Football: Vardy overcomes early rejection to reboot his career

Football: Vardy overcomes early rejection to reboot his career
Leicester City's Jamie Vardy celebrates scoring their fourth goal.

It is a week since Jamie Vardy started his first game as a Premier League player.

It will be a lifetime before he ever forgets it - and quite some time before Manchester United's collection of global millionaires get over what he did to them. And even seven days on, it serves as a reminder to kids everywhere (and to grown-ups who so readily discard and destroy the dream in youths) that sometimes perseverance is worth all the silver spoons in the world.

Vardy scored one goal. He helped to create four others. His pace and tenacity never let United's defence settle. Above and beyond that, his refusal to be overawed by the reputations of Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Wayne Rooney and Angel di Maria inspired Leicester City to come back from 3-1 down to defeat United 5-3.

This, from a player, now 27, who had been told at 16 that he would never make a footballer. This, from a young man who had been kicked down, and kept down in no-league football for the better part of a decade, starting in the eighth grade of English football where nobody - certainly not the likes of United - would think of looking for a first-team striker.

No doubt Louis van Gaal had never heard of Vardy when the Dutch coach finished the World Cup at the semi-final stage and began splashing the cash to the tune of £157 million (S$324 million) to rebuild United's squad. King Louis knows the name now. Back in Leicester, from Monday onwards, there has been a distinct dampening down of the euphoria.

Well done, lads, now put United out of your heads and think of Crystal Palace, and then of all the other fixtures. Priority number one is survival: Keep Leicester in the Premier League. Anything else, all the glory and the despair along the way, is part of the learning curve of a promoted team in the wealthiest and self-proclaimed best league on earth.

The win against United will live long in the memory of both sides. But I am going to personalise it because so rarely do we get a more compelling story of rejection turned to triumph in one career. When Vardy was still at school, and on the books of his local club Sheffield Wednesday, he was told that he was "not big enough" to earn a living in the game.

"When it happened," he recalls, "I never thought I would play football again. I got told I was being released because I was too small, I wasn't physically built enough. "It was real heartache. "I was angry, upset.

"I stopped playing for a year."

Maybe the coaches who made that judgment were myopic. Certainly, Vardy was a skinny lad. But you look at him now. He stands 1.78m, which is quite a bit taller than Leo Messi, Diego Maradona, Franco Zola and no doubt thousands of athletes you can name.

Why couldn't the so-called youth academy trainers look beyond the adolescent and envisage the growth? How did they ignore the obvious sprint speed, ability to control a moving ball and eye for goal that clearly were in the growing boy? It is the story of sporting debris the world over. The dream is suppressed in kids because the coaches, often themselves facing uncertain and certainly impermanent futures, are not specialist enough to pick out real talent and persevere with it. There is a clue, perhaps, to Vardy's rejection.

Shortly after he was told he would not make anything of his life, he got involved in a pub brawl. The way he tells it, he was sticking up for a friend who was taunted and attacked because he was deaf and wore a earpiece. The magistrate sentenced everybody involved to wear electronic tags on their ankle, and observe a 6pm curfew. By then, Vardy was back in the game but at a low level. He was a reserve for a team called Stocksbridge Parks Steels - a team in a tough environment where grown men kicked around a 17-year-old youth like a bag of bones. Vardy, though, was quick. What he lacked in self-belief, he was compensated for in the ability to move with the ball faster than most players on the field could catch him.

Halifax Town, a faded former League team, and Fleetwood Town, a rising non-league club, were his stepping stones towards the unlikely stage we saw last Sunday.

But it was Leicester's manager, Nigel Pearson, who saw in Vardy what others failed to see.

He persuaded the club's Thai owner to spend a million pounds on the gamble that, with proper application, Vardy could make it. Vardy doubted himself. He had a low period two years ago when he talked, more than once, of accepting failure.

"The gaffer (Pearson) and the other coaches at Leicester kept telling me I was good enough but I had to believe in myself, and to do the hard work."

Last season, 16 goals from Vardy, augmented by consistent hard teamwork, pushed the Foxes up into the EPL. Now, of course, Pearson had to use Leicester's tight budget to shop where United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool would not bother to look.

Alongside Vardy in attack, feeding off his crosses is an Argentinian called Leo. This one is Leonardo Ulloa, a strapping, hungry forward whose career took him through eight clubs in three countries to reach the Premier League. Behind them is Esteban Cambiasso.

Also born in Argentina, but with the experience of playing for Real Madrid and Inter Milan, Cambiasso arrived as a free agent. A 34-year-old whose nickname "Chuchu" translates as Old Man, he is there to guide the rest in the top flight.

Last Sunday was Vardy's EPL debut after he missed the start of the season through thigh injury. During that layoff, Pearson gave him a new contract to 2018. The destruction of United is, and has to be, only the start. It is up to him now to be the player he was told as a boy he should forget about aspiring to.


This article was first published on September 28, 2014.
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