The Big Interview: Vassell - Leaving Villa was heartbreaking
Darius Vassell is utterly unequivocal when asked about the moment he was told Villa no longer wanted him.
Boss David O'Leary faced the press in July 2005 and told them lifelong Villa fan Vassell was heading back from the club's Swedish pre-season tour to hold talks with Man City.
He didn't hold back about his dramatic decision to sell the star striker.
"I think he's gone stale at Villa. He's got set in his ways a little bit and his car probably knows the way to the training ground on its own! I felt he needed a new challenge."
Vassell only remembers the devastation he felt when the news was imparted to him by his agent.
"I knew I'd not had the best of seasons for Villa. But in my head, I was thoroughly determined. I was thinking: 'I need to get back and really tear it up and put myself back on the map.'
"When I heard the news that Villa had accepted an offer, it was a heartbreaking moment. I was devastated.
"I realised that I had to grow up quickly. I thought: 'I'm not as wanted by my club as I thought, I need to think about my career.' I felt in the end I made a good decision in joining Man City.
"That was a great experience in itself. But I'm not going to lie. Leaving Villa was gut-wrenching. If I had it my way, I wouldn't have left. I hadn't done what I was capable of doing for Villa.
"I was desperate to go out there for Villa that season for my friends, family and supporters and show them that Darius is back and here to stay and better than ever.
"I never knew anything other than Villa at that point. There was talk of Man Utd coming in for me before Man City ever did. I was hoping they didn't! I always wanted to stay at Villa.
"But when a club accepts a bid, that's everything sorted. It's set in stone for you that you have to move on.
"I realised life wasn't perfect. I became a man and tried something new to expand my career."
Despite the desolation at the time, Vassell is now able to look back on his claret and blue career with real pride.
Vassell made 106 league starts, with an extra 54 appearances from the bench, scoring 35 league goals.
He also started 17 cup matches, with 22 sub appearances - scoring 10 times to complete a record of 45 goals in 199 games.
It's a source of real satisfaction.
"I am proud of playing for Villa. And I am also really appreciative of having the chance to do it.
"I think everyone knows Villa is my team. I supported them from a youngster.
"To be able to play for the team you supported and cheered on as a kid was an honour.
"To wear the Villa shirt and the England shirt at the same period in my career is my biggest achievement in football."
Vassell joined Villa in July 1996 as a YTS trainee and quickly impressed the youth coaches with his mesmeric blend of pace, power and finishing class.
He signed professional forms in March 1998 and made his first-team debut at Middlesbrough in August 1998.
It was quite some rise to prominence for the shy youngster.
"It was amazing when Villa came in for me. The moment that happened there was absolutely no doubt I wanted to sign and stay there for as long as possible.
"To be able now to go and see my mates and know that I played for Villa is an unreal thing. It's such a proud thing. It was such a proud moment to join them as a kid too.
"All my mates still ask now what it was like to pull on that claret and blue shirt. It's an easy answer - incredible.
"My family and friends are all Villa fans so they are immensely proud of me, which is fantastic. What an experience!"
Vassell enjoyed that early foray into senior football on his debut at Middlesbrough but recalls more vividly the exact moment he knew he was heading in the right direction.
"Finding out I was deemed ready for the first-team was one of the biggest shocks I have ever had in football.
"I was a youth team player and I loved that life. It was so enjoyable. I was learning. I was improving. I was getting better all the time, week after week, month after month. I was trying things on the pitch.
"Then I got a call one day from Tony McAndrew and he told me I was going to be with the first team that weekend. It was out of nowhere - a bolt from the blue.
"I still remember the phonecall now. It was amazing. I travelled but didn't make the final squad.
"But what a great experience, surreal. From then on, I never looked back.
"I then came on at the end against Middlesbrough. I was eager to get my debut out of the way in all honesty.
"Gareth Barry had already made his debut and I wanted to follow suit.
"We were coming through together at the same time and I wanted to get my first game under my belt. To come on at the end was great. We won 3-1. I never looked back from there."
If his debut was a proud moment, it didn't compare with the moment he scored his first senior goals for the club.
Trailing 2-1 at home to Stromsgodset in the UEFA Cup first round, first leg, coach Steve Harrison told Vassell to get stripped and ready to come on for Darren Byfield for the final 10 minutes.
He then leant over to Vassell and imparted some instructions, which Vassell followed to the letter.
"Steve had his hands on my shoulder and said: 'Go and score us two goals Darius.' So I just followed his orders.
"He was interviewed after the game and said: "It's good to have players who do as they are told for a change." That made me laugh."
Those goals really gave Vassell an appetite to succeed.
He struggled the following term after a hamstring pull hampered his campaign but after that he progressed greatly in the following seasons in B6.
"I was coming on. I was progressing. I started making plenty of substitute appearances. I was adding a spark to the team.
"I scored two goals away at Bradford in a 3-0 win in February 2001 and I really felt the support of the fans from that moment on. They had really taken me to their hearts, which was amazing.
"I had confidence from that moment on. I believed in myself. I knew I could start. I knew I could make a difference. I knew I could score.
"The fans were always fantastic with me, 100%. These are the guys I'd see in the shops. I was close to them.
"They knew me. I was living my dream. I was living their dreams aswell. It was full support."
After the elation he felt in the closing stages of 2000-01, Vassell wanted to push on - and he most certainly did that with style, class and a strike partner he rates as highly as any other he played with during his career.
"That following season we finished eighth and it was my best return as a striker. I think Juan Pablo and I scored about 30 goals between us.
"Juan Pablo was on fire that season. I was there chipping in and doing my bit too.
"It was a great partnership and it was such a shame it didn't last. I wished we could have kept it going longer. Who knows how good it could have become?
"That was the pinnacle of my career at Villa. It was great playing with him. No-one had heard of him! He broke through and everyone took notice of him.
"He was such a beast in the air, incredible and his ability to finish was superb. I had a great rapport with him.
"He was a clever player. He was the first player who helped me exploit my pace. He could flick it around the corner for me. He won every header! I would just run in. He made it easy for me.
"I missed that when he didn't play. I never really had that again.
"Juan Pablo helped put me on the scene. I wished the pairing had lasted a lot longer.
"Graham Taylor came in after John Gregory and had his own ideas. It was such a shame.
"It looked a bright partnership. Juan Pablo was still young and hungry. There should have been a lot more seasons of Vassell and Angel. We could have flourished."
Angel, of course, fell out of favour under GT, who brought in the likes of Peter Crouch and Marcus Allback to partner Vassell, who was very much the No.1 forward now.
He enjoyed the responsibility - but admits he also felt the burden.
"It was great. But it came with a pressure that I found difficult to handle for a long period of time.
"I felt like a lot of the games were down to me. If I played well, we won. If I played badly, we lost. That was a burden.
"When I didn't play well I had that double-whammy of disappointment because it was my team, my club, the club I loved. But as I got older, I got used to it.
"To be the main player for your team is a great responsibility. I was happy to have it. But I wish I could do it again now. I would handle it a lot differently. As a youngster, I did my best.
"Looking back with hindsight, I would have been more selfish and self-orientated. That doesn't sound great I know.
"But I had all the ability - the pace, the power, the speed. But I don't think I took the responsibility on my own shoulders enough. I was too much of a team player, looking out for the team, getting on with the team.
"I feel I could have given more if I had been more focused on myself."
Now Vassell is very much "looking out for the team" following the progress of Paul Lambert's men as a fan from the stands.
He's excited about the future for the club.
"We have a bright future. I can see it. Everyone knows we have a young team but the future looks great.
"I like the way we came through the final few months with style. It was good to see.
"We showed the whole league what we are capable of. We showed how we are capable of playing too.
"We played really, really well in those last few months.
"We have a manager who says it will be a long-term project and I am sure he is already planning for the future."
Good to have you back with us Darius. By the sound of it though, you've never really been away!
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