It was a children’s get-together with a difference. One of the meanest operators in the Football League was surrounded by excited youngsters as he belted out a medley of Walt Disney numbers.
Will Vaulks is the tough-tackling midfielder playing a key role in Rotherham United’s push for League One promotion, a man so driven he once played for no wages so he could prove himself as a pro.
He also does a terrible version of ‘Let It Go’.
There are two sides to the man who has captained the Millers this season: the one who scraps, battles and never takes a backward step in his day job and the one who quietly, without fuss, fanfare or need for reward, helps out every week at Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice.
“The first time I volunteered, I wasn’t in the Rotherham team,” Vaulks recalls. “I came here in a bad mood because I’d just found out I wasn’t playing. And I hate not playing.
“I spent time here and the fact I wasn’t playing ... well, I wouldn’t say it was irrelevant but it felt more minimal. I came out feeling better about myself, better that I’d helped people. I’d helped with a kids’ party. It was a Frozen party. They made me sing bl**dy Frozen songs!”
Here, I suppose, I get to be myself. Without being too deep, I get to be a good person here, whereas in football it’s very competitive; it’s all about being better than your opponent, beating that lad in the other team, even in training.Will Vaulks
He’s 20 minutes late for our meeting at this humbling facility on the outskirts of Sheffield. Millers manager Paul Warne’s preparations for the following day’s match against Peterborough United have taken longer than expected.
Vaulks rings me from his car to warn me, then ambles into the foyer, greeting staff and making a beeline for Bluebell Wood’s cocker spaniel, George.
George is a popular presence - “He knows if someone is upset,” Communications Officer Miriam Francos tells me - and it’s immediately obvious that Vaulks is too.
There’s a big board hanging in the lounge with pictures of all the volunteers. There he is - Will, not George - fourth from right on the second row, sporting a bashful grin and a jumper his mum would approve of.
It’s a Thursday afternoon and he’ll devote several hours to Bluebell Wood before giving a typical, all-action, commanding performance in a 1-1 draw at AESSEAL New York Stadium 24 hours later.
Part of his time is spent with children and young adults at the hospice and their siblings, trampolining with some of them, playing computer games, a footy kickabout here and there. He also does his bit in the fundraising office and has been known to get his hands dirty in the kitchen as a pot-washer.
“I wouldn’t say it affects my approach to football,” he reflects. “I’m still horrible on the pitch and that will never change. That’s just the winner inside me.
“But here, I suppose, I get to be myself. Without being too deep, I get to be a good person here, whereas in football it’s very competitive; it’s all about being better than your opponent, beating that lad in the other team, even in training.
“It’s a team game, but a lot of it is individual. Here is the only time I get to be ‘Will’, if you see what I mean.
“Being a footballer here makes no odds. Unless you happen to be sat next to Gail and have to talk about Rotherham every couple of minutes!”
Community Fundraiser Gail Parkin is a mad Millers fan and peppers Vaulks with questions. “Does she get on your nerves a bit?” I joke. “Gail is quality,” he replies fondly.
The first thing you notice at Bluebell Wood is the smiles. This is a refuge for poorly youngsters, some of whom are nearing the end of their lives, but the smiles cut through the pain and hurt of senseless suffering. They’re on the faces of all the staff and volunteers. They lift your heart from countless photographs of happy children and families on the walls.
“I first came at Christmas in 2016 with the Rotherham squad,” he reveals. “I thought it was amazing. A couple of months later, I was sat playing the Xbox in my house and just thought I could be doing something better with myself.
“I bought a keyboard. I was rubbish at that. Then it just popped up on my Twitter feed about volunteer opportunities at Bluebell Wood. I had an interview. It was like an interview for a job. I’ve never had a real job before! I thought: ‘Welcome to the real world.’”
He also had to provide a reference from Warne. “I’ve been here every week since and I do the odd event as well,” he says. “I love it.”
The Millers paid another Christmas visit last year. “Some players were worried about the prospect of how it might affect them,” Vaulks recalls. “I told them, when you go, you’ll come out not feeling happy but with a positive vibe.
“The next day, all the players were coming up to me saying: ‘What an unbelievable place, what unbelievable staff, what do they need?’ For the next week or two, all I had was my car full of stuff to sell in the Bluebell Wood shops or stuff to be used here. It gave them an eye-opener to life. You can go about very closed to what’s going on.”
We’re talking in an upstairs office at the hospice. Vaulks is wearing a casual sweater his mum would like and skinny-fit denim.
“My teammates always know when I’m volunteering,” he says. “Normally, I turn up for training in a tracky but on Bluebell Wood days I’ll put on a pair of jeans. This is me smart!”
He lives a couple of miles away, in Laughton, with girlfriend Alex and their dog, Benji, but isn’t a dad. “How come you know Frozen songs?” I wonder. “I know what you mean,” he laughs. “I’ve got no kids, but I knew the words because I’d heard them that many times.”
The player had a middle-class upbringing on The Wirral in Merseyside where optometrist dad Gary owned a Specsavers franchise and mum Ruth did volunteer work. Brother Ollie works for Specsavers and sister Anna is a doctor in Australia.
“I was a privileged kid really,” he acknowledges. But that changed when he was released by Tranmere Rovers as an 18-year-old.
“I had the choice of going part-time with Workington Town and not earning very much or going full-time in Scotland with Falkirk where there were no wages available,” he recollects.
“I had a flat Falkirk paid for but I didn’t get paid by them for five months. Luckily, my mum and dad lent me some money - £80 a week they gave me to survive. It was four and a half hours away from home and I had no money and no friends. I didn’t know anyone.
“I wasn’t in the team for the first two months and that was probably the toughest time of my life so far. I was really struggling. I was coming back from training and sitting in the flat from 2pm until the next day. I’d go to the gym for an hour and I’d kill time by walking round Tesco.”
He came good at Falkirk, made the Scottish Championship Team of the Year and found his way to Rotherham and Bluebell Wood.
“You’d be foolish to volunteer to work in a hospice without knowing what a hospice is,” he says. “But every experience I’ve had has been positive. You’re well aware that children are seriously ill, but it’s just about brightening up what time they have. The staff here are unbelievable at doing that.”
I have the privilege of meeting Gail after the interview. She is indeed quality and does indeed like to talk all things Millers. She tells me about her caravan in Cornwall and is lovely, warm and utterly genuine.
Bluebell Wood is full of Gails.
“As a professional footballer, I have a different platform to a lot of people,” Vaulks continues. “If Bluewell Wood want me to use that in a positive way, then I want to as well.
“You get put on a pedestal as a footballer. Whether people like it or not, it’s what happens, from kids especially. A lot of players these days think it’s uncool to have communication with fans.
“The thing I really enjoyed at Falkirk is that I got on with everyone. If I went to the shops, I’d also have four or five conversations. It hasn’t happened in Rotherham so much, with the area being bigger. If I can meet a kid who can go home and be absolutely buzzing that he’s met a footballer ... that’s not hard for me to do, is it?”
Death is an inevitable, tacit part of hospice reality, yet the place brims and bursts with life and laughter. Vaulks sometimes scores from 25 yards and is publicly feted for it. He is used to a world where players are glorified, where false emotion can be over-charged and real feelings under-valued. He knows better than most that this secluded, uplifting, inspiring corner of North Anston is where the real heroes are.
Here, he finds peace.
It’s easy to forget the well-spoken, intelligent, self-aware figure in front of me is only 24. Just so you know, as soon as he started earning, he paid back every penny his parents had loaned him.
Bluebell Wood have been so impressed they have made him one of only a handful of ambassadors.
“I’ve had this conversation with my mum,” he says. “The thing with volunteering is, you do it to help - that’s the main reason - but by doing it you also help yourself.
“Little things can go on in your life. Then you come here and it boosts you, which you wouldn’t always expect. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you come away and feel sad because you see a child who is very unwell. But I give up only a few of hours a week and you’d be surprised at the difference it makes to me.”
The sky is darkening when I leave, the rain adding a gloss sheen to the well-ordered riot of colour and children’s apparatus in the sprawling garden. As I drive through fields, down a single-lane track, I find myself understanding everything he’s said. Happiness and melancholy hit me at the same time. My own two boys are very much in my mind and feel oddly proud of everyone I’ve just met.
I think back to the last part of our conversation. With the main talking done, we chat briefly about the Peterborough game.
Vaulks’ countenance hardens at the prospect of a Good Friday clash with play-off points at stake. The competitor is back.
Then, suddenly remembering Frozen, I ask him if he had to perform an initiation song when he joined Rotherham in July 2016 and the soft face Bluebell Wood loves so much returns.
“Robbie Williams. ‘Feel’,” he grins. “I didn’t do it justice. I went to see him last summer.
“I’m Robbie’s No 1 fan. He’s my man-crush.”
Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice cares for more than 250 children and young adults with shortened life expectancy and their families.
Staff support them in their own homes and also at the hospice in North Anston.
Bluebell Wood, which is surrounded by six and a half acres of land, first opened its doors in 2008. It has eight bedrooms and accommodation for family members.
At the heart of the building is a lounge and dining area and there are also sensory, music and cinema rooms along with a play area.
Its caring has been rated “outstanding” by the Care Quality Commission.
Anna Gott, Community Fundraiser at Bluebell Wood, said: “We asked Will to become one of our ambassadors at the start of this year in recognition of everything he was doing for us and continues to do.
“He’s a brilliant support at the hospice. He volunteers every week and is happy to roll his sleeves up to do whatever is needed, whether he’s getting into admin work in the office or supporting the Care Team with children and young adults.
“Will has also inspired a lot of his teammates at Rotherham United to do their bit, whether that’s through donating clothes and toys for our shop or by getting involved in visits to the hospice.
“Will is a fantastic representative for Bluebell Wood and a total credit to Rotherham United and the footballing world.”
All Bluebell Wood’s services are free to children and families referred there.
It costs in excess of £4 million to keep the hospice open every year, and just 10 per cent of its funding comes from statutory government sources. That’s why your support makes all the difference.
Visit www.bluebellwood.org to find out more about Bluebell Wood’s work, how you can volunteer and how to make a donation.