“I still pinch myself”
“I still pinch myself”
True to form, Jamie Vardy picks up a can of Coke and cracks it open as his interview with Sport begins. He’s just finished a hard morning’s work at Leicester City’s training ground, and we’re not sure that every nutritionist would recommend this as immediate post-session recovery.
But then, Vardy is a footballer who – when playing for Fleetwood Town in the Conference back in 2011/12 – developed a routine of having three cans of Monster energy drink every day ahead of training. One first thing in the morning, another two just before a session.
When the club doctor expressed alarm at his caffeine intake, Vardy duly scaled back. He swapped the Monster for cans of Red Bull.
Late last year, he said that his routine during the 2015/16 season, when Leicester became the least likely league champions ever and Vardy went on that 11-game scoring streak (breaking a Premier League record in the process), was to have a glass of port the night before a game.
It seems to have had little negative impact on his form. Yet given all of the above, there must have been people on Vardy’s improbable rise, from non-league striker to England international, who tried to change his ways.
“Not really – I think everyone is different,” he says cheerily. “What works for me might not work for someone else. But what works for them won’t work for me. That’s just how it is.
“With the port, I just had it one night – a little glass to help me to sleep. I had a great game the next day, so it kinda stuck.”
The mind boggles at what Arsene Wenger, who tried to sign Vardy for Arsenal over the summer, might have made of such routines. The truth is actually that while Vardy has adapted his lifestyle and calmed down in recent years – something that he credits to the influence of his wife Rebekah – his stamina has never been a problem through his career.
Vardy trains hard and plays with devilish commitment, making up for his slight, wiry stature by harrying defenders. The obvious question is whether those years playing at Stocksbridge Park Steels for £30 a week, while working full-time in a factory or getting up at 5am as a joiner, has given him a hunger that not every academy product player can match.
“It’s hard to say,” says Vardy. “But with me coming from non-league, it makes me realise what an incredible opportunity I’ve been given. You never want it to end. You want to keep trying to get better and better.
“You do see youngsters getting too much too soon, then eventually they don’t make it. For me, not having that and having to work so hard to get to where I am… Maybe that does make me appreciate it a bit more. But everyone has a different path into the game.”
One thing Vardy is adamant about is that he isn’t alone in having almost fallen through the cracks.
“I think there’s loads,” he says firmly on whether he saw other non-league players who could also have made it. “There’s many players I saw who have the ability to play in the professional game.
“Personally, I think it’s a bit of a snobbery kind of thing. Would a club want to risk taking someone from non-league or would they want to go and pay a bit more for someone who’s been there and done it? Thing is, that player might not give you what you need anyway.
“It’s just about being willing to take a risk, which I don’t think a lot of clubs have been willing to do. But to be fair, at the minute, it’s starting to happen a bit more regularly. And that’s only good for the game. If someone comes from nonleague, it gives those clubs money, keeps them afloat – because finances aren’t that great in non-league football. It’s tough for clubs to even survive, so that money is important for the grassroots of the game.”
Ups and downs
Vardy knows about that first-hand. The £15,000 fee Stocksbridge received for him from Halifax in 2010 helped them do important work on their ground (which now has a stand named after Vardy himself ). Yet going from being completely unknown in his early and mid-20s to being one of the most recognisable footballers in the country now must be a strange thing to adapt to.
“It’s always going to have its ups and downs,” he says evenly. “It’s great being noticed and to get the recognition I have – but it’s not so great when you want to take the family out, you’re with the kids and you’re getting harassed for a picture. I mean, the kids are only young, so they don’t really know what’s going on and it’s not really ideal for them. But it’s just one of those things that comes with the job.”
Off the pitch, similar to his attitude on it, Vardy admits to being a pest. A jack the lad, in his words. His manager, Claudio Ranieri, affectionately calls him “Radio Wanker” because Vardy never shuts up in the dressing room. The former captain of Fleetwood Town, Steve McNulty, referred to him as “a lairy little bastard”.
Vardy is bullish about most things thrown at him. That includes questions he began to face when his profile shot up about an assault conviction that left him wearing an electronic tag for six months a decade ago, when he was 20 years old (Vardy insists he was just defending a friend in a fight).
Yet in his autobiography, From Nowhere, Vardy directly addresses an incident in the summer of 2015, in which he was filmed calling an east Asian man a “Jap”. He says he didn’t realise just how offensive the term was and explains that, as well as releasing an apology statement, he made an effort to meet the person involved so he could privately apologise face to face, away from the media.
Not trying to play down the incident, he writes: “I do care about what happened” and “the footage gets worse every time I look at it”. Whatever your thoughts on Vardy (and he realises that some people will never forgive him for it), he hasn’t tried to belittle the seriousness of what occurred.
Back on the training pitch, and Vardy is pinging shots at goal as he showcases Nike’s new Hypervenom boots for Sport’s photoshoot. The first one smashes off the bar from outside the box with a power that makes our photographer whistle.
One of his early nicknames was ‘The Cannon’ – as in ‘loose’, but it could easily apply to the finishing prowess coiled within his right boot.
“I’ve always been a striker,” says Vardy. “I’ve never changed positions, so I think that helps. But when it comes to actual finishing, I think it’s more of an instinct: you have it or you don’t.
“Basically, you get a split-second to decide what to do. If the keeper comes sprinting out at full pace, it’s easier to go around him, whereas if he’s stopped to position himself, then you need to find the right angle to put the ball past him.”
Not that Vardy has always had a chance to show his predatory instincts this season. Aside from a spectacular 4-2 win over Manchester City in December, in which Vardy scored his first Premier League hat-trick (pictured below) and the team seemed to have turned the clock back a year, Leicester have struggled domestically.
“I couldn’t tell you,” he says of the reasons behind that. “I’m not dodging [the question] – I really couldn’t. We just know that we need to get our Champions League form to be replicated in the league. That’ll drag us up the table. I think we just went back to basics against City. We went back to exactly what we know – and that’s what we need to do.
“It’s definitely been frustrating. But we all know what situation we’re in and we’ll give 110 per cent to make sure that we’re not down there at the end of the season.”
“The club is moving forward,” he insists. “Fair enough, we’re in a blip at the minute, but off the pitch and on the pitch, we know where the club want to be – and I want to be a part of that.”
One competition that’s proved the exception for Leicester this season is the Champions League, which cranks into action again in mid-February for the knockout stage. Leicester lost their final group match to Porto, but they’d already qualified by that stage and topped the Group G standings.
“It makes a change from watching it!” says Vardy on how he felt hearing the Champions League anthem as he stood on the pitch, having not even played league football by the time of his 25th birthday. “It was a really proud moment. Leicester’s first time as well, being there – and we did amazingly well to qualify from the group. Now it’s the next stage, it’s a two-leg shootout and anything can happen.”
“I know Sevilla are up there in La Liga, alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid,” says Vardy of Leicester’s next opponents, who currently sit in third spot, on the same points as second-place Barcelona, and having won a game more. “So it’ll be a great experience, and we’ll make sure we give it a go.”
Giving it a go is Vardy’s speciality. His well-charted career path has been so eventful that if the long-talked-about feature film does go ahead, you wonder exactly how they’d cram everything in. The tabloid stories about his family, the Vardy party, the fact that he had a lookalike seemingly showing up everywhere dressed entirely in Vardy get-up from kit to wrist cast (a sort of ultimate ‘full-kit stalker’).
Yet none of it has dampened his passion for football. “I still pinch myself, all the time,” he says when asked if it has all sunk in yet. “Just because I know where I’ve come from, what I’ve achieved and what I’ve had to go through to get here.
“I’ll always be pinching myself until the end of my career.”
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