Wednesday 22 November 2017

Jamie Vardy reflects on his surreal title-winning year, and choosing Leicester over Arsenal

Jamie Vardy turned down a move to Arsenal
Jamie Vardy turned down a move to Arsenal

Jonathan Liew

It was during the long hours of solitude that Jamie Vardy’s mind would start racing. Training over. Media done. Dinner digested. All that was left to do was stare at the four walls of his French hotel room, and think.

Team-mates would fire up their games consoles, or call friends and family. But Vardy had a decision to make, and for days and nights he would agonise over it.

A week before the start of his first international tournament, the Premier League runners-up had made a bid that triggered his £20 million release clause at Leicester City. Everybody seemed to agree that the best thing was for Vardy to defer his decision until after Euro 2016. But the longer he left it, the more time he had to think about it. A chance encounter in the team hotel with Arsène Wenger, in France to do some television punditry, was hardly ideal. Vardy was on duty with his country but preoccupied by a club dilemma.

“You had a lot of time on your hands,” he says now, leaning back in a comfortable chair at the Football Association’s Burton headquarters ahead of tonight’s game against Slovakia. “I’m not going to beat around the bush: every time, I thought about it. You get time to think about every single thing, down to the tea lady. What might happen, what might not, where you could be, where not.”

A few days after England’s last group game, on the day Britain voted to leave, Vardy elected to remain. Why?

“Both my head and my heart were saying to stay,” he replies. “Leicester have been on the rise, and will keep rising. You can see with some of the rumours before the [transfer] deadline, they obviously want to keep it going. I want to be part of that. I’ve been there from when I was at Fleetwood five years ago, and we have gone up and up and up.

“It was all down to me. There was talk about the lads being on at me to sign, but it wasn’t the case. Banter flies around, but at the end of the day it is down to each player. If you don’t think it is the right move for you, you don’t do it. When it came to my head and my heart, it was an easy decision.”

Since Vardy put pen to paper on a new contract, more of Leicester’s title-winning squad have followed: Riyad Mahrez, Wes Morgan, Kasper Schmeichel, Vardy’s England team-mate Danny Drinkwater. Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani have arrived to offer competition up front. Only midfielder N’Golo Kanté has been tempted away, which for a club widely predicted to be pillaged to shreds over the summer is a remarkable feat of resilience.

Vardy denies that his decision to reject Arsenal had any influence. “The majority would have signed anyway,” he claims. “That’s how we are. We’re literally a group of brothers.”

You could call the England squad many things, but a group of brothers is not the first that springs to mind. Nevertheless, on a sunny evening at St George’s Park, dressed in a loose-fitting grey T-shirt and with a giant wedding ring on his finger after getting married in May, Vardy looks pleased to be here.

The “heartbreaking” disappointment of the summer is now history. A new regime is in place under Sam Allardyce. Quiz nights with Paddy McGuinness and Bradley Walsh are on the menu. Vardy had barely met Allardyce before this week, but his first impressions were strong.

“The good thing is he wants to make it as if we were just at our normal clubs,” he says. “One of the main things is making it enjoyable. The last thing you want is to make it harsh and gruelling, so when you get called up again, you’re thinking: ‘Oh’.”

What about the famous ‘weight of the shirt’ that was so apparently evident in France? “You don’t really see it. Just when we read your papers.”

So far, so jovial. But then we come to the more serious matter of how England will actually play, and how Vardy’s very particular calibration of skills will fit into an Allardyce team in which captain Wayne Rooney will have to play and Harry Kane is Allardyce’s first pick up front. Space in behind the defence, Vardy’s meat and drink at club level, is notably scarce in international football, and especially against the smaller countries England will face in their 2018 World Cup qualifying group. He starts on the bench tonight – and is prepared to play anywhere. “I’d play left-back if you want,” he says. “Listen, whatever formation, whatever position I am playing in, I will give 110 per cent.”

At least Vardy knows that the new boss is a fan. He reveals that when the squad assembled at Burton, Allardyce confided that he had tried to sign Vardy a few years ago, when he was the West Ham manager and Vardy was at Fleetwood. It is a reminder of how far Vardy has come in such a short period. The last year, in particular, has been particularly surreal: a league title, a goalscoring record, international recognition, a new wife, a Hollywood movie in production, a racist incident in a casino – for which he apologised – and a special flavour of Walkers Crisps entitled “Vardy Salted”. Has he learnt anything from the last year of his life?

“Yeah,” he says without pausing. “I can’t leave my house. I can’t really go to the shops without getting harassed. Obviously it’s fans wanting photos and stuff, but if I’ve got my little girl with me, then I don’t really want to be putting her down to have a photo taken. I try and explain it in the nicest possible way: this is the only downtime I get, my only real quality time with the family. A lot of people understand, but some don’t.

“It’s mad. I’m still the same person. I’ve not changed. I understand fans do want to get a photo or autograph, but there’s a time and place.”

Rooney has proved an invaluable source of advice in dealing with the vicissitudes of fame. It is easy to forget that barely a year separate them, and while Rooney is hanging up his boots after Russia 2018, Vardy is still at the start of his international career. “I’m hoping I get to play a lot longer,” he says, slapping his spindly racehorse legs as he does so. “Hope I don’t lose my pace too much. We’ll see what happens.” And despite the year he has had, you get very little sense that Vardy wants to stop the ride, or even slow it down. He wants more: more caps, more goals, more trophies with Leicester. A decent run in the Champions League.

“There is always a pinnacle on top of the pinnacle,” he says. “You’ve got to keep going. You never want it to end.” Perhaps it is better that way. Less time to think.

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