In this age of the identikit footballer Jamie Vardy leaps off the page. I love the way the Leicester City striker is proving that polish doesn’t always mean perfect.
It wasn’t long ago that Arsene Wenger complained about how European football wasn’t producing strikers anymore. The pitches are too manicured, the coaching in many ways too focused on technical skill, he hinted. Suggesting that South America’s ‘street football’ was a better environment for breeding edgier front men that like to scrap, his thoughts struck a chord.
While it’s nice to be nurtured in a pristine environment, given the best of everything from an extremely young age, it does feel like most (not all) academy graduates are emerging as one of the same. Technically excellent, the raw gifts that got them noticed in the first place are all often ironed out by their carefully planned upbringing.
In Jamie Vardy’s case, there was never a chance for his rough edges to be chiselled smooth.
Released by Sheffield Wednesday at the age of 16, the front man soon landed in the rough, tough world of non-league.
Having spent many seasons in semi-pro football myself, I know that talent isn’t in short supply at those levels, but the game itself is almost like another sport compared to the pristine glamour of the Premier League.
If you don’t man up and fight for possession, fight to win loose balls, fight to hold off challenges, fight to break free from your markers, fight to win points, non-league football will swallow you up, and spit you out. It’s a harsh but richly rewarding place to play the game.
There’s no place for preciousness, or your modern day Fancy Dan. And that’s one reason why such a high percentage of gifted young players disappear and fall out of the game completely by the time they hit their early 20s. It’s not to everybody’s taste.
Vardy did it the other way round. Not making his Football League debut until the age of 25, it’s a hearty footballing diet he was brought up on. Because of that, it’s shaped the player he has become.
When you study his game, it’s essentially uncomplicated.
For an England international he doesn’t keep the ball brilliantly, he doesn’t involve himself in a great deal of build-up play, and he relies on natural instincts to make things happen. He’s quick (which definitely helps) but it’s his energy and effervescence that really shine through.
Could more top-flight players display those bare qualities? Yes, and they should. If you mix hard work and peak fitness, with natural skill, fantastic footballers emerge. Not enough of the current - dare I say it pampered - generation knows what it feels like to push them self in the way that Vardy does.
Arsenal’s back four will fear him on Saturday. Bang in form, his unprocessed style and effort levels make him different to the norm. He will be respected.
The Gunners defenders know they won’t get a moment’s peace when he’s in their vicinity. If there’s one thing centre-backs hate, it’s chasing strikers into the channels, and a big part of the Leicester front man’s make-up is to play on that reluctance. If he can offer a team-mate an out ball he will, and when passes are lofted towards a colleague’s head, he’ll bust a gut to run in beyond just in case a flick is made.
Most of us can run, but not enough of us are willing to scamper after as many lost causes. When you watch Vardy play, you can tell he’s grateful for where he is and how hungry he is to stay there.
Plucked from the Conference in 2012, albeit for a fee of £1million, the Yorkshireman’s Premier League exploits are an inspiration to every young player that’s missed the academy boat.
He has proved that unmanufactured talent can still make it at the highest level. Providing you’re good enough and thirsty enough, a player that’s rough around the edges can still shine as brightly as a polished diamond.
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