Not surprisingly, Gareth Southgate did some extra training as a player. What is not clear is that Darius Vassell, one of the young people he signed up for at the meetings, not only did he believe it made him a great climb but he is still encouraged to this day.
Vassell became England’s Southgate teammate but at the time was another young believer to try to join the Aston Villa team which included Dwight Yorke and Stan Collymore. Asked to train by the captain was a big part.
“I just remember how it made me,” Vassell tells Sky Games.
“It’s a big thing if a young player is asked to play against a player in the first team. It doesn’t really happen, to be honest. Coaches can never go to a young player but they wanted it and that’s why I saw it as a big deal.
“Maybe he wants to go easy, I don’t know. But I remember how I felt afterwards. I felt like I was about to be perfect. I had to feel that way because I wasn’t one of those players and I was confident.
Vassell achieved his first Premier League goal for Aston Villa in 2001. The following year he sat next to Southgate on the England bench when Sven Goran Eriksson’s side met Brazil in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Southgate did not arrive at the scene. Vassell said.
He played 22 times for his country, scoring six goals and moved from Villa to Manchester City formerly Jack Grealish, although he does not remember the same controversy. “I think this is in line with the fees. The fees were a little different.”
He is now 41 years old and having retired, the memories of what happened at Southgate are even more vivid because he is a teacher today. The head coach of the Premier League club Wolverhampton Wanderers, enjoys the role he has been playing for four years.
“Some of the players who were 13 when I came to Wolves are now 16, 17 and 18, playing U23s and so on. They are growing, growing. It’s exciting to see them improve. Where is their journey going? Where will they go?
“I see them and I can connect with them, I think I would be the same. I can see them begin to understand how they should think like professionals. It’s interesting to think that they are the beginning of the journey I have just completed.”
Vassell speaks at the FA and McDonald’s Grassroots Soccer Awards at Wembley and it makes him think about his previous trip with the Romulus Boys to Birmingham. “I’m going back to my theological team and give rewards.”
The game has changed a lot since then.
“I went to Wolves four years ago and listened to how young people talked about ways and processes and it blew into my mind. I don’t believe they know the methods they have, the ideas they have, the ideas they have.
“Now, magic, psychology and relationships are more. It wasn’t like that when I was a kid. It was like football, I just wanted to play. But the game is growing now. You really have to understand the process.
“The youth of the Academy today are fighting a battle with players who are ready to play so they have to be on top of the standards, his mindset. The youngsters check out the teams before they play. I don’t care who I play with.
“I never thought about what other players were doing in their positions at a young age. It was so easy and it worked for me. But as a coach, I have to make sure these guys have a good and very good learning experience.”
There is a natural hope that Vassell’s time working at Wolves’ academy is a stepping stone. They don’t see it that way. “If the money were a run, maybe, but I don’t know if I would enjoy it,” he explains.
“Not many people seem to want to educate young people. I always talk to the Wolves senior management because they want to know what I want to do, my goal in the end. I don’t know the answer to this yet I know I’m enjoying what I’m doing. It’s fun.
“People say I can do better because of the way players react to my coaching. Even though I don’t feel like it, they tell me I know a lot about the game. Sven Goran Eriksson always tells me I was a very smart player and I was like, ‘Really?’
“Since I’ve coached now I get what he means. This game can be played by a lot of young players and some don’t do it for a reason. They worry about more things. The game didn’t bother me.
“Hopefully, they can make their ideas something that will help them. Some things you don’t have to worry about, you don’t have. I can help players that the things they worry about are the ones that made them better.”
Sounds like a natural but with the lessons Vassell started learning about a quarter of a century ago – at Villa’s training ground in Bodymoor Heath where young Gareth Southgate turned to other youngsters to help him prepare.
It was a recent event at Wolves that made a comeback.
“One of the young players caught me,” laughs Vassell.
“By accident,” he adds recently. “They weren’t real nuts. But they ran away.” I just gave it to an old visitor from England. “Because I’m competitive, I feel like, ‘You little one …’ Then I relaxed a little, I remember how it feels, you should have fun that time.
“They must have done it for me on Google but I can still do a little bit, to be honest. The more I enjoy joining in, the more I know they get something out of such things because they try to be against me.
“And I know its importance.”
Darius Vassell was part of the FA and the McDonald’s Grassroots Football Awards, celebrating the champions who go on to play the game. Find out more at www.mcdonalds.co.uk/football