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When dreams came true for former Wolves striker Sam Vokes

Imagine representing your country in their first major tournament finals for 58 years. Imagine coming off the bench in a finely poised quarter final against a team ranked five in the world. Imagine leaping majestically to power home an emphatic header to pretty much seal an historic victory. Imagine wheeling away to celebrate in front of hordes of delirious fans. Imagine then spotting your father dashing down the Stand and locking eyes with him during the mayhem.

Wales' Sam Vokes (left) celebrates scoring his side's thrid goal of the game during the UEFA Euro 2016, quarter final match at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday July 1 2016. See PA story SOCCER Wales. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial use only. Book and magazine sales permitted providing not solely devoted to any one team/player/match. No commercial use. Call +44 (0)1158 447447 for further information..
Wales' Sam Vokes (left) celebrates scoring his side's thrid goal of the game during the UEFA Euro 2016, quarter final match at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday July 1 2016. See PA story SOCCER Wales. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial use only. Book and magazine sales permitted providing not solely devoted to any one team/player/match. No commercial use. Call +44 (0)1158 447447 for further information..

Imagine all the people. You may say I’m a dreamer, but that’s exactly what happened to former Wolves striker Sam Vokes.

The current World Cup may not have been a particularly pleasant one for those of a Welsh persuasion, Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat to England sending them home from Qatar, albeit it remains something of an historical achievement considering it was the Dragons’ first time at the tournament since 1958.

What it did do was bring back memories of a happier time for 33-year-old Vokes and company, of the extraordinary journey experienced by Wales at the European Championships back in 2016.

In their first proper tournament finals since those World Cup Finals almost six decades earlier, Chris Coleman’s team had come through a tough group, a gritty last 16 tie with Northern Ireland and were now up against a star-studded Belgium side boasting top quality creative talent in the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romalu Lukaku.

Having gone behind early on, Wales drew on all their reserves of commitment and team spirit to respond through Ashley Williams, and then go in front in the second half after a piece of genius from Hal Robson-Kanu, then without a club having been released by Reading.

Vokes came off the bench with ten minutes remaining and, not long after entering the fray, met Chris Gunter’s flighted right wing cross with the aerial power and panache which has formed such a potent part of his armoury throughout his career.

SPORT Kaspars Gorkss of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sam Vokes of Burnley.

Cue pandemonium.

“Yep, that was a ‘what dreams are made of’ moment for sure,” Vokes reflects.

“I’ll always remember that moment and the pictures.

“My Mum, Dad and brother were at the game, and as a sub, I was warming up at half time so I could see where they were sitting in the Stand.

“When I scored, I remember picking out my Dad – he was the only one in there with a blue shirt on – spilling down the terrace.

“It was such a special moment, like I was celebrating with them at the time, and the emotions came pouring out.

“It was such a big moment in Welsh footballing history, and for me personally, just to be a part of a major tournament was huge.

“But to be able to share that with my family, who had supported me from day one, that was one of those special times which you never forget in a career.”

And Vokes’ parents had been key right from the early days of a burgeoning career, not least when starting out at Bournemouth, a club far removed from its current Premier League model, which had gone into administration.

Southampton-born, Vokes had been released by the Saints’ Academy, later joining a Bournemouth side in trouble both on and off the pitch.

“Bournemouth was a very different club to what it is now, and I broke in so early at the age of 17 because they had no other options,” he recalls.

“I’d only been out of school for a few months when I was called in for a debut on a Tuesday night against Nottingham Forest.

“I’d never even met the first team squad before, but my name was on the list to play and I walked into the dressing room thinking, ‘wow, what’s going on here’?

“Six months or so later the club went into administration, and I remember around the March time towards the end of my second season, being called in with my parents.

“We met the administrators, who told me I was going to be sold in the summer, and pushed a list across the table of five clubs who they had agreed a deal with.

“There I was, just having turned 18, faced with the decision of which one to pick!”

As it transpired, Vokes, along with Mum and Dad and then partner now wife Maddie, only needed to visit the one.

First port of call was Molineux, the Compton Park training ground and Mick McCarthy. The Holy Trinity.

“We went to Molineux first and then on to the training ground, and to be honest the facilities just blew me away,” Vokes explains.

“At Bournemouth at the time we’d been training at local park facilities, so this was a big step-up.

“I also still remember now the conversation I had with Mick and what he told me.

“He said he’d got Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Andy Keogh as strikers, and was hoping to bring in another one, who turned out to be Chris Iwelumo.

“He told me I was going to be one of his four strikers, playing in the Championship, and that we were looking to get promoted.

“At that age, not long turned 18, that was incredible to hear, and I was right ‘on it’ from the off.

Sam Vokes of Wycombe Wanderers and David Davis of Shrewsbury Town.

“I could have gone to another club at that age, and been sat in an Under-18 or Under-23 system for a few years, but all of a sudden, I’d gone from a team who had just been relegated into League Two to one aiming for the Premier League.

“It was amazing.”

Just as amazing was Vokes’ initial Wolves impact from the bench.

In the season’s curtain-raiser, at a rain-sodden Plymouth, he came on with 13 minutes to go and pretty much almost immediately exchanged a one-two with Iwelumo before firing past former Wolves keeper Graham Stack to clinch a 2-2 draw. Not a bad start.

The point-saver was crucial, it paved the way for Wolves to win seven league games in a row, and one of those was Vokes’ next appearance, away at Charlton, when goals on 81 and 87 minutes secured a 3-1 victory.

“Was I feeling confident? I probably was, because although I was still young, I’d got 60-odd games for Bournemouth already under my belt,” he explains.

“I was ready to make the step up and to improve and I knew my role from the start of the season was to come off the bench and make an impact.

“It was a dream to score at Plymouth, and I remember the celebration where I pretty much had no idea what to do so I just went a bit mad.

“I had a lot of family and mates down there so it was great, and I then went on to get a couple at Charlton not long afterwards.

“I had learned a lot about football ‘on the job’ at Bournemouth, I wouldn’t say I had any philosophy or anything but had picked up experience of being in a relegation battle.

“I then went into this big football club where I wanted to succeed but I also had someone like big Chris (Iwelumo) who was brilliant and someone I still speak to now.

“He did fantastically well for Wolves that season and for me, in my position, I learned so much from him that year.

“It wasn’t just the on-pitch stuff, he would pull me to one side and we would go through different bits and pieces and for me to learn from someone like that with his career and experience was really important.

“And when he got tired in a game, I would come on for the last few minutes!”

Vokes made 39 appearances in all competitions in that Championship-winning 2008/09 season, 32 as a substitute, and scored eight goals.

After Iwelumo picked up an injury in the top-of-the-table clash at Birmingham, Vokes started – and scored – one of many goals in his career against boyhood club Southampton, and appeared in each of the run-in’s crucial final fixtures against Derby, QPR, Barnsley and Doncaster.

Over the next three years however, he would make only 20, with 11 coming in the Premier League, albeit his time at Wolves was limited by no fewer than six loan spells elsewhere.

Vokes spent time with Leeds, Bristol City, Sheffield United, Norwich, Burnley – under Eddie Howe whom he actually played alongside at Bournemouth – and Brighton.

“Looking back, it was incredible to be part of a promotion-winning team at that age.

“When I think about it, it felt like it never seemed like there was any doubt – as soon as we started it just felt like we were going to get promoted and we were top from very early on.

“We all knew what our jobs were, and we got on with them and got it done, and it was nice for me to have contributed at some crucial moments.

“But while that was amazing, for me personally at the time, getting to the Premier League came way too early.

“I got some experience of coming off the bench in some big Premier League matches but understandably I didn’t get much game time, and I was getting frustrated.

“I spoke to Mick, who was always great with me and always had honest conversations, and said I understood the situation but I really needed to be playing more football and getting more experience.

“I have to thank Wolves who really stood by me, giving me another couple of years on my deal, and being able to experience those loans which continued to help me learn my trade.”

It was when returning permanently to Burnley where he had so enjoyed his time on loan that Vokes really made his mark.

COPYRIGHT EXPRESS & STAR 13/9/08 CHARLTON ATHLETIC V WOLVES....... Sam Vokes celebrates his 2nd goal

In six-and-a-half years at Turf Moor, as one of several ex-Wolves who moved on to the Claret and Blue, Vokes chalked up over 250 appearances and notched 62 goals, including one against his old team which was cancelled out by a last-gasp Danny Batth equaliser.

More than mere statistics however, Vokes made himself a home, albeit there were still plenty of ups and downs including a couple of promotions and relegations and a cruciate knee ligament injury.

What he did prove was his ability to operate in the Premier League, finishing as top scorer in the Clarets 2016/17 season, and also – having opened his topflight account with a fantastic strike against Liverpool, finding the net against the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham and Newcastle.

And finally getting among the Premier League goals was a particular comfort, given the golden chance he squandered which would have brought an equaliser in the final stages of a home game against Manchester United back in 2010.

“At the time, missing that chance against Manchester United was the worst thing in the world, especially if someone had told me it would then be six years before I got my first Premier League goal,” he recalls.

“It was a horrible moment but one of those which makes you or breaks you.

“If I’d stuck that away against United it could have been a whole different ballgame, but that’s football, and that’s life.

“For a lot of my time at Wolves, I was off out on loan, living out of suitcases in hotels, and it was probably only at Burnley where I finally found a home and got myself settled and not only scored some goals but got the chance to play in Europe.

“But I have so much love for Wolves as a club and just as a place.

“They took me on as an 18-year-old, gave me my chance and being able to prove myself in the Championship set me up for what was to follow.

“I also formed friendships which I have kept throughout my career, and ended up playing alongside people like Wardy (Stephen Ward), Michael Kightly with Burnley and Danny (Batth) at Stoke.

“That dressing room at Wolves was something great to be part of, such a good mix, and when you share in a promotion like we did, it creates special bonds which tie you all together moving forward.”

For Vokes, the links between Wolves and Wales, for whom he qualified via his Welsh grandfather born in Colwyn Bay, loomed large.

It was actually whilst playing for Wales Under-21s against England at Wrexham that he first caught the eye of Wolves boss McCarthy, and, five days after signing at Molineux, he made his senior debut coming off the bench to replace a certain Freddy Eastwood against Ireland.

Vokes also notched his first Wales goal, a winner against Azerbaijan set up by Gareth Bale, in between those Wolves efforts against Plymouth and Charlton, and shared a dressing room from Under-21 level through to the 2016 Euros with Wayne Hennessey and Dave Edwards.

And going back to those Euros, what an experience that proved to be.

Having scored in that last four win against Belgium, Vokes came on for over half an hour of the semi final but Cristiano Ronaldo had already inspired Portugal into a 2-0 lead which they never looked like relinquishing.

It was still a phenomenal achievement for Wales, and a phenomenal few weeks, offering experiences that none of them will ever forget.

“To be with Wales at their first tournament for so long was amazing, and it was probably a case of just going into the group games and seeing how it all went,” Vokes describes.

“Before we knew it, we were in a quarter final and I was coming off the bench to score against Belgium.

“A lot of the success of that squad and of Wales in general more recently has been down to the spirit and togetherness within the camp.

“I think a lot of that is because we went through so many bad times and disappointments in the past.

“I remember we dropped off to something like 120th in the world at some point, and then climbed to about eighth in the space of three year.

“It’s a cliché but I think you have to go through the bad times to fully appreciate the good ones, and when you come through it you feel so much more together.

“It was great to see them get to the World Cup this year, I’ve still got a lot of mates in that squad and was sat there in my bucket hat watching the games.

“I’m still in touch with a lot of them and it’s disappointing how it turned out but hopefully we’ll be back again in qualifying for future tournaments.”

In the meantime, Vokes has continued to concentrate on the ‘day job’, leading the line for Wycombe Wanderers for whom there is no League One break due to the World Cup.

Having moved to another Wanderers after a spell with Stoke which ultimately ‘didn’t prove a good fit’, Vokes enjoyed an impressive first season last time out, albeit with a disappointing end courtesy of a play-off final defeat against Sunderland – Batth and all - at Wembley.

Still hoping for a few more years in the tank yet, and relishing life in the area with Maddie and their two young daughters, Vokes admits he is happily enjoying his football again.

His Dad Tim continues to watch every game and continues to make friends at Wycombe from pre-matches spent in the pubs just as he did at Wolves, Wales and everywhere else beyond.

He’ll be there again when Wycombe tackle Portsmouth in front of the Sky Sports cameras on Sunday, no doubt hoping that Vokes junior can add to the 127 goals already plundered at club level in addition to the 11 from 64 senior appearances with Wales.

If he does, it wouldn’t quite be the same circumstances of that glorious header on a balmy night at the Stade Pierre Mauroy back in 2016, but, as every self-respecting striker will always tell you, from Wolves to Wales to Wycombe and beyond, they all count.

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