– Stefan Hanley
In mid-2013, Jamie Vardy was on the verge of walking away from soccer. In December 2015, he’s a Premier League record holder, England international, and this season’s top scorer.
Based on current form, you’d be forgiven for doubting there was ever a time when Vardy wasn’t on top of the world. Every game is met with grit and effort, every goal with jubilation. But it wasn’t always so. Before he broke Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s streak of 10 consecutive games with a goal, he was edging ever closer to joining a club no one wants to be in – the almost made its.
Released by Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, he joined Stocksbridge Park Steels, a team plying their trade in the eighth tier of English soccer. For the princely sum of £30 per week, he’d turn out in front of crowds of 200 on freezing Sheffield nights, grappling with part time car mechanics and office workers. Talent is difficult to spot at that level, but spotted he was, and rose from invisibility to mere obscurity with FC Halifax Town and Fleetwood.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Goal, you’ve pretty much seen the Vardy story. Young Santi got his big break with Newcastle, while not so young Jamie got his with Leicester City in 2012. Don’t get too caught up in the hype though – the club paid Fleetwood a non-league record £1 million, and had high hopes for their new signing. It didn’t go according to plan. After a 34 goal haul in the Conference, he bagged only 5 in his debut season in the Championship, earning him harsh criticism from the Leicester faithful. His confidence in tatters, he was one mean tweet away from calling it quits, until the coaching staff pulled him aside and brought back his nerve, resulting in 16 goals and promotion to the BPL the following season, and survival the year after.
But what of this season? If you haven’t followed the BPL before, it’s tough to put what Leicester are doing right now into context. Sure, in the early exchanges of past years, perennial strugglers have led the way for a few weeks, but there’s a reason the ‘top 4’ refers as much to a specific group of teams as it does to a table. The fact that Leicester are 2nd and have only lost once all season is nothing short of remarkable. The fact that Jamie Vardy has scored in 11 straight games is insane, and the fact that they are combined with stellar all-round performances is jaw dropping. It would be one thing if he was a poacher, snatching goals based on the great work of his teammates. It’s quite another that he covers every blade of grass, is rapid with or without the ball, and holds it up well for his size.
For Leicester City and Vardy, regression to the mean is the problem. The club has a ridiculously difficult run of fixtures over Christmas, facing Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, and Man City successively. If they are still in the top 4 by mid-January, we might have a conversation. Undoubtedly, Vardy has a certain amount of quality, and they’ve uncovered a gem in Riyad Mahrez, who’s the real stud on this team. The problem for Leicester is just that – they have two excellent players, and once they go off the boil, where are the goals coming from? They’ve conceded goals at a clip that’s comparable to relegation battlers, so when they stop firing at the other end (and they will), trouble is afoot. I still think they’ll finish comfortably in the top half, but even Europa League soccer might evade them.
As for Vardy, he’s been linked with everyone, including Chelsea, who badly need a striker. There are three and a half issues that will see him stay where he is. First, he’ll be 29 in January. That isn’t young in soccer, and it certainly isn’t young for someone who’s game is built on pace and stamina. Teams will be reluctant to offer him a multi-year contract going into his 30s, and he’ll be reluctant to sign a one year deal in case it all goes wrong.
Second, the asking price will far exceed his value. It’s been a remarkable run, but it’s been a short one, and the club will want to capitalise on form. It happens all the time – see Andy Carroll for a textbook case.
Third, the sample size is tiny. We’re barely a third of the way through the season. True, no active player in the BPL has scored more at this stage of the season than Vardy. and there’s nothing tangible to say he can’t keep it going, but history tells us this glorious run must come to an end soon. Benni McCarthy, Michu, Andy Johnson – they all had their few months in the sun, only to fade into darkness in the long term. That’s why strikers like Aguero and Benzema are the best in the world – they do it season after season.
The half issue is Vardy’s character. In his youth, he was a little bit of a tearaway, boasting an assault conviction and a curfew before he was 22. That was a long time go, so we can give him the benefit of the doubt. More recently, however, he was fined by the club for a racist slur in a casino, and he can’t pin that on youthful vigour. I’m not saying these will become regular and more serious, and that’s why it’s only half an issue, but it’s definitely a black mark in his file.
Without question, Leicester City and Jamie Vardy have been the story of the season so far, but I can’t say it enough – the cold, wet nights of winter are where teams and players are made and broken. If they can navigate through January in a strong position, and Vardy can keep his goal tally ticking over, we might have an all-time tale to tell. Do I think they finish top 4, and do I think he finishes top scorer? No on both counts.