Danny Hall Column: Former Stocksbridge star Jamie Vardy’s England call-up is a real Roy of the Rovers-style fairytale

editorial image
  • Sheffield-born Vardy was included in England squad for first time, for games against Republic of Ireland and Slovenia, after impressive debut season in Premier League with Leicester
  • Vardy was a non-league sensation at Stocksbridge but has faced numerous challenges to reach the top-flight
  • He was released by Sheffield Wednesday at 16, and was later placed under curfew - meaning he couldn’t play evening games for Steels, and had to be substituted early on Saturdays
  • Rotherham once failed with a £2,000 bid, and Sheffield United scouts were regularly in attendance at Steels games when Vardy played

Just six years have passed since Jamie Vardy, playing in non-league for Stocksbridge Park Steels for the grand sum of £30, was taken off in a game against Belper Town because he was wearing an electronic tag and had to be back home for a curfew of 6pm.

“He jumped straight over the railings and into his parent’s car without even getting changed,” remembers Gary Marrow, the former Stocksbridge manager who handed Vardy his first-team Steels debut.

Today, on the back of an impressive debut Premier League season with Leicester, Vardy is in the England squad - and will compete with Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Charlie Austin to make his debut against either the Republic of Ireland or Slovenia in the coming weeks.

Vardy’s life has been a tale of ups and downs; trials and tribulations, and triumphs against the odds.

He has the distinction of being one of only two players in history to have netted against FC United of Manchester, and Manchester United - Norwich’s Anthony Pilkington, formerly of Atherton Collieries, is the other.

He and former builder Austin, who played for North Berks Football League Division One side Kintbury Rangers, have enjoyed a real-life ‘Roy of the Rovers’ rise.

It shows that it can still be done.

But Vardy still remembers distinctly, if not fondly, the day he thought his football career was over, when he was released by his boyhood club Sheffield Wednesday at age 16.

The striker was living the dream as a trainee at Wednesday - until he was dumped on the scrapheap for being too small.

Devastated, Vardy’s rejection saw him take a year out of the game to lick his wounds, and the proud Sheffielder wondered if he would ever pull on a pair of boots again.

Former Stocksbridge boss Gary Marrow

Former Stocksbridge boss Gary Marrow

He did, of course, and his fairytale journey since has taken him to a scoring Premier League debut for Leicester City against the mighty Manchester United, via goal-laden spells at Halifax Town and Fleetwood.

And now, the England squad. A world away, it is fair to say, from the days of getting kicked up and down Bracken Moor in a Stocksbridge shirt.

“When I was released by Wednesday, I thought that was it,” Vardy admitted.

“I never expected to get back into football after that and I never dreamed that I’d be in a position to play against Premier League players like Wayne Rooney and Falcao.

I felt it was only a matter of time until Jamie made it. He’s a real role model for kids who get released at a young age - an example of what can still happen. He’s had a few problems and a lot of people have doubted him, but he’s matured as a player and as a person.

Vardy’s former Stocksbridge boss, Gary Marrow

“I’m a big Wednesday fan, so to get released by them was a real heartache as a kid.

“The reason I got released was I was too small. I wasn’t physically built enough. It does hit you hard. I was very angry and upset and that is why I stopped playing for a year.”

The frustration took its toll, and Vardy ended up wearing an electronic tag after being convicted of assault. By then, he had signed for Stocksbridge’s Under-18 side, after their then-manager Stevie Adams received a tip-off about a promising young striker.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, however, as the tag carried a curfew of 6pm - meaning that Vardy wasn’t eligible for night games.

“There were some hard times,” Vardy, now 27, added.

“I went to college for a year and got myself into a few scrapes. It wasn’t nice wearing the tag and it’s not good having to be in your house at 6pm every night.

A familiar feeling for Vardy during a goal-laden spell at FC Halifax Town. Here, he's pictured scoring against Colwyn Bay

A familiar feeling for Vardy during a goal-laden spell at FC Halifax Town. Here, he's pictured scoring against Colwyn Bay

“I was sticking up for a mate who was deaf and somebody was taking the p**s out of him for wearing a hearing aid. They got thrown out of the pub but they were waiting for us an hour and half later.

“They started attacking him and I wasn’t going to stand there and let him take a beating.”

Fortunately for Vardy, it was his exploits on the field which defined his reputation, rather than his transgressions off it. And a ratio far in excess of a goal a game for Steels put him on the radar of several professional clubs.

“I am obviously not proud of what happened,” he admitted, “but I think things happen for a reason. I started playing for Stocksbridge’s Under-18s and from that stage, things started looking up.

“Playing in non-league toughened me up: I was getting kicked and abused mercilessly by old school central defenders, and bad tackles down in those leagues might not even get a yellow card.

“There’s definitely no video evidence or retrospective panels at that level! We used to have to get up way too early and then jump on a coach for four-hour drives. Then after the game you’d get an envelope with £30 in it just for playing. I was working in factories at the time. But all those experiences straightened me out.”

Former Sheffield United scout Mark Smith was a regular visitor to Bracken Moor during Neil Warnock’s reign at Bramall Lane.

Lee Clark, then the manager of Huddersfield Town, was also a fan, and Nigel Pearson - the former Wednesday legend, who still lives in Sheffield - took a frequent interest. Little did Vardy know where that would later take him.

The player was invited for a trial at Crewe, but was rejected because the club were looking for an experienced winger at the time. Rotherham United failed with a £2,000 bid, but it was an offer ten times that amount which eventually saw him move to Halifax in 2010.

“Jamie wasn’t the easiest of characters to work with when he first came to the club, but he was always a hard worker,” Steels chairman Allen Bethel added.

“He had a fantastic attitude, and nothing seemed to faze him. Often, opposing teams would try and stop him physically, but he always just got up and got on with it.

“He had all the all the attributes you want in a striker - terrific energy and pace, the ability to shoot with both feet and good in the air, despite not being the tallest.

“I was always confident Jamie was going to do well in the game, but never thought one day I would be watching him terrorise the Manchester United defence!

“I’m delighted that Stocksbridge Park Steels have played a part in his rise to professional football, and we’re all very proud of him.”

Stocksbridge, of course, have a reasonable record of producing future professional footballers. Striker Lee Mills was sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1992, while full-back Simon Marples became a regular for Doncaster Rovers.

Jack Muldoon, who signed for Rochdale after impressing for Worksop Town, had a spell at Bracken Moor - as did Scott Hogan, who cost Brentford around £1m earlier this year. But Vardy remains the Bracken Moor school of hard knock’s most successful alumni, and his rise to the Premier League was accelerated after 27 goals guided Halifax to promotion in his first season.

A total of 31 goals in 34 starts for Fleetwood then earned him a move to Leicester - not so long after Pearson had first spotted him, in front of a few hundred at Steels.

After a slow start - and a welcome display of faith from Pearson after a rare barren spell left Vardy on the verge of quitting the game - he fired 16 goals as the Foxes won promotion to the top flight. But still, the self-confessed homebird has not foresaken his roots - and diehard Steels fans still report seeing him in the Bracken Moor stand, when his Foxes commitments allow.

“I felt it was only a matter of time until Jamie made it,” Marrow, who guided Stocksbridge to the Evo-Stik Premier Division, added, speaking to The Star back in September.

“He’s a real role model for kids who get released at a young age - an example of what can still happen.

“He’s had a few problems and a lot of people have doubted him, but he’s matured as a player and as a person. Wherever he has been, he’s scored goals and helped teams get promoted and he keeps improving.

“He’s got pace, aggression, two good feet, is prepared to work hard and, as daft as it sounds now, he could end up in the England squad one day.”

Eight months later, Marrow’s “daft” prediction came true; and don’t rush to bet against a fairtyale England debut, either.

This lad, made of solid Sheffield steel, has a track record of proving his doubters wrong.

Jamie Vardy in action for Leicester against Newcastle

Jamie Vardy in action for Leicester against Newcastle