Rough-cut Vardy embodies Leicester's rise

Tom Williams

London (AFP) - In the rough-cut figure of Jamie Vardy, newly crowned Premier League champions Leicester City possess the living embodiment of the rags-to-riches tale that has captivated fans around the world.

Six years ago, Vardy was playing amateur football for Stocksbridge Park Steels in England's seventh tier and working part-time at a factory making medical splints.

Now he is an England international, whose 22 goals have powered Leicester to their first league title, won him the Football Writers' Association (FWA) Player of the Year award and sparked talk of a Hollywood biopic.

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"He's phenomenal," former Leicester captain Steve Walsh told AFP. "And what he's done opens up the door for grassroots footballers. He's an example to every aspiring young player."

There will be several abiding memories from Vardy's historic season, from the 30-yard wonder goal against Liverpool to the brace at Sunderland that left manager Claudio Ranieri blinking back tears at the final whistle.

But perhaps the most lasting mark will be his run of scoring in 11 consecutive games between September and November, which set a new Premier League record and helped lay the foundations for Leicester's extraordinary campaign.

Released by boyhood club Sheffield Wednesday aged 15 on the grounds that he was too small, Vardy, now 29, cannot have imagined that he would one day be the toast of England.

After leaving Wednesday he spent time away from football, studying sports science at a local college, before winding up at Stocksbridge, nestled beside northern England's Peak District, where he progressed through the youth ranks.

"He was always first for training and last out," recalls Stocksbridge chairman Allen Bethel. "He was also the life and soul of the party, a Jack the lad."

Vardy's roguish streak occasionally caused him problems -- he was sent off four times in his last season at Stocksbridge, deterring suitors Sheffield United -- and he had trouble controlling his temper off the pitch.

A conviction for a late-night assault temporarily obliged him to wear an electronic tag and observe an 18:30 p.m. curfew, which would see him substituted midway through games so that he could get home in time.

- Anti-hero -

Remembering one mid-match dash, former Stocksbridge manager Gary Morrow said: "He jumped straight over the railings and into his parents' car without even getting changed."

Spectacularly prolific, Vardy joined Halifax Town from Stocksbridge and then moved on to Fleetwood Town, who sold him to Leicester for a non-league record £1 million ($1.5 million, 1.3 million euros) in 2012.

Since then, the milestones have zipped past: 16 goals in Leicester's Championship promotion campaign, five in his first season as a Premier League player, a first England cap and, in March's 3-2 win over world champions Germany, a brilliant back-heel for his first England goal.

Initially perceived as mere ballast in Roy Hodgson's squad, the wiry Yorkshireman, who wears a blue cast to protect a thrice-fractured right wrist, is now certain to go to Euro 2016.

Controversy, however, has never been far away.

In a deeply unpleasant episode in August, he was caught on camera racially goading an Asian man at a casino, for which he issued a public apology.

He missed the two matches that took Leicester to the title, meanwhile, after being sent off for diving in a 2-2 draw against West Ham United and then launching a foul-mouthed tirade at referee Jon Moss.

But he remains an anti-hero for Leicester's supporters, who have immortalised him in the cocaine-referencing chant: "Jamie Vardy's having a party, bring your vodka and your charlie!"

Vardy is among a select band of players to have risen from non-league to the England team and with each goal, he has demonstrated that there is more than one route to the top.

"I might have gone all the way through an academy and then this never happened," he told the Daily Telegraph last year.

"That's the joy of football. I've come my own way and it's worked out the best for me."

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