Michael Walker: Vardy’s journey from nowhere an unlikely tale

Leicester striker’s fairytale rise from non-league obscurity to international striker

Jamie Vardy: celebrates one of his two goals against Arsenal at the Emirates. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters

Jamie Vardy: celebrates one of his two goals against Arsenal at the Emirates. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters

 

David Hirst. Few names can mean so much in the modern history of Manchester United, particularly as Hirst never kicked a ball in a red United shirt.

Had he done so, though, Eric Cantona would have remained at Leeds United in November 1992 and, had that happened, who knows how things would have developed – in Manchester and in Leeds.

David Hirst. These are the first two words of chapter one of Jamie Vardy’s autobiography. The next seven are: “I didn’t want to be anybody else.”

As Vardy heads to Old Trafford with Leicester City, his frank, entertaining and illuminating book reveals time and again the close calls and what-might-have-beens of a career that today looks unquestioned and natural, but which even at the age of 24 was not even professional.

It is easy to lose sight of Vardy’s trajectory, now that he is an England international and a Premier League winner.

But his book is called From Nowhere for more than one reason. Let’s not forget: he began 2012 as a non-League player with Fleetwood; he did not play Premier League football until three years ago this month. He did not score his first top-flight goal until September 2014.

When it came, however, it was against Louis van Gaal’s version of Manchester United in a 5-3 victory at Leicester that had the stadium rocking.

That was the first expressive example of the attacking force Leicester City could be. Given they were 2-0 and 3-1 down at stages in the game, it was also the first Premier League example of the relentlessness that would, at 5,000-1, drive them to the league title a season later.

Although players such as Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante, Kasper Schmeichel and Robert Huth would come to be appreciated just as much, it was Vardy who set Leicester on their way with that improbable run of scoring in 11 consecutive Premier League matches – from August to November.

He equalled, then surpassed Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record and Vardy did it against United at home. So Vardy has United connections of a sort, a bit like his hero Hirst.

Rejection is also something they had in common. Sheffield Wednesday turned down Alex Ferguson, apparently six times, as he bid for Hirst; Wednesday turned down Vardy for being too small, even though he was in their youth set-up for years. He was heartbroken and clearly knocked sideways. This was a boy growing up near Hillsborough, who with his mates once broke in to play on the pitch.

Street energy

Something unforeseen sprouted from each rejection. For Ferguson it was Cantona; for Vardy it was Sunday league football, drinking, fights, a tag, factory work, more drink and then a £15,000 move from Stocksbridge Park Steels to Halifax. There, Vardy reckoned he was worth “£20 a week and a packet of Maltesers”.

It is clear from Vardy’s book what he would have done with that £20 – bought more drink. His story is soaked in alcohol, his recipe for ‘Skittle vodka’ is like something from Irvine Welsh.

But shining through is the street energy which Vardy displays during games. It was this which made him the first non-league million-pound player, this which made Jose Mourinho pull him aside and say: “Do you ever stop fu**ing running?’ after a Leicester-Chelsea game in April 2015.

Mourinho will also recall that his last match as Chelsea manager was away at Leicester just eight months later, when Vardy scored the opening goal.

He is yet to score at Old Trafford, but there was something about the first of Vardy’s two goals at Arsenal on the season’s first night – a low Marc Albrighton cross, a Vardy close-range lash – that suggests, if his ankle is fine and strong, that Vardy can rectify that Old Trafford statistic and that at 33-1, he is overpriced to be this season’s top scorer in the league.

Romelu Lukaku, three goals already, is favourite – understandably so – and Kane, Aguero, Lacazette, Morata and Gabriel Jesus are all in front of Vardy. But his sharpness suggests Leicester will have a progressive season. (Possibly, Chelsea agree. Vardy’s release clause was £22m when Arsenal wanted him last summer; it may have been updated as he has since signed a new contract.)

Not playing in the Champions League will bring a renewed domestic focus for Leicester. The defence of their fabulous title was deemed over on the opening afternoon last season, when they lost at Hull, but then Leicester’s season was about Europe, about mixing with the elite. And they did it well – still playing European football in March.

Unfortunately for Claudio Ranieri, his fairytale ended along the way. Leicester regrouped under Craig Shakespeare and finished 12th.

They go again, to coin a phrase. Leicester have been handed a hard start – Arsenal, United, Chelsea and Liverpool before the end of September – but Jamie Vardy knows all about those. His has been a circuitous route to places like Old Trafford. As he says, as Ferguson understood, “rejection can be a start”.

Newcastle’s broken ‘contract’

Three weeks ago Rafa Benitez sat on the podium in the St James’ Park press room and said: “When I decided to stay, I was expecting another thing.”

Newcastle United had just beaten Hellas Verona in a friendly but Benitez looked stern. He knew Verona were flimsy opponents, and he was hardly going to feel sudden optimism about the coming season, but his clenched-teeth expression stemmed from “another thing”.

At the end of last season, after much pushing from Benitez, Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley finally agreed to a face-to-face meeting. Benitez should have been seriously concerned that even arranging a meeting required such effort.

But the Spaniard emerged as Newcastle’s manager and started on his list of transfers. As Benitez knows, writing a list is the easy bit.

Soon Newcastle started missing names on the list and Benitez grew agitated. He had agreed to stay contractually; he had agreed to stay emotionally.

But by early August and that Verona game, Benitez’s primary emotion was frustration. He felt he had been told one thing by Ashley but was now experiencing “another thing”.

So only the legal contract remains, the other contract is broken – beyond repair unless there is a major U-turn by Ashley. It is now about when, not if, Benitez leaves St James’, but that cannot happen until he has a viable alternative.

Which brings us to West Ham United. They visit St James’ Park today with Slaven Bilic under some pressure and in the last year of his contract. Should West Ham lose, they will go into the international break on zero points with the board knowing the first home game of the season against Huddersfield Town is close to must-win.

Benitez may have his opportunity to leave. The backlash on Tyneside will be another thing.

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