Jamie Vardy: I’m a Nightmare on the Pitch – I Get Abuse but I Give it Back

Monday, 3 September, 2018 - 07:30
London - Stuart James

As Jamie Vardy ushers Boris, Billy and Ralph out of the door and the sound of barking becomes more distant, the conversation inside turns to Harry Kane, Sergio Agüero and Romelu Lukaku – the only players to have scored more Premier League goals than the Leicester striker since his top-flight debut in 2014. “So I’ve still got room for improvement,” Vardy says.

There is the hint of a smile on his face as he delivers that response but the message behind it is serious. “I should have scored more” is the first thing Vardy says when it is put to him that 20 Premier League goals last season, for a team who finished ninth, was a decent return. Even standout moments, such as that terrific controlled volley against West Brom in March, when Vardy connected so sweetly with a ball that dropped over his shoulder, and with his weaker foot, are brushed over.

“If you get four chances in a game and score one, then you watch the other three back and wonder what you could have done differently,” Vardy says. “I scored that goal at West Brom but I got that after 20-something minutes, so the way I look at that is there are still 65 minutes when I could have gone on and scored another. I think you have to be self-critical like that as a striker. You’d love to score every single chance.”

The facts and figures show Vardy has scored 63 times in 144 Premier League appearances, averaging a goal every 183 minutes. All of which is news to him and not particularly impressive news at that. He sees little value in getting bogged down with statistics and keeps no track of appearances or goals for club or country. “It’s weird, you don’t count things like that,” Vardy says.

Even a question about whether he has all his England caps prompts some rummaging in cupboards at his home in Lincolnshire. “I think I’ve got them. There’s one hiding somewhere,” says Vardy, as he starts to search the house before returning with an answer. “No, I’ve not got the World Cup ones through yet.”

None of that should be misinterpreted. Vardy is extremely proud of what he has achieved, never more so than when he made his England debut against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin three years ago, but he is not the sort of person to dwell on anything he is doing particularly well, or particularly badly for that matter. Rebekah, his wife, describes him as “emotionless”, which is exactly how he comes across, albeit with an ability to deliver some classic one-liners. For example, asked how he thinks he is perceived as a person, Vardy replies: “Probably a twat.”

Pushed to elaborate on that answer amid a fair bit of laughing, Vardy says: “I’m a nightmare on the pitch, aren’t I? I get abuse from opposition fans and give it back to them. But that’s just me – and that’s how it should be; it’s only a bit of banter. Tottenham’s fans last season were singing something about my wife in the jungle, within a minute I scored and they never said a word about me for the rest of the game. At West Brom I always go to the same corner after scoring. There was a photo from the season before, the faces are all the same. Their middle fingers are exactly the same.”

Vardy smiles as he pictures that scene at the Hawthorns. Surely a part of him was pleased with the sensational volley – voted Match of the Day’s goal of the season – that he scored on his last visit there? “I was buzzing,” Vardy says. “I could probably try that another nine times on my left foot and it wouldn’t go in. And if I’d have taken my eye off the ball for a moment, it would have been a swing and a miss: ‘Good bowling, Warney.’”

Humor laced with self-deprecation seems to be Vardy’s default setting when something positive is said to him, almost as if he feels uncomfortable with praise and would prefer to respond to criticism – a fair share of which has come his way over the years. He will never be everyone’s cup of tea and has not always helped himself – the over-zealous challenge that earned him a red card against Wolves this season is a case in point – but the truth is that plenty of supporters would want him in their team.

Arguably there is more respect for Vardy as a striker now than there was when Leicester won the title two years ago. “Maybe some people thought I’d be a one-season wonder,” he says. “Who knows? I think, especially with social media, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll always have people who doubt you. But people can say what they want. I just concentrate on myself on the pitch.”

Off the field Vardy describes himself as “just a little joker” and sounds quite pleased he owns the copyright to Harry Maguire’s moniker. “‘Slabhead.’ I brought that to the forefront. He’s got a massive head, hasn’t he?” Vardy says, grinning. “He does say now that every time he puts a picture on social media there’s quite a few ‘slabhead’ comments, so it’s obviously stuck. But it is true – if you cross a ball and he’s in there, he’s getting his head on it.”

Vardy’s unique selling point has always been speed. He will be 32 in January but shows no sign of slowing up and talks about playing until the age of 40. “I feel I could go on that long at the minute. I still feel fresh. The pace is still up there. The GPS units show that. On my first day back in pre-season I ran 9.4 meters per second – I think my best ever in training is 9.6. So I feel as sharp as ever and long may that continue.”

His England career is all but over, however, after Vardy told Gareth Southgate he is at a stage of his life where he wants to focus on club football and spend more time with his children, who are “growing up way too fast”. Southgate and Vardy have agreed to leave the door ajar in the event of an emergency but the likelihood is the former Stocksbridge Park Steels striker won his last and 26th England cap during the World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia. Not a bad stage on which to bow out.

“It really is crazy when you think about it,” Vardy says. “When I spoke to the boss, I thanked him for giving me the opportunity to even be there in the first place. There’s a lot of good English players, so to be named in that 23-man squad was a massive honor. To get the chance to play for your country is probably the biggest thing in football. I can remember my England debut like it was yesterday. I think it is one of those things that you never forget, because putting on an England shirt for the first time is an unbelievable feeling, especially given where I’ve come from.”

That rags-to-riches journey is still being turned into a film and also remains a source of inspiration for footballers lower down the pyramid, including the 15 players who have gone into the professional game via Vardy’s V9 Academy, which was set up two years ago with a view to providing non-league talent with a chance to impress. “I’m chuffed to bits with how that’s gone,” Vardy says. “We’ve given the lads the opportunity and it’s worked. But now it’s all down to them.”

As for Vardy, it feels as if one chapter in his fairytale has been closed on the back of his England announcement. It has been quite a story – Vardy still smiles at the thought of opening his account with an audacious flick to beat Manuel Neuer in a 3-2 win over Germany in Berlin – but now it is time to go back to being an England fan, starting with next month’s friendly against Switzerland at the King Power Stadium.

“I’ll probably make an appearance,” Vardy says. “And I’ll still belt the national anthem out. I always did that – and I think you have to.”

The Guardian Sport

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