Vardy's fairy tale takes sour turn as goals dry up
This time last year, Jamie Vardy was preparing to face Swansea City as a record-breaker, after scoring in 11 consecutive Premier League games.
The man whose record he eclipsed, Ruud van Nistelrooy, was sending him tweets of congratulation and Vardy's journey from Stocksbridge Steels would continue with him lifting the trophy in May as Leicester City produced a football miracle.
Awards have flooded in for the England international, including Ballon d'Or and Sports Personality of the Year nominations, not to mention an improved £100,000-a-week contract.
Yet now the fairy tale has lost its magic as Vardy suffers a reality check. He seems to epitomise the problems for the champions as they struggle to produce an encore.
Leicester are only two points above the relegation zone and will face Sunderland today with Vardy now 15 games without a goal and his place in Claudio Ranieri's starting XI under threat.
Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, last season's Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year, were both substituted in the 2-2 draw with Middlesbrough last weekend and Ranieri has admitted he could start them both on the bench at the Stadium of Light. It would have been unthinkable last season.
"Yes, why not? I always try and put the best team on the pitch. You will have to wait and see. When I think about how we are and how the opponent is, I think about 90 minutes, not just the line-up," said Ranieri.
"Jamie deserves everything after what he did last season and hopefully being nominated for so many awards gives him energy. I don't see a difference with Jamie last season - only the goals.
"Goalscorers are always frustrated. He must react and continue to fight. I think he's very close to scoring, because it's not possible to go to the end of the season without scoring."
Vardy cannot possibly have envisaged such an excruciating season as he spoke in Leicester's team hotel in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, in July after turning down a £22m move to Arsenal.
For weeks, he had wrestled with the quandary of whether to move to the Emirates but felt compelled to stay loyal to Leicester and the "band of brothers".
Yet he must surely reflect on that decision during moments of introspection and wonder what could have been. He will be 30 next month and it was surely the last chance he would get of playing for one of England's marquee clubs.
It seemed a strange decision at the time and appears even more so now, despite Leicester reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League.
His statistics in the league this season do not make good reading. Vardy has scored only two goals and registered just four shots since September 17, while he touched the ball nine times in 65 minutes against Middlesbrough.
The familiar supply line from Mahrez has been so restricted - with just one pass from the Algerian this season - that it has even raised questions over whether there is tension between them in the dressing-room.
Vardy is not missing chances: he is not even getting them. Opponents have wised up to Leicester and defenders are deliberately avoiding playing a high line, sitting so deep they almost require snorkels. Vardy does not have the space to run into and has been forced to forage on the wings and attack full-backs.
His goal against Swansea, after he raced on to a lofted pass from Danny Drinkwater, could have been pinched from a DVD of the last campaign, but those opportunities have been few and far between at club level.
The excellent diving header for England against Spain in the friendly at Wembley last month - complete with Mannequin Challenge celebration - was a rare highlight in a difficult campaign where his every move is analysed.
Alan Shearer told him to stop "sulking", while Michael Owen even claimed he was not a natural goalscorer, which seemed hyperbole considering Vardy scored 24 times last season.
Vardy was able to stay level-headed even during the record-breaking run last season but it must be impossible for him to escape the scrutiny that follows every game without a goal.
Wes Morgan, Leicester's captain, said: "Perhaps other teams are looking at how they can keep Vards and Riyad quiet, because if they can, they think they've got a good chance of getting a result against Leicester.
"But he's definitely the same old Jamie Vardy. Things haven't gone the way he would have wanted in front of goal, but he'll keep going.
"He's a goalscorer and sooner or later he will find the net. It's just a matter of time. It's the hardest thing to do - score goals. Last season, he made it look easy, and this season, it's not gone the way he'd have wanted it, but I've no doubt that he'll turn that around soon."
Vardy's life story will tell you that he never shirks a challenge. Ever since receiving the shattering news that he was unwanted by his beloved Sheffield Wednesday in 2003, Vardy has jumped over every hurdle placed in front of him.
He was the first £1m non-League footballer and went six months without scoring when Leicester were struggling in the top flight under Nigel Pearson.
His career has been defined by overcoming adversity, and the Hollywood film charting Vardy's rise remains on course to be released next year. There could still be a happy ending. (© Daily Telegraph, London)