Jamie Vardy is rightly getting a lot of praise at the moment. His story is one of great interest and excitement in the football world. To go from non-league striker to record breaking Premier League forward and International is a story that would be fit for Dream Team (for those who remember that), never mind real life. But is he a one off? Or is there real quality in the lower leagues that if coached in the right way can be real diamonds in the rough? The answers are No and Yes.
Jamie Vardy signed for Leicester in 2012 from Fleetwood where he had scored thirty four goals in forty two games. In his first season at Leicester many fans were left scratching their heads at why they had bought the striker and could not see the potential. He scored just five goals in thirty nine appearances and many questioned whether he had made too big a jump from Conference to Championship. His second season with the foxes however was much more fruitful. He struck a good partnership with David Nugent and scored sixteen goals in forty four appearances, helping Leicester to win the league with ease and gain promotion back to the Premier League. His scoring exploits would continue and last season he managed five goals as Leicester made a great escape to avoid relegation. Vardy’s performances and work rate were being noticed and he received a call up to the England National side. Predominantly used out wide in his appearances to date due to Hodgson wanting to use Rooney and Kane, Vardy has not really stolen the spotlight on the International scene. His goal against Manchester United broke former United striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s Premier League record of ten successive games scored in and now the former Halifax and Stocksbridge Parks Steels striker is trailblazing a path for others to follow.
Before the former Fleetwood man was noticed, another striker began his own path from non-league to the International stage. Charlie Austin signed for Swindon from Poole Town, where he had scored sixty four in fifty nine games and became an instant fan favourite. He scored on his debut six years ago now and has not looked back. Austin went on to score thirty seven in sixty five games for Swindon before getting a move to Championship side Burnley. He continued to prove himself as a natural finisher and a lethal striker and it looked like his destiny of Premier League football was set to come true, but a move to Hull did not happen, instead the former bricklayer went on to sign for QPR and lead the attack that gained promotion via the playoffs. In his only Premier League season to date, Charlie Austin finished as the league’s second highest scoring English forward ahead of Rooney, Vardy, Sturridge and Welbeck, only beaten by Spurs Harry Kane (by three goals). He too was to get International recognition by being called up for the friendly with Republic of Ireland but did not get off the bench. Relegation back to Championship saw Austin being heavily linked with West Ham and Newcastle during preseason. Chelsea were also linked while a deadline day move to Manchester United was also mooted, but he showed his commitment to QPR as is still their main man this season. His name continues to get linked with a move back to the Premier League with Crystal Palace seemingly favourites now and I personally believe he would thrive in the top league again. I also believe he would be a dependable International forward.
One man who did not take a detour through the football league first was Chris Smalling. Fulham signed him from non-league Maidstone and he has continued to improve. He was initially made captain of the development squad. After just one season with Fulham’s first team, Sir Alex Ferguson signed the centre back to Manchester United and he has also represented England on twenty one occasions. There have been many doubters of Smalling since his move to Old Trafford but Van Gaal made him vice-captain this season and he has been the stand out defender in the division. The injury to Phil Jagielka has seen him gain additional importance to England also and is likely to be a key player in the summer at the European Championships.
A fourth English player attempting the fairy tale is Sunderland winger Duncan Watmore. Signed from Altrincham, the winger is establishing himself under first Advocaat and now Allardyce. The winger has had a loan spell with Scottish side Hibs and has now also featured for the England Under 21’s. Recently he came off the bench for Gareth Southgate’s side to produce a man of the match performance with two assists.
It is not just England International that can be found in the non-league. In 2006 Leeds United signed a forward by the name of Jermain Beckford from Wealdstone. Beckford would score goals for fun when United played in League One and would go on to represent Jamaica at International level. A big money move saw him ply his trade at Everton in the Premier League. The former windscreen fitter is now at Preston where he scored a hat trick in last season’s play-off final against Swindon to send them up to The Championship.
If you are looking for an example of a player who could “be the next Vardy” have a look at Sheffield United starlet Che Adams. Signed in 2014 from Ilkeston, he is enjoying a solid and consistent patch of form. The Winger/Forward has represented England at ‘C’ level and under 21’s. Adams has all the makings of a future star and is definitely one to keep an eye on. I asked blades fan Adam about him and he said “He can reach the very top eventually. He has pace and stamina”
Twenty Three year old Peterborough striker Connor Washington is potentially another. Posh signed him from Newport County, who originally signed him from St Ives Town. Washington has ten goals to his name so far this season and is rumoured to be in line for a call up to the Northern Ireland squad although he is eligible to play for England.
Not every player can live the Vardy dream, but there is enough proof that with the right attitude and raw ingredients, you can rise to the very top. There are plenty of players still in non-league who have plenty of promise, so who could be next? Manchester United signed Salford City right back Sadiq El Fitouri last season, Barwell attacking midfielder Brady Hickey has been linked with a move to a big club and has had a trial with Leicester this season and it is suggested SPL side Partick Thistle are looking at Bromley striker Moses Emmanuel.
I am fortunate enough to have seen my local non-league side AFC Hinckley play a few times and they have had some decent young players there too such as Nathan Walker, Issac Cooper and Alex Penny.