There was a time, before the days when he had a chauffeur-driven Football Association car, when Roy Hodgson was obliged to drive to Kidderminster on an unforgiving mid-week night to watch a young striker from Fleetwood Town with a view to signing him for West Bromwich Albion.
That was Jamie Vardy, a Conference trier whose rapid rise with Leicester City has taken him further than he could ever have expected when he was named in the senior England squad to face the Republic of Ireland in a friendly on 7 June, then Slovenia in the Euro 2016 qualifier a week later. Hodgson never did sign Vardy – at £1m, he joked, the player represented too much of a risk for West Bromwich – but their paths have crossed again.
“He was getting a lot of good reviews and it was an ideal opportunity to watch him play,” Hodgson recalled. “It was a cold night, a difficult surface and, to be honest, he didn’t get a lot of chances to show what he could do, and neither did anyone else for that matter. It was a very competitive Conference match but you could see then he had some ability – myself, Ray [Lewington] and Gary [Neville] think he has some interesting qualities and this will be a chance to see them at close hand.”
While the fairy-tale rise of Vardy is a cause for celebration for him, it asks wider questions again about the quality of English players at Hodgson’s disposal. This time he has been stretched by an injury to Daniel Sturridge and the prioritising of the Under-21s, who have Harry Kane and Saido Berahino next month. Charlie Austin of Queen’s Park Rangers, another England rookie, has scored 17 goals in the Premier League this season. Vardy has just four.
He was rejected by Sheffield Wednesday aged 16 and went to Stocksbridge Park Steels in the eighth tier of English football, where he spent three years before moving to Halifax Town in the Northern Premier League. It has been a long climb to his first England training session on 4 June.
Earlier in his career he played with an electronic tag on his ankle, a consequence of a conviction for assault. Now 28, he will want to make sure he earns a recall. England’s recent history has plenty of strikers who were called up, capped and never played again, including Michael Ricketts, Franny Jeffers, David Nugent, Dean Ashton, Kevin Davies, Jay Bothroyd and Fraizer Campbell.
For Hodgson the selection of Vardy was presented more as an expedience born out of injury problems and the non-availability of others. He said Danny Ings would have been in the senior squad were it not for his importance to the Under-21s, and Danny Welbeck is also carrying an injury that could prove problematic. That potentially leaves the England manager with just his captain, Wayne Rooney, and the two new boys to choose from up front.
“I don’t think our talent pool is that bad,” Hodgson said. “If we can confirm what we have seen with Charlie and Jamie Vardy and they show they are capable of being international players too, then our talent pool up front will be surprisingly big, certainly if you compare with what was available three years ago.
“We have been rejuvenating the team, so every time we choose someone not 20, 21, we can be accused of going back on what we maybe are setting out more and more to do. I still think the England door should never be closed on people. If they’ve done as well as Austin in particular and Vardy in the latter stages of this season, they should at least be given the opportunity if they can break eggs with a big stick and turn our previous thoughts on their heads.”
For Austin, 25, there is the promise of bigger things this summer, with Everton, Newcastle and Southampton all interested in a player who has outstripped expectations as the second-highest scoring Englishman in the Premier League. Even bigger clubs could take an interest, with Tottenham looking at Austin this summer after other targets became unavailable.
A reject from Reading’s academy, he was working on a building site when he made his breakthrough for Poole Town in the Wessex Premier Division in 2008-09. He would have gone to Bournemouth under Eddie Howe but the club were under a transfer embargo and he signed for Swindon instead, eventually following Howe to Burnley in 2011 and then moving to QPR two years later.
Austin has been obliged to cancel a holiday to Dubai, although it is not his honeymoon as was first thought. He will get married to his partner Bianca at the end of next month, by which time he might well have a first England cap and a new club.
Winning a first England cap will represent some achievement for Vardy or Austin – so too the second and third.Reuse content