksson at Championship club Leicester City, helping the Foxes lay the groundwork for their eventual story-book Premier League success.
But after a good first season, injury struck in October 2011. A ruptured anterior cruciate ligament effectively ended Vassell’s career and despite offers from several English clubs, he finally retired at 35 in January 2016.
“Nothing beats playing first-class football,” he says now. “On the other hand, I feel I retired at the right time. My body was screaming for a break. But looking back, I sometimes wish I was playing today with the knowledge I’ve got now. I would have handled things a bit differently.
“I don’t think I scored enough goals – maybe I wasn’t single-mined and selfish enough. I was always the one who played 100 per cent for the team and, to be honest, I don’t regret it.
“The game has changed a lot – it’s quicker and standards are higher – but the fundamentals are still the same and I can pass these on to the Academy youngsters, along with my memories and experience.