Beware of De Vries, the thinking man's striker

Leicester's goalless forward will still be a threat to Blackburn in Sunday's FA Cup quarter-final. Phil Shaw talked to him
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The Independent Football

Mark De Vries has designs on his flesh. The towering Dutch striker, who is still searching for his first goal after joining Leicester City from Heart of Midlothian in January, also has designs on the FA Cup.

Mark De Vries has designs on his flesh. The towering Dutch striker, who is still searching for his first goal after joining Leicester City from Heart of Midlothian in January, also has designs on the FA Cup.

Footballers with tattoos are commonplace. Yet the aphorisms inscribed on his arms suggest that De Vries, despite the frustrations that go with a 10-match scoring drought and Leicester's uneasy position just above the Championship relegation zone, is a striker whose sense of purpose and direction could worry Blackburn Rovers in Sunday's quarter-final.

"You always know where you're going if you know where you're coming from," declares one. "If you don't stand for something," states the other, "you'll fall for anything." To meet the 29-year-old De Vries is to realise these are no mere off-the-peg pronouncements, but part of his sense of identity and individuality in much the same way that his greatest role model, Ruud Gullit, once sported exotic dreadlocks.

Like Gullit, De Vries was born in Surinam, one of the Netherlands' former colonies. His career was progressing unremarkably - apart from a year's sabbatical with Niort in France - until his current manager at Leicester, Craig Levein, began looking for a target man.

An agent's tip-off took Levein to Dordrecht in the second tier of Dutch football. He saw a 6ft 3in centre-forward who he was sure could adapt to the often-frenetic Scottish game from the more technical style to which he was accustomed. A "Bosman" transfer was agreed and De Vries took Edinburgh by storm.

"I scored four goals on my home debut in the derby with Hibernian," he recalls. "The funny thing was I didn't win the man of the match award. They announced it in the 89th minute - it went to Jean-Louis Valois, a good friend now with Burnley - when I had only two goals."

De Vries averaged almost one goal every other game in nearly 80 appearances, to help establish Hearts as the best of the rest behind Celtic and Rangers. He also became something of a celebrity in the Scottish capital. At first he lived in the centre, but having his car damaged and his doorbell rung at 4am ("probably Hibs fans," he quips) led him to move out.

Then, last autumn, after Levein switched to the Walkers Stadium, De Vries undertook a more drastic relocation. "When Leicester's interest first became clear, I was at [the] Celtic-Milan match. Afterwards, I asked Neil Lennon about the club and he told me 'good set-up, terrific fans, great stadium and facilities'. But it was a hard decision to leave Hearts."

The goals have refused to trickle, let alone flow, in the East Midlands. "I can't say 'I'm not bothered', but I'm not getting nervous or depressed. I watched our Cup opponents, Blackburn, on television last Sunday and saw one of their forwards, Jon Stead, score his first goal of the season. So there's still hope for me!

"Blackburn played well at Everton, who could be in the Champions' League next season. But we won at Charlton in the last round, so why not at Blackburn? To be 90 minutes from the final would be fantastic."

The sheen might be taken off the achievement if Leicester suffered a second consecutive relegation. What has gone wrong? "As a team we've played some really good football, but we have a habit of switching off. The better Championship teams are good at exploiting that. But I haven't seen anyone obviously superior to us. We've played Ipswich, Preston and Reading since I came, and at least matched them all. So I'm positive we'll get it right."

Much of his confidence stems from close acquaintance with Levein's methods. "I am convinced he will do well in England. He is very thorough in his preparations - he has this ability to eliminate surprises - and extremely good tactically."

De Vries is overdue some cup success, having last played in any final at 16. "My debut for my first senior club, Volendam, came two weeks before they played Feyenoord in the Dutch Cup final. I wasn't picked and we lost 5-0 anyway. At Niort, we reached the French League Cup semi-finals but lost to Auxerre. With Dordrecht I got to the last eight before losing to NEC Nijmegen.

"It wasn't until I was in my mid-20s that I became a regular first-team player. Because of that I've been determined to enjoy everything that happens. I remember thinking when I was a teenager that I had a good 15 years ahead of me in football. Now it's probably five or six at most, if I look after myself. My career is going too fast!"

Sunday is sure to flash by, too. More than any setting he has known, however, Ewood Park offers De Vries the opportunity to live up to the sentiments that adorn his skin.