Blues career: 2001-2006
Total appearances: 62
When recalling the famous play-off victory against Norwich, people automatically think of Darren Carter scoring the crucial winning penalty. But what is often overlooked is how Blues got into that position. Whilst Daryl Sutch and Clint Easton both missed their spot-kicks, Belgian goalkeeper Nico Vaesen saved a Phil Mulryne effort that gave Blues all the shoot-out momentum required to reach the Premier League.
Vaesen began his career in England at tomorrow’s visitors to St. Andrew’s, Huddersfield Town, before making the switch to the second city and becoming one of the Millennium Stadium heroes. “It was my first English club and I have great memories of Huddersfield,” reflects Vaesen. “They gave me a path into English football, they’re a great club with great people and I still have lots of friends there. They were three great years and for that I’m very grateful to all the people at the club and all the fans. The fans took me into their hearts and that made it a very happy time for me to be there.”
The Belgian arrived at the Terriers in 1998 following what the fans call their ‘Great Escape’ campaign, where they narrowly avoided relegation from Division One, the league now known as the npower Championship. However, after two further solid seasons in the second tier, the Yorkshire club were relegated and ironically their demotion was confirmed with a 2-1 home defeat to Blues on the final day of the 2000/01 season. To rub salt into the wounds, Trevor Francis then swooped to take Vaesen to St. Andrew’s, where he would soon be reunited with his former Huddersfield manager Steve Bruce. In December 2001, during Vaesen’s debut season in the midlands, Francis was sacked and replaced by Bruce, culminating in Blues’ galvanising end to the campaign and subsequent play-off success.
Vaesen admits: “When Bruce and (Mark) Bowen came they brought a new energy to the club and the players. We went unbeaten for 14 games and got into the play-offs. We played very well and got the bit of luck you need against Millwall in the semi-final by scoring so late.
“But the day of the final was just great – everyone was up for it, including all the fans. We were ready for that game. It was a long day with it going all the way to penalties, but we had a fantastic team spirit that made it possible for us to win the play-offs. It was especially great to see all the joy on the supporters’ faces – that is something I’ll never forget. We had the reunion dinner in 2012 and we all had a lot of memories of that emotional day. For many of us, it was the best day of our careers and if I had to choose three or four games that stick with me forever, that would definitely be in there.”
Unfortunately, it was not all smooth-sailing for Vaesen at St. Andrew’s. He snapped his anterior cruciate ligament whilst making a routine clearance in a game against Aston Villa and missed the last two months of Blues’ first Premiership campaign after undergoing surgery. During his absence, Maik Taylor was signed and made the goalkeeping spot his own. Upon Vaesen’s return, he had loan spells at Gillingham, Bradford and Crystal Palace – where he won promotion, again, via the play-offs – but was primarily used as cover for Taylor.
The 2005/06 season was Vaesen’s last in England as the financial implications of the club’s relegation meant he was not offered a new deal – much to his disappointment: “Lots of things went wrong for us that season with injuries and new signings not settling – but it was a sad day. Had we stayed up, I would have stayed longer with Birmingham, which was my ambition. I wanted to finish my career with the club. But after relegation, the out-of-contract players like Kenny Cunningham, Stan Lazaridis and me weren’t offered new contracts.”
The shot-stopper then returned to his homeland where he continued playing for two years before retiring to become a football agent. “When I returned home from Birmingham, I was approached by an old friend of mine who had started an agency. I’m now responsible for the English market in Belgium. I have my FIFA licence and I’ve been doing this now for five years,” Vaesen explains. “We have several players in England, but not just Belgians. Simon Mignolet is one of our players.”
Vaesen prides himself on not being the sort of football agent that the media in this country portrays them all to be and feels that the bad reputation of some is tarnishing others. “Unfortunately, at the minute there is, and always will be, people who look at it as a business opportunity,” he continues. “Obviously everybody needs to make a living, but the first job of an agent should be guiding a player and helping the player with all different aspects. They should build a relationship with their players and help them as much as they can.
“There are agents who do very good business without having any players, unfortunately that’s the way it sometimes works. I’ve seen some good things, but I’ve also seen some bad things too. My main priority is to look after and protect my players from any outside influences that are all around.”