'A street-urchin amongst the millionaires' - Footballer of the Year in waiting Jamie Vardy
Published 03/02/2016 | 13:45
Jamie Vardy has the spare, stringy, covetous frame and the quick, darting, suspicious eyes of a Dickensian pickpocket.
If this upstart season has a face, it belongs to the pale, rawboned, backstreet whippet: Oliver Twist has stolen the back pages.
That a footballer once compelled to wear an electronic tag, who has worked 12-hour shifts on the factory floor, who wasn't born in a Bentley, should have seized the title deeds to this Premier League stretch seems entirely appropriate.
Leicester’s upgrade in fortune has the feel of a crazy, proletariat uprising: The scullery maids have seized power at Downton, the Earl of Grantham is cowering in the stables in fear for his life.
Claudio Ranieri’s peasants have acquired a taste for Beluga: With just 14 games remaining, they are flying at a dizzying altitude, 22 points above champions Chelsea, ten clear of Manchester United.
And were the Player of the Year polling booths to open today, Vardy - mesmeric against Liverpool on Tuesday - would most likely gain a landslide of first preferences.
Leicester’s unlikely stage-play is a glory constructed strictly off-Broadway.
Riyad Mahrez was a bargain-bucket discard, purchased for what Wayne Rooney earns every ten days; a year ago N’Golo Kante was as anonymous as a Fair City extra, today the combative midfield heartbeat is an Oscar nominee.
All three belong on any shortlist for the season’s individual honours.
There are no shortage of bluebloods on our ballot paper: Mesut Ozil, Sergio Aguero, David De Gea and Harry Kane have squeezed yet more evidence of their class into a bulging catalogue of eminence.
Ozil, even if his elegant tide ebbed a little in January, is unrivalled in conjuring little parcels of magic; the German’s 16 assists is almost twice his nearest rivals, Kevin de Bruyne and Mahrez.
Aguero is a porcelain assassin, the owner of a fragile body and a lethal instinct; in contrast to the infuriating Daniel Sturridge, however, his injury woes are no obstacle to amassing a startling number of killshots.
A year ago, during another predatory surge, Aguero overtook Thierry Henry and Ruud Van Nistelrooy to take the all-time lead in the Premier League goals-per-minutes played category.
That triumph-of-economy, bang-for-your-buck fizz remains. The Argentine has played scarcely half the minutes of Kane or Romelu Lukaku, yet there he is already having detonated 13 league grenades.
De Gea has risen above the LVG torpor; Peter Cech, impermeable as a bullet-proof vest, has surely convinced his liberator, Roman Abramovich, that his first act of sporting charity to a rival will also be his last.
Yet in this revolutionary, illogical, plankton-devouring-the-whale season, the aristocrats are increasingly elbowed to the margins.
Dimitri Payet has brought a superior swagger to West Ham’s long goodbye to the Boleyn Ground.
Marko Arnautovic, infusing the Potteries with an espresso-shot of that peacock-strutting Ibrahimović disdain, has helped redefine old-school, spit-and-sawdust joint Stoke as refined, culture club.
But, with every day the East Midlands bonfire continues to blaze, the season increasingly becomes the property of Leicester.
Beside Kante, the Duracell bunny resembles a sloth. The diminutive Frenchman is a relentless force of nature, the irritating mosquito that buzzes maddeningly, tireless in his desire to agitate.
Leading the league in both tackles made and interceptions, Leicester’s King Power stadium might have been named for the 24-year-old. Kante is a drill-bit probing the arid land for high-grade fuel.
If Mahrez, the artistic Algerian, briefly hit a mid-season speed-bump before moving through the gears once more on Tuesday, still only three players have scored more league goals; Ozil, alone, has a greater tally of assists.
Yet if Mahrez has hypnotised, if Kante, capable of everything other than locating the dim switch for his ceaseless, firefly dazzle, would be a legitimate Player of the Year, still they form the support cast.
For the fiesta in Leicester goes by the name of the Vardy Gras. The Foxes unimaginable banquet is being cooked in Jamie’s Kitchen.
That the ravenous panhandler had endured seven games up to last week without sating his appetite for gold almost didn’t matter.
Leicester’s new wealth is built on those match-winning pre-Christmas nuggets.
Vardy’s unprecedented damburst of goals gave the football world a hint of the excitement that convulsed wartime America as Joe Di Maggio went on his record-shattering hitting streak.
Some 74 years on from the Yankee Clipper’s brush with history, Vardy was to be found at first pursuing, then evicting Ruud Van Nistelrooy from a statstical penthouse.
The goals came in a torrent, Vardy as irrepressible, as thunderous as the waters tumbling from Niagara’s roof and cascading into the abyss
For 11 games, stretching from late summer to December, his impertinence endured.
Each week, as Van Nistelrooy’s mark grew sharper in the Englishman’s crosshairs, the sporting community were drawn to the drama, scanning the Leicester box-score as eagerly as if it were their own Lotto ticket. Yes...he's done it again.
Vardy gifted Leicester a priceless, improbable momentum they have yet to discard.
That he hailed from the wrong side of the tracks, a street-urchin amongst the millionaires, his waxen, half-starved features a reminder of a down-at-heel past, all of this added to the intrigue.
The golden boot’s numbers are stunning: As well as a league leading 18 goals, Vardy’s seven assists are as many as Yaya Toure and Cesc Fabregas combined.
His electric pace facilitates the counter-attacking punch with which Leicester send so many opponents to sleep.
Oliver Twist has stolen the back pages, made the season's illogical narrative his own; nobody could accuse him of thievery if in the weeks to come he was found in possession of all that Player of the Year treasure.