Of England’s World Cup semi-finalists, 12 from Gareth Southgate’s squad made their starts in the lower leagues before taking the step up to the Premier League. None of them, though, travelled as far as Jamie Vardy, who has decided his time with the Three Lions will be confined to being an interested spectator.
Tuesday’s announcement that Vardy has decided to concentrate on Leicester and family life was a surprise from someone who wore those colours with nothing less than bursting pride, and he might be missed more than his peripheral role in Russia suggests.
In English football and beyond there is nobody quite like him. Perhaps that is the reason that Benjamin, the son of Sergio Aguero and grandson of Diego Maradona, asked his dad to swap shirts with Vardy during “All Or Nothing”, the Manchester City documentary released this month.
Bewildering pace and thrashing finishes are the name of Vardy’s game, all delivered with a tooth-grinding grimace on his face as he careers around the field. A whirling dervish of a player, he is in perpetual motion, nagging away at defenders and teammates alike, while always appearing to be on the verge of self-combustion. Against Wolves on the weekend before last, impetuousness got him red-carded for a flying foul on Matt Doherty.
That either makes him very watchable, or as he admitted when telling the Guardian of his plans to quit the international scene, “probably a twat”, but Vardy has made a career of showing those who think that of him that he’s an excellent footballer, and his form of last season, in which he scored 20 Premier League goals, confirmed that the magical realism of Leicester’s 2015-16 title win was no flash in the pan.
He steps down from England having acquired a level of respect and respectability way beyond his wildest dreams when his undoubted talent was rejected by Sheffield Wednesday due to an inability to behave himself off the field. When turning out for Stocksbridge Park Steels wearing an electronic tag after he was convicted for assault, he was playing well below his level but those deep waters of non-league football are full of hard-luck stories and fluffed potential.
Even after Vardy had made it to the Premier League once promoted with Leicester, he had to ride out severe doubts, including his own. Nigel Pearson, his manager of the time, was hugely protective in public when a player who had destroyed Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United in a 5-3 win in September 2014 went six months without scoring another goal. At 27, having come so far so fast, it seemed he had hit his glass ceiling.
And yet, four years on, Vardy has stepped down with a sense that England never quite saw the best of him, a tale of unfulfilled potential even at 31. Unlike Michael Owen, who talked this week of having lost his burning pace at 19, Vardy retains his speed, that wiry build far more durable than his thoroughbred predecessor.
But his style of play, always on the shoulder of defenders, looking to break out into open space, never quite suited the slower pace of international football. With Harry Kane around, he was not going to be the first-choice striker, and so was never able to exert the influence on his team’s style of play as he has at Leicester.
There were fine moments on the way, including scoring his first England goal against Germany in a thrilling 3-2 comeback in Berlin in March 2016, a time when Leicester were flying towards their title destiny.
And then there was the equaliser for England in Lens at Euro 2016 in a comeback win against Wales.
At the World Cup, amid a team that struggled to score goals in open play, Vardy only started one game, and that the dead rubber in the group stage against Belgium. He also struggled a little with injury, and during his 157 minutes on the pitch could never be the super-sub who might drive tired defenders into distraction.
His time with England was thus concertinaed into just three years, the by-product of a career where a late start meant everything had to be done in a hurry. The door has been left open for emergencies, at a time when Gareth Southgate must pray that Kane, dodgy ankles and all, can maintain his fitness. That’s something the Tottenham man has not quite managed over the last couple of years and looked short of in Russia.
Marcus Rashford is struggling at Manchester United, Daniel Sturridge is an outsider looking in at Liverpool and Danny Welbeck’s Arsenal’s future is similarly uncertain. Vardy would have had opportunities to forge on with England but clearly decided otherwise is best.