JAMES Vaughan could have been a sprinter. As a 13-year-old, he clocked 11.5 seconds for the 100 metres, the third fastest time for his age in Britain.
Or he could have been a rugby player, like his dad Dorrington. “James was a very talented player,” said Richard Halsall, chairman of Preston Grasshoppers, where Vaughan played as a winger for the U14s. “Fast, strong, skilful. He was unstoppable. He knows he could have gone far in rugby union.”
He could even have been the next Wayne Rooney. Aged just 16 years and 271 days, he came off the bench for Everton to become the youngest goalscorer in Premier League history – against Crystal Palace – a record that stands to this day.
Yet eight years later, we are still talking about what Vaughan could do. Still talking about potential and unfulfilled talent. And the Huddersfield striker has had enough.
“I’m not that kid with potential anymore,” he says. “I’m not 16. I’m 25. It’s time to stop talking about what I’m capable of and start showing people what I can do.”
Vaughan is no young wastrel. Fame and fortune did not go to his head. In those early days at Everton, he was on only £90-a-week. What went wrong was his body.
Cartilage and ligament problems, three knee operations, a severed artery – and that was just in his teens. Since then there have been further operations on both knees, a dislocated shoulder and various other impact injuries.
In the two years following that historic debut, Vaughan played just 13 minutes of football. In the subsequent eight, he has only recently managed to top a century of games. Now, though, it seems his luck is changing.
Since joining Huddersfield on loan from Norwich last season, Vaughan has played 40 matches, scoring 14 goals last term and seven in seven this time. He ended last season with a player of the month award and started this one with another. So what has changed? Why hasn’t he knocked himself out or torn a ligament?
“Maybe a bit of luck,” he says. “But I’ve also learned to look after myself. I know how to treat my body when I’m tired and I probably pick my battles a bit better.
“People say you’re fearless when you’re young, and I definitely was. But I was also a bit naïve and I’d go full-blooded into tackles and leave myself wide open. Now I’m older, I understand how to protect myself.
“I’ve never shirked a challenge in my life and I never will, but these days I know what to go for and what to leave. It’s about being sensible, showing some nous. Not every challenge is worth getting injured for.”
“It’s been tough,” he admits. “The injuries I’ve had haven’t been niggles. They been serious problems that I couldn’t do much about.
“Especially at Norwich. I was injured for a long time and when that’s the case, you don’t do anything but rehab.
“That’s been frustrating, but I wouldn’t ever say that I’m unfortunate. A lot of people dream of being a professional footballer and I’m playing in the Championship so what have I got to complain about?
“I’m very lucky to be in the position I am and very lucky that, after all the injuries, a team like Huddersfield was willing to buy me.
“I’ve missed so much that I’m grateful every time I play. I just want to make up for lost time. The hunger is greater now than when I was 16.”
That attitude permeates every aspect of Vaughan’s psyche. Where once he felt the burden of being the next great hope, now he is one of the lads and far happier for it.
“I’m just playing without thinking about anything else,” he explains. “I’m going out Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, and playing like I did when I was a kid. I’m not worrying about who’s watching, whether I’m doing enough to stay in the team. I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m just doing my best, trying to move Huddersfield forward like everyone else.”
And move forward the Terriers certainly have, carrying the form that saw them dodge relegation last term into an 11-point haul from their first six games. Early predictions of struggle have swiftly melted away.
“We’re all very confident,” says Vaughan. “Adam Clayton is probably as good as any other midfielder in the league at the minute. He’s pulling all the strings. Adam Hammill is getting his assists, the back four are doing really well.
“People talk about my goals but the majority have been one-touch finishes. That tells you everything about the quality of service. The lads are putting them on a plate for me.”
But for Vaughan, the biggest factor in his personal success is manager Mark Robins, the former Manchester United striker who persuaded chairman Dean Hoyle to hand Norwich £1m in the summer.
“The gaffer’s been brilliant,” says Vaughan. “He’s a fantastic guy to learn from and has helped me with lots of little things like movement and positioning. You can approach him, talk to him, ask about anything.
“People say he’s quiet but he doesn’t have to say anything to make you play well. You just want to do well for him because of the way he treats you.”
So does Robins still show the striker a thing or too in training? “Well,” he laughs. “His mind is still sharp. But I don’t think he’s got enough in the legs these days.”
Unlike Vaughan, at long last.