Jamie Vardy was running rings around his new team-mates… quite literally. The whippet-quick youth teamer had been given his chance to mix it with the seniors at Stocksbridge Steels and he was wasn’t wasting any time showing off what he had under his bonnet.
“I can remember my first encounter with him because he ended up lapping me about three or four times in pre-season running,” laughs captain Brett Lovell.
“He was one of those lads who was just genuinely as fit as a fiddle. Anything he ate or drank wouldn’t make a difference. He was like a racing snake.
“He just used to keep running and running and running. He came in and he just had something about him. A tenacity to get at people and do well.”
Lovell had just been signed as a 20-year-old Vardy graduated to the first team. And while the youngster’s impressive fitness was leaving an impression on his wheezing team-mates, none of them could have foreseen what lay ahead for him in his future. Especially when he started his first pre-season friendly at right back.
Now one of the most consistent goalscorers in world football – collecting 26 England caps, a Ballon d’Or nomination and the Premier League golden boot – Vardy’s journey from Sheffield Wednesday reject to non-league nuisance, to Premier League superstar is the ultimate rags-to-riches tale.
And while Lovell was glad to see Vardy installed in a more familiar position as a striker following that initial odyssey at full-back, the towering centre half remembers a forward with plenty of pace and raw ability, but who tended to miss a lot of chances.
“His finishing was the only thing that let him down. He’d get a hat-trick, but it would take him 12 attempts,” remembers Lovell.
“If you watch him now in the Premier League, when it drops to him you’re waiting for the net to bulge. He’s certainly improved that side of his game.”
His wayward finishing aside, Lovell sees many similarities between Vardy then and now. He was always a livewire, full of energy and endeavour, never giving the opposition a moment’s rest. He could create a goal from nothing. Hopeful punts into the channels were turned into perfect assists.
“He was lovely to play with as a centre-half because you always had an out-ball,” Lovell continues. “The amount of times that you were just clearing a ball and he’d score, and people would go, ‘Oh, great ball Brett’ and I’m thinking, ‘I only cleared it’. But he used to get onto everything. He just had that bit between his teeth and he wasn’t scared of getting stuck in. He won us a lot of games single-handedly.”
Even as one of the youngest players in a Stocksbridge squad that boasted a few non-league veterans, Vardy made his presence felt. He became a key figure around the club and the dressing room during his three years in the first team.
“He was brilliant, a cheeky chappy,” Lovell tells TheSetPieces. “He wasn’t bothered about saying owt to anybody and he was instantly liked by all the lads. We always used to stay for a drink after the game. Stocksbridge weren’t paying us much but we always used to put a bit of money behind the bar to keep that going. We had good banter and he fit right in.”
“He used to pick me up on a Saturday for games. He’d come round the corner in his clapped-out Clio with music blaring out. A can of Red Bull, which he still does now. We just hit it off, me and him. We used to have a few nights out a year and that’s why we’ve kept in touch. Although Vardy’s life will have changed dramatically, he’s still rooted to his mates.”
A bit of a tearaway on and off the pitch, Vardy sometimes had to be kept in check. Ahead of a play-off final against Belper Town, Lovell took responsibility for keeping him fresh and focused.
“If it was a Friday night he was going to go out and have a beer with his mates,” he says. “It probably never would have been one, it would have always been a few, so the manager was rightly nervous that Vards was going to be absolutely hammered.
“I made him sleep at my house the night before. He slept on the settee. Me and my wife put him up for the night because it was a massive opportunity for us to win that game and get promoted. He was important to us, even though, if he’d have been out, he’d have probably still played well. He stayed at mine, he had a good game and we ended up getting promoted. It was a job well done.”
Despite having a trial at Crewe Alexandra and an offer of a short-term contract from Rotherham United, Vardy seemed reluctant to make the leap into the professional game.
In the summer of 2010, he moved to the reformed FC Halifax Town for £15,000. His new club were in the same division but had more money and bigger ambitions.
To Liam Hogan, one of several Halifax players who would work their way into the Football League, Vardy was still an unknown quantity. He soon showed what he could do.
“We trained by Halifax’s stadium – The Shay – in pre-season. A ball went into him, he just knocked it past me and put it straight in the top corner,” winces Hogan. “I thought, ‘we’ve got a player on our hands here’. Just the way he moved away from me. It’s little moments that flip the switch, where you realise, ‘that could be the next level’. He took that into the season.”
Training against Vardy was always a challenge. “When you’re a defender the last thing you want is having someone on your shoulder, running in behind,” says Hogan.
“But, at the same time, when we had the ball, he’d be in your face, he’d be pressing you. He’d look to steal the ball back as high up as he could. He knew if he got it closer to our goal, he’d have a better chance of scoring and that’s what you see today against some world-class defenders.”
After a patchy start, Halifax steamrolled the division, winning the title with 98 points, while Vardy scored 23 league goals. In March he was agonisingly close to notching three consecutive hat-tricks but had to settle for a brace against Nantwich Town. Playing alongside Danny Holland and Lee Gregory, who would move on to Millwall and then Stoke City, he was part of a prolific forward line.
Vardy could be a handful on and off the pitch, though.
“He was a lad that brought the dressing room up in terms of playing little pranks and things like that,” remembers Hogan. “Just having a good laugh and keeping everything positive.
“There can be a lot of pressure in football and he released that. He was a really good character. When he got on the pitch, he was straight down to business. No messing. He could score goals, he could create goals.”
Everyone at Halifax knew Vardy was destined to leave but nobody could begrudge him doing so. They’ve followed his career closely ever since.
“You’re just thrilled to bits because he’s a good lad. I shared a dressing room with him, I enjoyed a holiday with him after we won promotion. He means something to you,” says Hogan.
“You always want to see an underdog – because that’s what he would have been at the start – do well. You like to see those stories come through. It’s a great example for young lads and fellow professionals that you should never settle for where you are now.
“You should always strive to get better and that will create those opportunities to be able to showcase yourself. Jamie’s obviously done that massively.”
Vardy’s next step was to Fleetwood Town, where chairman Andy Pilley was bankrolling their own rise up the divisions. They already had plenty of firepower in Andy Mangan, Magno Vieira, Richard Brodie and Gareth Seddon, but their new signing immediately stood out.
“We were a really good side, but he came in and took us to another level. He brought confidence to the team,” recalls Steve McNulty, the former Fleetwood captain.
“In those tight games, where it was 0-0, he could get the ball inside our own half, go past three or four players and get you a goal out of nowhere. That little bit of magic.
“He played with no fear. He went out there and he didn’t care who he was playing against. Sometimes as a centre-half you can give someone a whack and they go missing, but he was the total opposite. If you gave him a whack, he’d keep coming back. He went out and played like he was playing on the street with his mates. It didn’t bother him.”
Vardy scored five goals in his first five games before being sent off for a reckless tackle. After returning from suspension, his fine form continued, grabbing a 14-minute hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Alfreton Town. It was the second of a 29-match unbeaten run that carried the Cod Army to automatic promotion.
Halfway through the season, Vardy had already amassed an impressive highlights reel and plenty of suitors.
“He ran riot against Blackpool in the FA Cup, even though we got beaten. They were in the Premier League at the time. They wanted to sign him straightaway,” says McNulty.
“There was speculation from everywhere. All kinds of clubs were watching him. Fair play to him, in the January transfer window he could have kicked up a massive fuss and dragged his heels, but I think once the chairman and the manager sat down and spoke to him and said he could go in the summer, he didn’t bat an eyelid.
“That just shows you what type of lad he is because other people would have thrown their toys out the pram, but he never did that.”
Vardy stayed to fire Fleetwood to the title and a place in the Football League for the first time in their history. He left with the club’s blessing for £1 million, the biggest-ever fee for a non-league player. It has been repaid many times over during the last eight years and, at 34, he shows no signs of slowing down.
“People keep saying he’s going to lose his pace, but he never has, and I think coming into full-time professional football as late as he did has probably helped that,” says McNulty.
“He looks after himself. He’s working on his game with great coaches and great players every single day so I can see him going from strength to strength. After he had that one season people were saying he wouldn’t do it again, but he’s done it for the last four or five years now and proved people wrong.”
It wasn’t always a smooth journey after joining Leicester City, with Vardy contemplating a return to non-league at the end of a difficult first season in the Championship, but his career has continued its remarkable ascent.
Regardless of what he’s gone on to achieve at the top level, his grounding in non-league was invaluable and will never be forgotten by those who were there to witness it up close.
“I didn’t just used to play with Jamie Vardy; he’s a mate,” says Lovell. “We’d have a beer together. I know all his family and he knows all mine. He came to my daughter’s christening.
“He isn’t a superstar to me. He’s my mate. It’s ridiculous, but to me he’s just a mate. I think we all see him like that. He’s just an ex-team-mate who’s been lucky enough to get a chance and he’s taken it hasn’t he? By god he’s taken it.”
There can be very little debate about that.