Connect in the back of the net

Rickie Lambert was there first. The original rags to riches story in Roy Hodgson’s England era, the striker who came from Macclesfield, Stockport County and Rochdale and completed his fairy-tale rise with a goal on his England debut against Scotland. That story has now been raised by Jamie Vardy, of Stocksbridge Park Steels as recently as 2007 and who did not play league football until 2012.

Vardy has not yet played for England but he has been called up to the squad that will take on Slovenia and Ireland in June, part of a group of 24 that contains two other new faces in QPR’s Charlie Austin and Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton. Austin and Vardy will join Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck, two ever-presents in the Hodgson era, in an attack that will be without the long-term injured Daniel Sturridge and Danny Ings, Harry Kane and Saido Berahino who will be in Gareth Southgate’s under-21 squad for the European Championships in the Czech Republic.

There is however no place for Rickie Lambert who came on as a substitute in November’s victory against Scotland in Glasgow but has since fallen out of favour as he finds first-team opportunities scarce at Liverpool. Initially picked as the alternative striking option, the mixture of physical strength and energy which bullies opposition defenders and provides them with a handful, the selection of Vardy and Austin is likely to be Hodgson’s way of finding a younger, fitter and fresher Rickie Lambert who comes with form and a run of games included.

The form is definitely with Austin, another former non-leaguer who once part-timed as a bricklayer while playing for Poole Town, who has scored 17 times in the Premier League this season for the relegated QPR, though the momentum is with Vardy, the embodiment of Leicester City’s fierce determination and drive to beat the odds and avoid a similar fate. The only match they have lost in their last eight was to champions Chelsea and after Jose Mourinho saw his team won 1-3 at the King Power stadium, he asked the Leicester striker “do you ever stop running?”

Through Vardy, Leonardo Ulloa and David Nugent Nigel Pearson has been able to beat the drop with the same ‘in your face’ formula that saw his side gain promotion from the Championship last season. Vardy’s fondness of hard work is well documented in his rise from the Northern Premier League with Halifax, via Fleetwood Town, to the Premier League with Leicester, but he replicates that attitude on the pitch where his tireless work-rate perhaps compensates for a lack of natural talent.

His coach at Leicester, former England striker Kevin Phillips, is clear that when defending against Vardy there is simply no let-up. “He’s got something a lot of other people haven’t got – he’s got raw pace. He upsets defenders, causes mayhem and that creates space and opportunities for other people”, said Phillips.

Austin is also in a similar mould and although he is far more prolific when compared to Vardy’s four league goals this term, the latter’s vivacious contribution to the team will have appealed to the raging pragmatist within England’s manager.

It is easy to imagine Hodgson getting excited about the 8 assists and 33 chances that Vardy, often playing wide in a three-pronged attack, has created at Leicester this season while he would surely have used his winner against West Bromwich Albion, whom Hodgson used to manage, as a reference point.

It was Vardy in microcosm, still possessing enough zest in the 90th minute to rob Gareth McAuley on the half-way line, he sped towards goal, swerving Joleon Lescott on route, before unleashing a powerful shot beyond goalkeeper Boaz Myhill.

The 28 year old stands at 5ft 10 and is not as focal as Lambert or Austin, but what he lacks in height or stature he makes up for in heart and passion. The 60 headers he has competed for in this campaign, part of a total of 141 attempted duels, and the 40 fouls he has committed (only eight Premier league strikers have been penalised more) suggests any international defender coming up against Vardy will be given a ride that will be far from smooth.

His stand-out performance of this season remains the role he played in terrorising Manchester United’s back-line in the comeback 5-3 win in September, which saw Vardy set up the first goal, win two penalties, score the fourth and even find time to draw the foul that earned Tyler Blackett a red card. Typical once again of the striker who refuses to ever go away.

According to Andy Mangan, who partnered Vardy in attack at Fleetwood, he won’t back down at international level either. “He doesn’t care” said the now-Shrewsbury Town forward, “he just goes out and plays his football. He fears nothing.”

After just one season at Leicester Vardy toyed with the idea of leaving as he struggled to adapt to the new demands on his fitness and professionalism, though he was convinced to stay on by his manager and the striker’s resilience and fight has shone through.

Despite going 21 top-flight games without a goal earlier this season, England is the latest reward in a most remarkable career that continues to reap wonder, and while it may only be an audition for now, Vardy is unlikely to leave quietly.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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