Jamie Vardy takes unlikely route to Premier League record book

November 27, 2015
Leicester City's Jamie Vardy celebrates his goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Newcastle United and Leicester City at St James' Park, Newcastle, England, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy celebrates his goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Newcastle United and Leicester City at St James’ Park, Newcastle, England, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

By Steve Douglas

(AP) — Jamie Vardy’s unconventional route to the English Premier League’s record book began with heartbreaking rejection from his hometown club at 16 and back-breaking work in a carbon-fiber factory.

It later took in a conviction for assault, a police curfew that prevented him from completing games for his local team, and a 30-pounds-a-week ($45-a week) contract.

And it involved working his way right up English soccer’s pyramid, first playing on muddy pitches against plumbers and electricians, then uncompromising lower-league defenses, and then the bright lights and the big boys of the Premier League.

One thing was a constant for Vardy on that up-and-down journey: An ability to score goals — and plenty of them. The hard work has paid off and Saturday could see his crowning glory, as he goes in search of a scoring record for the ages.

The 28-year-old striker, whose direct and hard-working playing style is straight out of the Sunday leagues, has scored in 10 straight Premier League games for Leicester, and another goal against Manchester United this weekend would see him break the record for scoring in consecutive games in the division. The record has been held by former Man United star Ruud van Nistelrooy since 2003.

“There’s a lot of hard work gone into it,” Vardy says, “and long may it continue.”

Vardy’s blossoming at the highest stage is a shock to most, although some say they saw it coming.

Andy Pilley is the chairman of Fleetwood Town, an unheralded club in northern England that took a 150,000-pound ($225,000) punt on Vardy in 2011 when others were holding off despite his prolific form in non-league soccer. Fleetwood was also a non-league team then, and Vardy scored 32 goals in 34 games the following season to help it break into the Football League. Leicester soon came calling.

“I remember saying, ‘We will watch when you play for England and when you play in the Premier League,’” Pilley told The Associated Press. “And, sure enough, that’s come true.”

Vardy is currently top of the Premier League’s scoring charts with 13 goals — four more than his nearest rival — after 13 games and is playing alongside the likes of Wayne Rooney in England’s national team. He isn’t too dissimilar to a younger version of Rooney in the way he harasses defenders and grafts for his team, with a scrapper’s mentality.

But he is quicker than Rooney ever was, and loves playing on the shoulder of defenders and seeing space ahead of him. This season, everything’s gone right — playing in a Leicester team that has bulldozed its way to the top of the league, Vardy has scored a goal every 74 minutes, all from inside the penalty area. He had only one goal at this stage last season.

“It’s been a meteoric rise,” England assistant coach Gary Neville says. “The reports coming through (last season) were that he was raw, a little erratic in front of goal, but lightning quick and a handful.

“He’s come into this season and he’s a completely different player. He was unpolished last season. Look at him now.”

Vardy has been wearing a cast to protect two broken bones in his wrist, and scored a record-tying goal against Newcastle on Saturday while playing through injury. In truth, he’s taken knocks throughout his career.

He joined the youth system of his boyhood club Sheffield Wednesday in 2002 but was released at 16, after being told he was too small. He quit soccer for eight months and worked in a carbon-fiber factory, a job he had to leave because of the stress on his back.

While at non-league team Stocksbridge Park Steels, he was convicted of assault in 2007. Vardy maintains he was sticking up for a deaf friend, protecting him after some youths had been mocking him in the street because of his disability. Vardy was tagged for six months and had a 6pm-6am curfew, meaning he had to be substituted after 60 minutes in games so he could jump into the back of his parents’ car and make it home in time.

And in August this year, Vardy apologized after he was filmed using racist language toward a Japanese man in a casino.

He’s making headlines for the right reasons now, though. Expect to see him at the European Championship in France with England next year, perhaps as the Premier League’s top scorer and the outright holder of a league scoring record.

“Jamie is now a champion,” Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri said Thursday. “He’s a strong character because he comes from non-league. The record is for everybody, and Jamie is the tip of the iceberg.”