Sitting at the top table at St George’s Park, Charlie Austin recalled his days at Poole Town in the Wessex League Premier when an evening away game against Brading would involve a ferry to the Isle of Wight after work and a return home at 1am ahead of a 5.45am rise to meet the van to take him back to the building site.
Half an hour earlier, Jamie Vardy had sat in the same seat and recounted how his back had started to give out when he worked as a carbon-fibre technician, making splints for people suffering from foot drop. The lifting into hot ovens took its toll and there were days after he had turned out for Stocksbridge Park Steels in the eighth tier of English football when he could not face doing his shift.
It was non-league day at England HQ, two remarkable career stories from two new call-ups who were spat out by the academy system and found themselves combining work with football in their late teens and early twenties. Austin, 25, made the leap from Poole Town to Swindon Town aged 20, and the memories are not too distant when the highlight of his week was, as he described it, “a mention in the Bournemouth Echo”.
They are both England footballers now, or at least for the time being while Roy Hodgson prepares for Sunday’s friendly in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland and the Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovenia in Ljubljana a week later. And they both paid due deference to the quality of some of the famous names around them now, although you got the impression that neither of them would be wasting time gawping at Wayne Rooney’s touch in training.
Both have waited too long for this chance, and laying aside the questions about English football that the inclusion of Vardy in particular poses – he has scored just four Premier League goals this season – their stories of life in the lower leagues were intriguing.
Vardy, 28, rejected by Sheffield Wednesday at the age of 16 for being too small, wryly recalled how he had gone through an adolescent growth surge just weeks later. His first weekly wage packet at Stocksbridge, in South Yorkshire, had been £30 and for some of his time at the club he was obliged to play with a probation service tag for a conviction for assault. His additional curfew meant that in away games he would often have to come off after an hour and drive home in his kit to meet the terms of his sentence.
“It was a case of hope that we were winning, take me off and straight in the car to make sure I was home in time,” he said. “That was for six months. You could wear the tag like an ankle guard. There was no way of breaking it so you were fine. Even if you got kicked. You could put it on the desk and hit it with a hammer and it’s not coming off.
“The night [of the assault] I was out with a friend who wore a hearing aid and two other lads thought it would be funny to start mocking him, for some reason, and attacking him. I’m not proud of what I did but I defended him, which I’d always do for a mate, and it’s ended up getting me in a bit of trouble. That’s one of the things that’s made me the person I am.”
Austin was a bricklayer whose last pay packet before he turned pro he remembered down to the very last pound: £341 for a 42-and-a-half-hour week. Growing up in Hungerford, he played in the same Berkshire schoolboy county team as Theo Walcott but he was rejected by Reading, also for being too small. By 17 he was working on building sites and had grown to be 6ft 1in.
“It was hard work but it was the only thing I knew. Wake up, go to work, come home, shower, and play football in the evening. I’d like to feel it put me in good stead. I don’t want to go back to building! As youngsters coming through the academy, young players all have gym programmes but my gym programme was carrying bricks and concrete blocks.
“When I lived in Hungerford, it was wake up 5.30am, get to the van at 6am with eight other blokes, drive to Reading, 45 minutes, start at 7.30am, work to 4.30pm with two half-hour breaks. Then home, train Tuesday and Thursday, and then play on Saturday.”
He scored 18 goals for Queen’s Park Rangers this season and, with Newcastle, Everton and Tottenham interested, he will not be returning to the Championship with them. “I feel like I’ve worked hard enough this season for QPR to try to be a Premier League player [next season],” he said, “but I’ve still got a year left at QPR [on his contract], so what the future holds, that’s up to the club and my agent to sort out.”Reuse content