Vardy story has still some way to run

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Walker

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.

Con­nec­tions

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.

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 f***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, 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 £22 mil­lion 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”.

‘‘ Shin­ing through is the street en­ergy which Vardy dis­plays dur­ing games. It was this which made Jose Mour­inho pull him aside and say: ‘Do you ever stop f***ing run­ning?’

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ANDY RAIN/EPA

Jamie Vardy cel­e­brates scor­ing against Arsenal in the open­ing match of the sea­son: as a boy the Le­ices­ter for­ward idolised David Hirst.

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