Drawing a close to the 2015/16 Football League season was always going to be hard for football fanatics to take. And although the club’s players and coaching staff thoroughly deserve their summer break, the campaign’s close came too early for Zak Vyner.
The 19-year-old has relished working with new head coach Lee Johnson at Bristol City following his appointment back in February, making his first-team debut for the Robins and signing a new two-year deal at Ashton Gate within the last four months.
But after three more league appearances for the Championship outfit, the season’s end came at the wrong time for Vyner, who was revelling his first taste of first-team football after steering Bristol City clear of relegation from the Championship.
Determined to return from pre-season this summer in fighting spirit and fitness; Vyner spoke exclusively to Shoot about making his first-team bow, the impact made by ex-Robins player Johnson as head coach, the step-up from youth football before outlining his goals for the future…
You joined Bristol City when you were just eight-years-old, so what is it about the club you love so much?
“I think when I moved from London, I had only been playing football for a year, so I first started off playing locally in a few tournaments and I got picked up by City. I started off with just a few trials here and there, then I just fell in love with the club.
“There were a few summer tournaments, it was just brilliant. They were the only club that came in [laughs], but I didn’t really know much about that sort of stuff because I was eight-years-old, so I just came in and sort of ran around like crazy, like you do at that age. It was brilliant.
“They have treated me well since then, so I can’t really fault that. They have developed me well, so I can’t say a bad word about them.”
You made your first-team debut for the Robins against Milton Keynes Dons back in February. Can you sum up your emotions and experience from that afternoon?
“It was a whirlwind of emotions really! I got told an hour before that I was going to be starting, so everything was going through my head, but mostly excitement because this was something I had worked towards for years. It was brilliant.
“The gaffer didn’t really say much to me because he knew there would be loads going through my head at the time, so that sort of helped me out a bit. But I just knew that I had to do my own thing, play for the team and do the job that they needed me to do. That is all I thought about.”
At the time; Bristol City were still staving off relegation, so how did you deal with the pressure of being thrown in at the deep end?
“There is obviously pressure off the pitch, but once you are on the pitch, it is a good team and a good club, so there is no pressure on the pitch. That sort of helped me in that sense and it didn’t feel like I was playing with pressure, it just felt like I was playing for Bristol City.
“It was good, it was fun. The players helped me out a lot by doing that, there was no nervousness from them on the pitch. They [teammates] just sort of said “Believe in yourself”, “You are a good player. You wouldn’t be here otherwise”.”
What would you say is your footballing style as a centre-half?
“I played centre-half up until then [debut], but I played right-back because it is a bit of a physicality thing. A centre-half is a big position to come into. I don’t mind playing right-back, I like playing right-back and I like playing centre-half. I have just got to find my feet going forward.
“I like to play out with the ball, I like to try and make things happen as much as I can from the back. So that could be a weakness as well, as I may give the ball away. But I am always going to try and play [the ball]. I don’t like to try and just kick the ball as long as possible.”
What about your idols. Who do you look up to and inspire to be like?
“I look up to Rio [Ferdinand], back then. Although I was a striker back then! Obviously I liked him; but as I grew up and sort of found my position it was Rio, now it is more so Vincent Kompany, those sort of players that are strong and quick. I am athletic, I’d like to think that I’m quick. I like to keep the ball on the deck and pass the ball. Again, it could be a weakness, but I will always try and play it.”
You only turned 19 last month; but given your rapid promotion into the first-team squad, are you looking to stay and fight for your place next season, or do you think a possible loan move would be beneficial?
“It is always my aim to come back from pre-season and fight for my position and I am always going to try and do that. If circumstances change, like if they [Bristol City] go and sign an experienced player, then I am still open to going out on loan.
“But I would just want game time really. It was brilliant [competing with Mark Little], that was what I wanted since I got my first game, so I just wanted more of it. But to get three more appearances after that was brilliant.”
Lee Johnson was appointed head coach just a fortnight before your Bristol City debut, so I presume you took an instant shine to him and you were immediately impressed with the new boss?
“Yeah, he came in and changed the dynamic of training and I think everyone enjoyed that. Everyone was buzzing after training and you could tell that he was going to try and give young players a chance because he dragged three or four of us over [into the first-team] and we’ve been training with them ever since really.
“You could tell that he was going to give us opportunities and luckily he gave me my chance.
“He was a player at City and he is a young manager, so he knows what players want and he is a good man-manager. He knows how to deal with players. He is a brilliant manager to work with.”
Your debut showed just how much Johnson believes in you. What does it mean to you to be playing under a head coach who trusts in your ability?
“It gives you loads of confidence, because if he shows that he trusts you and knows about your ability, then it just makes you feel like you can go out and do what you need to do without any doubts. It was brilliant that he put his trust in me and I have just got to take my chances now.”
After featuring in four league games, what have you made of the difference between youth football and the senior game?
“It is a massive step-up because the pace of the game is so much quicker and everyone is stronger and bigger, so you have just got to adapt to that. I think the main thing is the pace of it, you have got to know what you have got to do a step before everyone else because you are the younger player and you won’t be used to it.
“Some teams will target you because they know you are young, but if you know what you have got to do before the ball comes to you, then I think you’ll be fine.”
You signed a new two-year deal back in May, so what is it about Bristol City that convinced you it is the best place to continue your development?
“You can tell there is a lot going on around Bristol City, there is the new stadium and you can tell that there is a pathway at the club now with the new gaffer coming in. He has shown, that if you are ready, he will give you the chance with Max [O’Leary], George [Dowling] and me all playing.
“There is a few players that are coming through now, so it was a no brainer for me really.”
Following your breakthrough campaign, what is your aim for the 2016/17 season?
“I just want to get in the team and consolidate a place. I just want to keep on getting game time for Bristol City, keep playing for them and hopefully push on really.
“I think next season’s [club] aim should be to just finish higher than we obviously did this season. We would just like to finish as many places above 18th as we can and I think we can do that.”
What are your plans this summer before returning for pre-season?
“I have got to work hard. I will obviously relax at times, but I need to keep my head on it and keep working ahead of next season.”