St George’s Park twinkles in the early-morning dew. Wrapped in stunning countryside, the FA’s national football centre is all lattes and pathways – think Center Parcs for the football fraternity. It’s a world away from the tight-knit charm of Leicester City’s fairy-tale triumph, further still from their talisman Jamie Vardy’s own gritty backstory.
Vardy's story is one that begins as both Sheffield Wednesday fan and rejectee, reboots at Stocksbridge Park Steels, gathers pace at both Halifax and Fleetwood Town before catching fire in the East Midlands. Having plied his trade exclusively in the North, he will head south to Wembley with the squad in just four days’ time. Today we've split the difference and meet just hours before Southgate's first training session. St George's indoor futsal pitch is located down one of the endless maze of walkways and, painted in cold blue, does little to ease the early-morning shock of finding yourself in Burton-on-Trent at 9am. Incoming studs click-clack down a connecting corridor and Vardy finally emerges to immediately warm the room. Dressed in Nike Football Training apparel, his wiry frame is unmistakable as he grins, backchats and poses for photos through gritted teeth – Albert Steptoe meets David Icke.
Final requests to take his hands out of his pockets from sponsors are laughed off with good humour (“Who are you? Me mum?!”), and with that, the photo shoot comes to an end. In the absence of any futsal fans we sit down on the stadium-style seats. Both facing the non-action, mine flips up just as I’m about to land and Vardy is immediately relating schoolboy pranks to me.
“It’s early!” – yet he’s beaten his England colleague Jordan Henderson to press duties by a good few minutes. Joking around is one thing, but its unlikely the Vardy story would have unfolded as it has without both discipline and focus. It’s a mindset that helped navigate those footballing back waters successfully and - now he’s literally become public property (a house move is on the cards since eager fans discovered his address) - I wonder if there’s already a creeping nostalgia for the simplicity of those early days. Does he look back? “I always have. That’s where I started and where I’ve come from. If it weren’t for them days I wouldn’t have got where I am. You always have to look back and remember what you’ve had to go through to get to this point.” But does it ever seem preferable to today? “It’s just different, but that’s how it is in non-league – you do have to play at the weekend then work all week. That’s part and parcel of what it is, otherwise you’re not going to have the money to get by in life. Luckily I was able to get my little break and leave all that behind.”
That “little” break came in May 2012 when then-Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson signed him from Fleetwood Town and set in motion an extraordinary chain of events – promotion, near-relegation, followed by a Premier League trophy. If it sounds too much like a Hollywood script, well, that’s because it is – one Vardy himself was tweaking on a pre-season trip to Santa Monica. Yet I remember something he said recently about not being able to watch the Champions League now that he’s playing in it, which sounded almost as wistful as it did funny. Will he miss those carefree days? “Well it was only last year to be fair!” he points out with a laugh. “Nah, we’re lucky anyway because they split it in half – on the day we’re playing other teams aren’t, so I still get to watch it.” That both Vardy the player and Vardy the football fan are still able to coexist in one person is somehow reassuring and challenges yet another modern-day myth – that of the careerist player with no interest in the game.
Of course that’s never been the striker's way, as the inevitable collapse of his transfer to Arsenal this summer appeared to prove. The move felt wrong from the start. Not only would he be swapping the smash and grab of Leicester for the knock and ask of Arsenal but surely he and Wenger would have been the most unlikely of bedfellows? The latter recently celebrated for overhauling English footballers’ diets and lifestyles over a 20-year period, the former advocating port the night before a game. Doesn’t “Skittles Vodka” rather fly in the face of everything the Arsenal boss has fought for? Or have we been taking this diet stuff way too seriously all along? “Nah,” he smirks. “Everyone’s different, that’s what it all comes down to. Stuff that I do probably wouldn’t work for another player, and stuff that another player does probably wouldn’t work for me.” Perhaps the two would’ve met in the middle – I imagine the ingredients for a Jamie Vardy party are quite different now from what they were just a few years ago? He flashes me a knowing grin: “Yeah … yeah they are."
I wonder if its a scepticism about the game’s more showy aspects that explains his unique career trajectory being contained entirely within the north of England? The truth is far more practical. “Not really, the only reason I’ve always played in the North is that’s as far as I could get! Back in the day £30 per week is not getting you very far, I can tell you that now. And, actually, the majority were quite close to home, so it was easy.” He’s described the Leicester players before now as “a band of brothers” and I’d imagined that sort of chemistry must be a one-off. Not so: before I even finish the question his eyes light up. “I’ve been lucky, I’ve had it at every club! Been very lucky. The dressing room’s been unbelievable at every single club I’ve been at.” Perhaps it’s him? “Ha, who knows – could be, could be…” And this leads me on to the question that continues to baffle a nation. Why can’t England be like this? He’s defensive, but convincing. “The England group are close … they are close. We’re always doing something together and I think that’s how it should be. There’s lots of downtime, so there’s little darts tournaments, pool competitions – everyone’s always wanting to do something.”
Promotion, champions, England – in the middle of the fairy tale is it tempting to try and write the perfect ending? “I’m not conscious of the perfect ending, but I don’t ever want it to end. I want to keep going as long as I can. Many years from now we’ll see where things are.” The eye of the storm is the calmest place to be – it’s everyone else that’s going crazy not you? “Yeah. Obviously we relax when we go home and try and let it sink in – which it doesn’t always – but the euphoria that the fans and everyone brings to it is, like you say, a storm circling you.”
It feels like we’ve met at a pivotal moment. Still unmistakably the man who coined the colourful mantras Leicester fans have taken to their hearts, Vardy remains defiant: “That’s what made me who I am now and I don’t see any point in completely changing who you are.” Yet I worry he will become sanitised and censored, not only by Hollywood, but by the modern football machine that finally swallowed up Big Sam and spat out more besides. We finish up and he’s off to do a further shoot. Walking across the blue painted futsal floor the click-clacking resumes and again he is reprimanded – this time for potentially damaging the surface. He has a quick look round before taking a giant leap in the air, crashing back down to earth studs-first. “Fuck it!” he says. And with that he’s gone.
Words by Dan Tickner. Photography by Theo Cottle. The full article features in SoccerBible Magazine Issue 7 'Northern Quarters' – Available here.