James Vaughan: Making Moyes mad, Ferguson as his minder – Everton’s youngest scorer setting next generation on right path
The old adage about not running before you walk never really applied to James Vaughan.
The striker’s career has been played on fast forward since he was thrust into games against established Premier League players for Everton’s reserves aged 15.
With searing pace, age-defying physicality and no fear, he started breaking records quickly; his club’s youngest debutant and then, a title he still holds, the Premier League’s youngest goalscorer aged 16 years and 271 days.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Vaughan, who has always done things on his own terms, decided this summer to end his playing career in a move some neutrals felt was ahead of time.
But as he sits down to speak with The Athletic over coffee in Liverpool, he is at peace with his path. He was 33 on July 14 and celebrated amid his studying for a Master’s degree and negotiations for player deals in his new role as an agent.
But before we talk about the future, time to reflect on the past; and a turbo-charged story that saw him play for 13 clubs in 17 years.
It all started with a hyperactive six-year-old boy and a football tournament in Preston. Vaughan and his family hail from Birmingham but had moved to Lancashire for his father Dorrington’s job.
Vaughan Sr was a semi-professional rugby union player, a strapping second row, and reared his son on that sport as well as football. But this particular weekend it was the round ball he was kicking, and well enough to catch the attention of scouts from a host of clubs, including Everton.
A deal was struck for Vaughan to train twice a week at Everton’s academy on Merseyside, and he made the commute from Preston, then from Birmingham where the family returned, until the age of 13 when he moved to the north west to live in club accommodation and attend school at Chesterfield High school in Crosby.
“I remember the first PE session and everyone is looking at you because you’re a footballer but generally school was fine,” he says. “It was tough at first making new friends in a new school at that age but I didn’t mind, really. Because I was spending so much time in Liverpool anyway from a young age, I didn’t have a strong Birmingham accent anyway and then I just picked up scouse.”
Vaughan, an adopted scouser who lives on the coast in Formby, does indeed have a Liverpool lilt to his accent. Among his new friends back then was academy team-mate Victor Anichebe, who went to the school around the corner from his, and they became pals for life.
The pair would meet after lessons finished and go to training together, where they were physically precocious. But while Anichebe was more laid-back, Vaughan, who continued to play rugby until 13, had a more frenetic approach.
“The coaches for the youth teams, guys like Neil Dewsnip, Ray Hall and Gary Ablett, were great,” he says. “But I only made a handful of appearances for the youth team because when I was 15, (reserve manager) Andy ‘Taff’ Holden bumped me up.
“I was always more suited to that style of football. I was very physical. There were probably players in the age above me more technically advanced and although I wasn’t the biggest I just played in that ‘men’s football’ way.
“We had Dave Billows as the strength and conditioning coach and he used to love me and Victor because we could lift the heaviest weights. I went really big at one point and Taff said ‘Stop doing them’ — it might slow me down. Dave worked with us to get us where we needed to be.”
Slowing Vaughan down would have been some feat. At school he was still competing in athletics, breaking regional records as a sprinter, but he preferred a sport with contact.
“I never spent my weekends watching Sunday league football,” he recalls. “I’d be watching dad play. They’d let me go on the bus with him and to training but I’d be on the rugby pitch kicking a football.
“I didn’t have fear. I wanted to be involved in collisions and tackling. You could see that in my last game before I retired.”
The quick step to playing against men did not daunt Vaughan, whose mentality was refreshingly uncluttered and simple; something he believes helped him at such a young age.
“We played Man United reserves after I’d been in lessons during the day and I was playing against Alan Smith, Guiseppe Rossi and Phil Neville,” he says. “I’d watched them on the TV. It was a quick learning curve. My age helped me though because I went into it with a kid’s mentality. I wasn’t old enough to understand the magnitude of what I was doing. It was the same with my full debut.
“It’s only as you get older. I felt more pressure as I went on with my career; when you know there are teams which are relying on you to score the goals. That’s pressure.”
Vaughan’s progress was followed by manager David Moyes, who gave him his senior debut in April 2005 during a win over Crystal Palace. It was to be a memorable, goalscoring cameo from the bench.
“We went 2-0 up early doors and then 3-0 and I was warming up thinking ‘Maybe it’s now’,” he says. “I was looking at the bench and knew it was coming but there were no butterflies. I was thinking, ‘Is he going to bring me on or not?’.
“It’s the age thing again. That’s why you see so many young players come on and make an impact — they don’t really know what’s going on.”
Even before his goal, a close-range strike which was the final of a 4-0 rout, the teenager made an impact.
“I came on, clattered one of the centre halves and got a telling off from Uriah Rennie,” he laughs. “He shouted at me like my dad and I said, ‘Sorry’. Then I smashed someone else and he was like ‘You’re on your last warning’.
“The goal was an incredible feeling but I didn’t realise I’d broken any records at first. My mum and dad were there. They’d be at every game from youth level up and we just went home afterwards but I’ll always remember the gaffer said to me: ‘Keep out of the way for the next few weeks because people will be bothering you. Just come to training and go back’.”
Vaughan would be on the bench again for the following victory, against Manchester United, sealed by an iconic Duncan Ferguson header. It was a vivid time for a team that would end that campaign by securing fourth place — still their highest Premier League finish.
It was a thrilling era in which to emerge, but it also heralded a time of personal paranoia that the forward looks back on with a tinge of regret.
Vaughan celebrates his debut goal in 2005 with Cahill, left, and Ferguson (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
“I took what the manager said literally,” he says. “One evening I wanted to go to the shop but asked Victor to go.
“I don’t think I handled it that well. I went into myself and stayed indoors a lot. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I don’t like attention. If I felt like I’d be in a situation where someone would recognise me I’d try to steer clear. It was frowned upon courting attention at Everton.
“You’d get home, turn on Match of the Day and see yourself. I remember my mum phoned me and said she was getting followed by the press and she was back in Birmingham. It was daunting.
“You’d be away with England and some of them loved being noticed, but the whole thing at Everton was ‘Don’t be big-time’. I took it to heart and just walked around with my head down. I could have been better — or at least not a recluse.
“The club was very protective because of what happened with Rooney. So it’d always be, ‘Is he the next Rooney?’. And although everyone knew I wasn’t because he’s a multi-generational talent, my age meant there was a lot of talk like that. So I just stayed indoors.”
Although willing to do precisely what Moyes said off the pitch, Vaughan admits he would often clash with the Scot.
“I wasn’t perfect,” he says. “I was probably a bit confrontational. I used to argue with people. Being combative was in my nature. People who meet me now are surprised.
“I’d argue with the gaffer and used to think he hated me. I look back and think that at 18 I shouldn’t have been talking back to David Moyes but I started training with the reserves at 15 so by 19 I’d been with the senior team for four years and felt like a senior player.
“The same attitude that got me in the team also made me fall out with people. I wasn’t clever enough to play the game. I love Moyes though. I can see how good he was for me, even if I couldn’t see it then.
“He was one of the best managers I worked with. It was very father-son. Like when you’d rebel against your dad, argue with him and sulk. He’d be angry with me but then in the end he’d want the best for you.
“If he hadn’t done things to rein me in then things could have gone wrong and I know he genuinely cared for me. He had good intentions.”
It was not only a formidable manager Vaughan had keeping him in check. The changing room then was full of big characters who made their mark.
“Duncan (Ferguson), Cars (Lee Carsley), Stubbsy (Alan Stubbs), Tommy Grav (Gravesen), Timmy Cahill, Kev Campbell, Marcus Bent, Nigel Martyn,” he says.
“As a 15-year-old kid you couldn’t ask for a better group. Cars and Stubbsy were unbelievable. Cars was my mate and looked out for me and Stubbsy would hammer me to keep me grounded. What an upbringing.”
He speaks with particular fondness of Carsley, a highly-rated coach who was last week named as England’s Under-21 manager.
“He epitomised that team,” says Vaughan. “Cars worked hard and made the most of the ability he had and that’s not being disrespectful. You could rely on him week in, week out and in the dressing room he was so dry and funny. He’d drop these one-liners and walk off.
“I’ll never forget, we were playing United at home. We ended up losing 4-2 but at one stage we were ahead 2-1 and I’d severed the artery in my foot 10 days before. I’d only just come back, a couple of training sessions, and I started up front on my own.
“After about 50 minutes I’d made this hard run to close someone down and was down on my haunches for a few seconds blowing and I just heard: ‘Vaughany! Any ####ing chance of you running?’. I turned around and his shoulders were going. He was great at breaking tension.
“I’d do anything for Cars. He’s a top coach. A young player learning from him will feel like a million dollars.”
The long-running joke among Everton fans was that Real Madrid signed the wrong bald midfielder when Carlsey’s central midfield partner Gravesen was lured to the Bernabeu after the 2004-05 season.
Like most who played with him, Vaughan laughs when recalling the eccentric Dane.
“He was a mad man,” he says. “You probably couldn’t publish most of the stories. He’d just chase us round doing mad stuff, grabbing lads and wrestling them. He didn’t care.
“At Bellefield you’d have fans peeking over the wall and they’d shout his name and he’d go “Ello Lad!” in this Danish accent and volley a ball over to them. The gaffer would be telling him to stop doing it but he’d volley another one. I was sat there as a teenager wondering, ‘What’s going on?’.
“I remember when he went to Real and Cars would be joking saying ‘That should be me’.”
As a young centre-forward, Vaughan has fond memories of his time learning under another man who remains a cult hero at Goodison Park — along with being Everton’s assistant manager and an emblem of its values amid changing times.
“Duncan has a perception of being this big tough guy but he loved the young lads and looking out for them,” he says. “He loved making us laugh and kept an eye on me and Victor.
“I remember playing Charlton away. I ran past Hermann Hreidarsson and he grabbed me by the neck and dragged me to the floor. Old school. Fergie picked me up and said ‘What happened there?’ and I said ‘Him!’ so he went ‘Oh did he?’ and goes and gives him one after. He never acted like we were a threat, he just looked out for us.
“I’ve tried to be like that with younger players I’ve played with. It was funny because Fergie’s son Cameron was with us at Tranmere in my last season and I felt a duty to look after him in return in a certain way.
“Cam’s going to be a really good player. A target man. He’s very level-headed. He understands his dad was a great striker and he’s got a lot to live up to but he’s got the attributes and he works hard. He’s one to look out for.”
Vaughan grew up fast at Everton and although hampered by a series of injuries and loans to try and get more minutes, claimed highlights during the 2009 run to the FA Cup final.
Before that he had to call on all his reserves of mental strength to cope with various set-backs; including being rushed to hospital in 2007 after severing an artery in his foot when he volleyed a defender’s exposed studs.
“I had white Nike Vapours on and the boot was red,” he says. “I thought it was a cut and was losing my head with Baz (Mick Rathbone the physio) — he was asking for a stretcher.
“I said, ‘Just stitch me up and I’ll go back on’. I was fuming but he stitched me up and the stitches burst. They realised it was an artery and next thing I’m in an ambulance with blue lights and sirens on all the way to the hospital. I could have bled out.
“I was in bed for 10 days and then played against United.”
Vaughan finished his career this summer despite a prolific season with Tranmere (Photo: Lewis Storey/Getty Images)
Knee injuries have been a persistent problem during his career, Vaughan has had six surgeries on his left knee and five on his right.
But Vaughan is proud to have played a part in getting Everton to their last major final, 2009’s FA Cup defeat by Chelsea, via a thrilling semi-final triumph against Manchester United in which he scored one of the penalties in a shootout win.
“Before the semi I’d been out for four months with my knee,” he says. “We’d had (Brazilian striker) Jo on loan but he was cup-tied.
“So I hadn’t played a game in all that time and first game back was the semi. The only reason I got on the bench was because of Jo being unavailable and Victor had got injured.
“It was only Louis (Saha) and me as strikers available. It had been a tough time for me with the injury and then my nan who I was very close to had passed away the month before.”
Vaughan replaced Marouane Fellaini in extra time and put his hand up straight away when Moyes asked who wanted a penalty.
“I said: ‘I’ll have one’ and nothing, no reply,” he says. “So I said it again and Joleon (Lescott) turned around to the gaffer and said ‘Give Vaughany one’, so he said ‘OK’.
“I thought the gaffer didn’t rate me because he hesitated but I look back now and he was probably protecting me because I hadn’t played for so long and my head was all over the place.
“When you look what happened recently to (Bukayo) Saka and the others with England, it’s a lot of pressure.
“Scoring it is still the best moment of my career by a mile. Nothing comes close. I love the picture of me celebrating after I scored it. I look at it all the time. Again I wasn’t nervous beforehand but now my little boy is really getting into his footy and he watches it on YouTube and I get nervous watching it back, thinking ‘Imagine if I missed that’.
“I knew how big that game was for the club to get to the final. Probably from 25 onwards I knew I was never going to get a better day than that in my career.”
Vaughan came on as a late substitute for Saha in the final, but Everton could not build on the Frenchman’s goal after 25 seconds and succumbed 2-1.
“It was tough because before the final Phil Jagielka has done his cruciate and we were already without Mikel Arteta,” he says. “Jags for me was one of the best centre-backs in Europe. Not to have him there was a huge blow.
“When I came on I volleyed (Michael) Ballack but I just missed him and probably would have got sent off if I’d connected,” he says with a rueful smile. “Later I put a cross in and I thought Tim (Cahill) was going to score.
“It’s funny because I was watching the Euro final and the England lads taking their medals off but I remember getting my runners-up medal and doing the same. I just gave it to my dad. It wasn’t what I’d come for. They will probably only look back at the end of their career and realise what an achievement it was.
“I remember vividly being on the bus going to Wembley and remembering the TV coverage as a kid when they’d show footage of the team coach leaving the hotel. I thought, ‘There’ll be kids watching us on the way there now’.”
Vaughan would join Derby County on loan that September in a bid to gain more playing time, with his pace still making him attractive.
“Lots of the lads at Everton used to want to race me,” he says. “I remember Jack Rodwell asked once and he surprised me.
“We played Tottenham and the subs had to do some running after the game. He’d been asking to race me for ages, saying he was quicker, so I said ‘Go on then, box to box’. We went for it and I thought, ‘I’ll take off here, piss it’ but we get going and he’s right on my shoulder. I only just beat him. That wasn’t even one of his main assets and he was rapid.”
Rodwell would go on to make 109 appearances for Everton, win three England caps and make a £12 million move to Manchester City but he failed to build on his considerable potential and now finds himself without a club.
Vaughan, though, suggests Rodwell’s career to date should not be framed as a disappointment.
“Jack was one of those players who had everything and I always say if he was in American sports and in one of those combines for the NFL he would be first pick in everyone’s draft,” he says. “He could run fast and far, play with both feet, head it and tackle. I thought he’d be some player and obviously he was.
“I remember asking him if he had a pen what foot would he take it with and he just shrugged. He was as good on either foot. And a nice kid too.
“If you say to a young lad you’re going to play for Everton, get a big move to Man City and then play for England, is that a failure? I don’t think it is. He got unlucky with injuries at the wrong time. It can be the smallest of things that knock everything off.”
Vaughan is speaking from bitter experience, when he thinks back to the summer of 2007.
“I had some bad ones but the worst was my shoulder injury purely because of the timing,” he says. “I’d had a conversation in the summer with Moyes and he’d said ‘We’re going to back you this season. You’re going to be one of the first choices’.
“We went back and in the first pre-season game against Preston I scored and then 10 minutes later I dislocated my shoulder and was out for four months.
“During that four months they bought Yakubu. Now I’m not saying they wouldn’t have signed him if I’d stayed fit but the timing was the worst.”
In the end Vaughan’s Everton prospects diminished as the loan moves began to stack up.
“I don’t think the gaffer wanted me to go out that often,” he says. “He knew I could do a job but I’d missed that much football I felt like I’d never played.
“I remember having a conversation with him saying: ‘I’m not saying I should be in your first team, but I want to be playing’. It’s hard for the manager because he knows you can do a job for him off the bench but by then I’d been around the first team for about five years and had about 12 starts.”
He still made enduring memories during his time on the road.
“Crystal Palace was my favourite one,” he says. “I loved it. An unbelievable club. Everything about the club fitted me. The fans liked me, the ground was great, we were in a dog fight but we all pulled together. In total, I was only there about six months but it was one of my favourite clubs. Love it to bits.”
Another highlight was a loan to Birmingham City in the Championship in 2015, switching from Huddersfield Town where he signed permanently two years earlier. But that spell led to a rare bout of over-thinking for the single-minded striker.
“Birmingham was my dad’s team and I knew how much it meant for him,” he says. “For the only time in my career it got in my head a bit and got the better of me. It meant that much at Everton too, because they’re my club, but I was too young to realise.
“This time I felt a lot of pressure to score and it didn’t happen. The fans were brilliant with me although I didn’t get the goals. It still ranks as a big achievement for me as I always said I wanted to do as a kid.”
Barry Whelan (USM agent), Lee Peltier, James Vaughan (with USM)
Vaughan helped Lee Peltier sign for Middlesbrough with USM agent Barry Whelan, left
His six-year-old son Reuben also wants to be a footballer, and is training at Everton’s academy.
“He loves Ronaldo, Phil Foden and Dominic Calvert-Lewin,” he says. “If he ever met him he’d go to bits.
“I saw Dom’s Instagram post recently with his big hair and his suit and his little handbag. I just imagined what Taff would have said if he saw me like that. He would have chased me out of the training ground.
“It’s a different era though. I’ve always been a big fan of Dom. The only time I played against Everton at Goodison was when I was at Sunderland and he wasn’t getting in the first team. But they rested Lukaku that day and Dominic started. I’d always thought he was a similar size to me but I couldn’t believe how big and athletic he was. He’s a bit of a throwback.”
The affection is palpable whenever the conversation turns back to Everton, and as Vaughan reminisces it is clear to see why.
“They raised me from six. It’s more than just the five or six years in the first team — it’s the part before that’s more important,” he says. “Everton gave me the chance to get away from doing wrong stuff and focusing on my football.
“It is a family. The likes of Jimmy Comer (the popular masseur) is what Everton’s all about — you go in and if you don’t act right around Jimmy you get told. He’s the one to pull you in and go ‘Behave yourself’. Jimmy Martin (the kit man), you’re terrified of him. Shaun Doran was the intern kit man and we were the same age and just became so close.
“Then there was Sue (Palmer) the gaffer’s PA. I’d forget it was Mother’s Day and she’d order flowers for my mum. Obviously, as a young lad with my family back in Birmingham, I couldn’t see my mum as much so I’d go and sit with Sue sometimes after training. She’d be like: ‘What are you doing? Have you got your food? You know it’s Mother’s Day or Valentine’s day coming up…
“She’d get your taxi home. She was more than a personal assistant. People don’t always see that.”
Vaughan called time on his career after a short but bright spell back on Merseyside at Tranmere Rovers, where he scored 22 goals in his final campaign for the club he liked so much he joined twice — first on loan in January 2020, then permanently that summer.
“Not many people know but my mum is from the Wirral and my grandad was a Tranmere fan,” he says. “As a kid I scored a hat-trick against Tranmere and gave the ball to my grandad — he was made up.
“We got harshly demoted, I won’t say relegated (Tranmere were assigned to League Two in June last year after COVID-19 laid waste to the football calendar; EFL clubs voted to end the League One and League Two seasons and decide placings on a points-per-game basis).
“I had told a lot of people that if I hadn’t gone back to Tranmere I would have retired last year. I knew it was going to be the time. I like long-term goals. I’d scored a lot leading up to Christmas and thought, ‘But where is this going?’. I don’t like to do anything half-hearted and I was in danger of getting that way. I never wanted to kid myself or the club so I stayed motivated knowing it was my last season.
“It’s like with lockdown. I don’t think I missed playing as much as other players. I knew what I wanted to do next which is important and because of things that happened early in my career I always knew I needed a plan.
“I wanted to retire on my terms. I didn’t want to be that guy who plays dwindling amounts of games every season as they get older and older.”
It is clear how passionate Vaughan is about his next step — learning the ropes as a player agent with USM (Unique Sports Management) and studying for a MSc (Master’s degree) in Sports Directorship via the University Campus of Football Business at Manchester City’s Etihad Campus.
“It’s hard work but I’m enjoying it,” he says. “I didn’t really do my GCSEs because I was playing football. I turned up to tick the box but I’ve always been interested in the business side and I’ve had enough moves in my career so you do tend to take an interest in your contracts.
“Being a sporting director is something I’d like to do in the long term. Now, working as an agent, I want to help mentor the younger lads to see things from a different point of view because I’ve experienced it; I’ve played at the top and I’ve played in League Two so I can relate to a lot of lads.
“With the company and the strong people we’ve got I can really help. I know the intricacies of the business and I’ve been a rash young lad back in the day.”
USM represent Everton prospects Anthony Gordon, the exciting winger, and powerful midfielder Tyler Onyango. Vaughan hopes both can have long, successful careers and wants to ensure other youngsters can too.
“There’s a perception about agents who just see players as pound signs and want to move them to make money,” he says. “I don’t think that’s the case generally. My aim would be to get the right amount of players I can dedicate proper time to and give them the best advice coming from the right place for their career, rather than just take advantage.”
Now, though, he must tackle the logistical headache of shuttling Reuben to Everton training, getting himself to classes, and travelling the country to help with deals for USM.
With that in mind, it’s time to leave. He’s on his feet and through the door in a blur — the young man still has the old pace.
His career may have finally drawn to a halt, but there’s no slowing James Vaughan.