The 18-year-old football player has just penned a two-and-a-half-year contract at Barnsley, making him English football's first ever Tamil professional player. Yoganathan spoke with the Tamil Guardian about the journey so far.
From a small village in North Wales, Vimal has navigated the youth systems up through the academy level and to the professional English leagues. He is ecstatic.
“It’s a big day for me and my family, a culmination of all the hard work that has been put in over the last 10 years… It’s just the start of a long career to come and I am proud of this moment”
A four-year-old playing indoor football at Holywell Leisure Centre to playing at academies at Prestatyn and Liverpool, to now signing his first professional contract at Barnsley, Vimal spoke about the support he has received from his parents.
“They have been amazing, for the last 10 to 11 years they have had to drive me to training and training centres and have always tried to attend my games”
Vimal smirks as he recalls how his mum had to deal with his tantrums and drag him to football training sessions as a child. Vimal had a preference for game time and his four-year-old self did not enjoy training drills.
“All I remember is getting dragged there but once I started playing I loved it!”
His early footballing days saw him play as a winger and striker before progressing to the box-to-box midfield role he holds at Barnsley now. His work ethic, resilience and mental fortitude have allowed him to overcome the hurdles which too often set back promising players. He recalls when he was released from Liverpool.
“It was the only thing I knew for seven years of my life…going there and training..It was my identity and once that was gone, it was tough”
Vimal had a stint at Burnley before joining Barnsley where he was instrumental in the U18 team's historic win of the Professional Development Title in May 2023. He is candid about where his resilience comes from, “I just have to keep working hard… there will always be light at the end of the tunnel”.
A glimpse of the light came with his professional debut with Barnsley against Tranmere in the League Cup in August 2023. This was followed by a string of appearances for the first team, reflecting the trust and support manager Neil Collins has placed in him.
“The coaches, staff and teammates have been supportive of me breaking through... It was a good experience, all the first-team players were brilliant, helping me integrate into the team”
Vimal has received praise from the interim director of football at Barnsley, Bobby Hassel. Noting Vimal as a “star performer” during his seasons for the academy’s 18 and 21 squad, Hassel commented on Yoganathan’s “aggressive” style of play and his “great attitude” always demonstrating a “strong desire to continuously learn and develop”.
“He excels as an all-around central midfielder, demonstrating his skill in tackling and maintaining possession, while also contributing with goals and assists. Vimal is now part of the increasing list of talented central midfielders emerging from our academy, and we have high expectations that he will make a significant impact on the first team environment in the coming years”
Despite the praise, Vimal knows he has so much more to give. He notes his improvement from last season. In arguably one of the harder positions to break into he is eager to continue working to become a regular starter for Barnsley.
Drawing inspiration from Frenkie de Jong during his time at Ajax, to the likes of Thiago and Fabinho at Liverpool, Vimal is always trying to improve his playing style and implement different qualities into his game.
His desire to improve, his technical ability and his impact on games have not gone unnoticed by Barnsley fans. Following his debut the support he received from the fanbase was overwhelming and a byproduct of that was the outpour of support he received from the wider Tamil community, particularly through social media.
“Social media has shown the impact it has had... It’s a cool feeling. I can’t put it into words how much the support means… when I am training, it just feels like another day but seeing the posts and support has been good”
Having grown up in Northern Wales, Vimal notes that few Tamil families lived in his area. During his breaks from training, he would be sure to visit his relatives in the Midlands and go to the temple with his family. Though Vimal notes that football has also played an integral part in staying connected with the wider Tamil community.
Vimal recalls the Tamil tournaments that he played in growing up. From March until September, Tamil sporting events have been a yearly occurrence across the European subcontinent. Footballing tournaments form a bulk of the events, with more than 14 happening in the UK. From TRO to TSSA a multitude of tournaments see teams from across the UK and Europe participating.
“They are always fun to play in… It’s always good to see other Tamil players and the standards we are playing at”
“I want to see more Tamil players in the game…the next thing to think about is how we can bring more Tamil players through and raise the standards in the community”
When asked about the impact his progress so far would have on younger Tamil players.
“Hopefully they can be inspired!”
Vimal recently attended the inaugural South Asian Pathway event. An event aimed at helping to connect industry professionals around South Asian Inclusion within football. Organised by PFA player inclusion executive Riz Rehman, Vimal spoke of the importance of the programme.
“Riz has been really good at raising awareness and the profile of South Asians in football. Programmes like his help create a community and network of support, it’s a good thing to have to see the role models within the sport too”
The extra support will be welcomed as Vimals lays out his goals coming year. Having signed his professional contract with Barnsley, Vimal intends to build on the momentum and aims to get into the first team.
“I need to make sure I am playing well for the academy, playing well for the 21s and showcasing what I can do and keep carrying it on until the end of the season”
Vimal’s approach to achieving this is relaxed but focused, he speaks on the importance of “taking it game by game and trying to do the best he can do in the moment”.
When asked about points of advice for upcoming footballers, particularly South Asian footballers, Vimal is clear. He notes that players must stand out and always go the extra mile.
“You have to be able to stand out as a player… it’s also important that you have a good work ethic…you have to be doing all the extras”
Following on from this Vimal notes that you have to be resilient, to “keep working through tough times” and that results will start to show.
Vimal has developed a work ethic which will allow him to excel. He is grateful for all the support he has received at the beginning of his career, but in his own words, there is “a lot more to come”.