Sheffield-born Jamie Vardy scored two goals in two games for England over Easter. Here we recall a piece in February charting Vardy’s rise by reporter Amitai Winehouse.
When Jamie Vardy steps out onto the pitch at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday as the Premier League’s top scorer, it will be difficult for him not to pinch himself and think of where his footballing journey truly began.
With its carpet-like playing surface and beautiful design encompassing 60,000 seats, the Emirates is generally considered to be one of the best stadiums in English football.
Go down the road from Arsenal’s home ground and you will find the bustling Holloway Road, one of Islington’s busiest shopping destinations. Even the local pub, The Coronet, is a behemoth of a building, and one with great historical significance. It is a bastion of art deco design opened for use as a cinema in February, 1940.
Compare and contrast. On Thursday at Stocksbridge Park Steels, they were preparing their ground, Bracken Moor, to be used for a development league game between Sheffield United and Leeds United. Their groundsperson was working fastidiously on a pitch that was beautiful for non-league level. He is also the club’s secretary.
If you take a stroll around the ground, which can hold 3,500 people, you immediately notice the 450-seat Jamie Vardy Stand, renamed in honour of the club’s most famous son.
The second thing that strikes you is the immense quiet. It should be no surprise. After all, the ground is atop a steep hill and surrounded by the sort of picturesque view that is more stroll in the Dales than footballing hotbed.
Vardy ended up in these idyllic parts after being released by his local club Sheffield Wednesday in 2002. It took until 2007 for him to make the step up to the first team under then manager Gary Marrow, who decided to take a look at him at senior level after Stocksbridge had ensured survival in the Evo-Stik Premier Division for another season.
Sheffield Star reporter Paul Webster remembers Vardy’s debut well. Marrow had highlighted the debutant the week prior when they were previewing the game.
Webster recalled: “(Marrow) said, ‘I’ve been to watch him play, I’m going to chuck him in, we haven’t got anything to lose. He is scoring goals for fun’.
“I went up to watch him that following Saturday. As soon as you saw him, you thought, Jesus Christ, he’s good.
“He was a bit of a scraggy kid, you looked at him and thought there was nothing to him, but he had no fear. He was up against some big centre backs that day, and he got the ball to his feet and took them on.
“I told the manager after the game that I was impressed with him.”
Vardy is an ‘Energiser Bunny’ of a footballer, a constant and willing runner who defends from the front.
Former Stocksbridge manager Marrow can see the similarities between the Vardy he knew and the Vardy that he sees in the Premier League: “Even in the pre-season training sessions, even before he got a ball, as an athlete he is probably the best footballer I have seen at running, whether over 10 yards, 50 yards or 100 yards. He could also do it on a four-mile run.”
His effort is even more impressive when allied with the technical brilliance he displays in front of goal, most notably the powerful strike against Liverpool on February 2 that nearly ripped the net from its stanchion. Against Manchester City last week, Vardy repeatedly fooled the defence by taking an intelligent touch the moment the ball reached his feet.
Webster, a regular attendee at Bracken Moor, recalled the 29-year-old frequently taking non-league defenders out of the game in the same way: “He had that technical ability that lots of non-league lads don’t have. The first touch in particular.
“A lot of players have pace, and that’s okay. What he had was that his first touch was absolutely brilliant, and you can’t teach that, it’s a skill. It’s like a pianist. It’s that natural ability he has. They would ping the ball to him from 40 or 50 yards and he would take it down on his chest. He would kill it with his first touch. It was down and under control with his foot. Then he would be past the defender.”
There were some aspects of his game that needed improving. When Vardy wins the ball from an opposition player to launch one of Leicester’s increasingly famous counter-attacks, it comes from a lesson he learned back in the Evo-Stik league.
“He is quite an aggressive footballer, and that’s not common in a striker,” said Marrow.
“He would go into tackles when he should not be tackling people. He was going into tackles that were 60/40 in the other guy’s favour.
“I used to turn away at times thinking that he would break his leg. It was little things like that.
“I can remember him getting ‘done’ himself at Kidsgrove in his first season. It was then that we said that there was no need to go into them: ‘You’re going into a tackle where you will come away with the ball anyway, just stand up’.”
As he added to his game and scored goal after goal, 66 in total for the Steels, more and more clubs started to pay attention. Aston Villa sent a scout to watch him. Sheffield United and Rotherham United were both interested, with the Millers making an offer Stocksbridge found easy to refuse. Vardy also went for a trial with Crewe Alexandra but it did not work out.
From there the path is famous – Halifax Town to Fleetwood Town to Leicester and then England – but there were trials along the way. Vardy had to play with an ankle tag after committing an assault. That meant he had to occasionally leave away games that were a distance from home after 70 minutes to meet his 6pm curfew.
He came through that, and Marrow believes he is “a great example” that should be held up for anyone who leaves an academy without a professional contract: “They don’t have to be afraid to drop into semi-professional football.
“If they drop into semi-professional football, certainly from the Northern Premier League upwards, it is a good level and gives them a good grounding, there are always people watching those games.”
Vardy signed a new £60,000-a-week deal at Leicester earlier this month, with the offer of a possible Premier League winner’s medal also on the table. Marrow revealed: “I spoke to him a few months ago and he said he’s still pinching himself.
“When he signed for Leicester from Fleetwood, I rang him up and said ‘if you score a few goals at Leicester, you have every chance of getting in the England squad’.
“If you think, it’s only six years ago that he was playing for me. Now, I’m sure he’s in Roy Hodgson’s thoughts for the Euros.”