Saturday 21 April 2018

James Lawton: Fighting quality flows through team of season

Rise of Vardy the supreme motif of thrilling campaign

Jamie Vardy’s record-breaking scoring exploits have been central to Leicester City’s charge for the title Photo: AFP/Getty
Jamie Vardy’s record-breaking scoring exploits have been central to Leicester City’s charge for the title Photo: AFP/Getty
James Lawton

James Lawton

How wonderful to pick a 'Team of the Season' that is about so much more than the sum of its individual talent and passing moods. It is not so much a chore as a renovation of the spirit.

There is a single, utterly pervasive quality running through the players I would choose to represent a season of stunning renewal in some of the game's most basic values. It is the ferocious, heart-warming commitment of natural-born fighters.

Of course, fighters come in different guises. They can be as elusive as a gust of wind or as implacable as an avalanche. But what they share is a will to exert all of their powers, all those assets which they have come to trust and express in even the most demanding circumstances.

Inevitably there are fine points of debate. How do you exclude the superior finesse of someone like Arsenal's World Cup-winning Mesut Ozil? How do you relegate a talent as formidable, when it is firing, as England's record goalscorer Wayne Rooney?

It is not so hard when you consider who it is pushing them to one side.

The team of 2015-'16 - starting with goalkeeper David de Gea and ending with 'Man of the Season' Jamie Vardy - wears its determination to draw the best from itself like a battle ribbon.

De Gea might have gone into one of big-time football's classic sulks when his ambition to move to Real Madrid was thwarted and he was condemned to serve out his time amid the misadventures of Old Trafford.

Instead, he has produced consistently brilliant performances. He has announced that, whatever happens around him, his own standards are quite immutable. He has said, like all the others who have made this team, there is something that is exclusively his. It is the awareness of his own powers.


Vardy is the supreme motif of a thrilling, engaging Premier League season. His finishing has the authority and the closure of a gunfighter - and certainly that of a one-punch knockout specialist.

There is a certainty about him that makes matchwood of any doubts about his capacity to shape the course of any game.

Vardy was born to make his point, announce his presence, and it is to here we have to come to find the apex of this football experience.

Off the field, he seems to a carry a certain turbulence of the spirit. His past is not a record of seamless success and personal tranquillity but there is a thread and it is holding now as strongly as steel.

The Leicester hitman reached a point where he grasped he could go one of two ways. And, from that moment, he has risen quite inexorably. If we need an example of a perfect expression of this, it is surely his goal of goals against Liverpool - a strike that said that he believed the miracle of Leicester City could be carried to a point of triumphant reality.

It was the kind of goal which makes dreams come true but it could hardly have been more deeply embedded in one man's practical conviction.

The goal flew beyond Liverpool's Simon Mignolet - and the imagination of almost all who saw it.

A few weeks later he scored against the world champions Germany in Berlin with the swift, cold precision of a professional assassin.

They were the goals of a man who had the means and the will to achieve everything he set before himself. And surely they placed all of English football, recharged and, maybe reborn, deeply in his debt.

Right-back Kyle Walker is not always the most agreeable presence. He can smoulder and emote excessively but never at the cost of a question mark against his desire to take the game to his opponents; his ambition, and his threat along the flank, seems unquenchable.

At left-back, Danny Rose shares the same insatiable appetite for shaping affairs.

And in between them is the ever growing presence of Leicester leader Wes Morgan and the fierce swagger of Belgian Toby Alderweireld. Here is a live bulwark to stiffen any team.

In front of them is an extraordinary combination of determination and wit.

N'Golo Kante is as much a moral force as inexhaustible trouble-shooter at the back of Leicester's midfield and, if his workmate Danny Drinkwater is not always the most masterful of performers, his gut instinct is of a street fighter of the most destructive timing. When he delivers to Vardy, the gun is ready to fire.

Young Dele Alli has done more than animate and beautify the Tottenham midfield. He has brought the threat of sublime and unanswerable interventions.

His contribution to Harry Kane's fine recent goal against Arsenal was more than inspired; it came from the very highest level of football instinct and imagination

Abetting the threat of Vardy and Kane, is the capacity of the Algerian Riyad Mahrez. He is another original - a man whose force hits opponents like a hot desert wind in their faces.

Mahrez-Kane-Vardy is a firm which makes its own rules and limits and none of them are brushed by any doubts about what is possible if the will and the nerve holds.

Kane, like Vardy, has his own thrilling - and now profoundly convincing - momentum.

Some thought he was a passing parade, one that would dwindle along with the sound of the drum-beats. But he has displayed, increasingly, the sheer quality of his game.

Kane is arguably the most instinctive scorer in a Spurs shirt since Jimmy Greaves, which is to say already he has joined the hierarchy of football's most challenging tradition. Like Greaves, he was plainly born to score goals.

On the bench there would be places for men like Christian Eriksen (Spurs), Hector Bellerin (Arsenal), Dimitri Payet of West Ham, and Philippe Coutinho and Emre Can (Liverpool) for they too have shown the capacity to re-draw horizons both individually and for the team.

This, above all, is something resembling a football task force, and the field commanders surely pick themselves - Claudio Ranieri, who has gleaned and nourished so much spirit at Leicester, and Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino, who is now Ranieri's only rival as coach of the year.

Both have created easily identifiable DNA for their teams. It is more than superior passion - and sophisticated team development.

It is an understanding of what is most important in the brief time and reach of a professional football playing career.

Do this now, take every chance you have, use every morsel of your resources, they say, or spend the rest of your life wondering what you might have achieved.

No such questions currently threaten the retirement composure of any member of this team of the year.

Each of them has shown the clearest evidence that they know that any moment that is lost might be the first seed of their decline.

Irish Independent

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