Stocksbridge to Wembley: Jamie Vardy's FA Cup journey

Stocksbridge to Wembley: ‘Duracell Bunny’ Jamie Vardy will have played in all THIRTEEN FA Cup rounds come Saturday… from bosses who wished they’d become his agent to being ‘better than Arshavin’, the Leicester star’s rise told by those who know him

  • Jamie Vardy will have played in all 13 rounds of the FA Cup come Saturday 
  • The Leicester City striker used to make appearances in the preliminary rounds  
  • He made his first appearance in the competition with Stocksbridge Park Steels 
  • The 34-year-old has also represented FC Halifax Town and Fleetwood in the cup
  • Vardy is due to take part in the final at Wembley this weekend against Chelsea 

It was half-time in an Under-18 cup final at Penistone Church FC and as Allen Bethel, chairman of Stocksbridge Park Steels, walked across the pitch to the clubhouse, he heard something that alarmed him. ‘In the second half, I want to kill him.’

The speaker was an exasperated centre back and the subject of his anger was a speedy striker named Jamie Vardy.

The best part of two decades later, despite the efforts of numerous defenders, Vardy’s career is alive and kicking, and the next cup final he plays will be at Wembley, against Chelsea.

Jamie Vardy will have played in all thirteen rounds of the FA Cup when he appears in the final

When Vardy helped Leicester win the Premier League in 2016 it felt like the perfect ending to one of football’s most compelling stories. Since then, he has represented England in two major tournaments and, at 33, won the domestic Golden Boot. Not bad for a player who made his Football League debut at 25.

The most amazing chapter is still to be written, however. When Vardy steps out at the national stadium he will become the first player to have figured at every stage of the FA Cup from the preliminary round – five stages before the first-round proper – to one of the most famous club fixtures in world football.

He does not remember his first match in the competition, when he scored twice for Stocksbridge in a 3-2 win over Curzon Ashton in September 2007. It is fair to assume that if he does the same on Saturday, his recollection in years to come will be much clearer.

Brett Lovell captained Vardy at Stocksbridge, who were in the Unibond Premier League when he joined from Gainsborough in 2009. Vardy had been released by Sheffield Wednesday and had spent two years in Stocksbridge’s Under 18s and three in the reserves before moving up to the first team. Indeed, it was in an FA Cup second-round qualifying match against Stalybridge Celtic in September 2009 that he started to make his mark.

Vardy started making his mark on the FA Cup while at Stocksbridge Park Steels in 2009

‘Stalybridge were in the Conference North and we lost the game 7-2 but Vardy made a mockery of their defence,’ recalls Lovell, a supplies manager for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals who still plays for Penistone in the North-East Counties League.

‘Stalybridge were paying good money at the time and that is when clubs higher up the pyramid started to take notice of Vardy. He scored both goals.

‘He was always ridiculously fit, like a Duracell bunny. He was a whippersnapper – bullish and confident. We had a great team spirit and he was a big part of that. He loved his dance music. He would give me a lift to games in his Renault Clio and you would hear him before you saw him. He’d pull up outside my house, music blaring out.

‘We’d all turn up for games about 1.30pm, watch half an hour of the early Premier League game and then stay for a few drinks after our game. We all had full-time jobs and it was a release for us.

‘I thought he could play higher, maybe League One or Two, but as for winning the Premier League, playing in the World Cup or taking the Golden Boot – not a cat in hell’s chance.’

Neil Aspin knew Vardy’s ceiling was higher. Then in charge of FC Halifax Town, who were in the Northern Premier League, Aspin advised his chairman David Bosomworth to spend £15,000 to bring him to the Shay.

FC Halifax Town spent £15,000 on Vardy 

The effect was immediate as Vardy, playing either through the middle or on the right wing, flourished and word started to spread among those higher up the food chain.

Halifax knew they had a jewel and numerous scouts were watching them lose 1-0 at home to Mansfield in the fourth qualifying round that October. Vardy was substituted in the second half after receiving a wild challenge as he raced on goal.

‘Jamie didn’t have his greatest game but it was clear he could play higher – maybe in the Championship or, because of his pace, maybe even in the Premier League,’ reflects Aspin. ‘I wish I had quit being a manager to become his agent!

‘Lots of people had told me not to sign him. He had a certain reputation off the pitch and he had been sent off a few times the previous season — but he was a dream to manage.

‘He was quiet when he turned up to sign, hardly said a word. Then it became clear he was very outgoing and bubbly. There aren’t many forwards who, if they get kicked, will kick the player back but he was our best player and was prepared to work hard. Everyone loved him.’

Vardy moved to Fleetwood Town, then in the National League, for £150,000 in 2011 – a significant fee for a club three levels below the Football League, though there are those at Halifax who regret not holding out for more.

‘We used to say he was better than Andrey Arshavin,’ said one club source. Aspin adds: ‘David Bosomworth kicks himself to this day. He never put in a clause to guarantee a payment if Vardy won an England cap. He wanted to do it but he thought, “Maybe I’m exaggerating”.’

It turns out he was not. Speak to anyone at Fleetwood about Vardy and one word recurs – ‘cheating’. Nothing to do with Vardy’s playing style, but that having a forward of his ability in the National League felt like an unfair advantage.

Fleetwood Town felt it was ‘cheating’ having a player as good as Vardy in the National League

Sure enough, Vardy soon started to show his quality. One of his most memorable goals for Fleetwood sealed a 2-0 win at Yeovil in a second-round replay and set up a home tie with Blackpool, eight miles along the Fylde Coast, in the third round in January 2012.

Though Blackpool had just been relegated from the Premier League and won 5-1, Vardy was on target again. By now scouts from Southampton, Cardiff and Leicester were regulars at Fleetwood matches. Blackpool bid about £250,000 soon after the final whistle and Saints and Leicester made offers in the January window, yet Fleetwood wanted £1million, a record for a non-League player.

‘Jamie was keen to move as quickly as possible but we sat down and said, ‘You get us promoted and you will get your move’,’ explains chief executive Steve Curwood. ‘He was particularly good in that Blackpool game and scored a typical Vardy goal, outfoxing Championship defenders.

‘When he was at Halifax everyone was aware of him but our chairman Andy Pilley was brave enough to ring the Halifax chairman and ask, “How much do you want?” The deal was done in 24 hours, no dancing about.’

Vardy made the jump from non-league to League One Leicester City for £1million in 2012

Micky Mellon, the Fleetwood manager, had enjoyed an extensive playing career at various levels and was an experienced non-League boss by the time he started to work with Vardy.

Now in charge of Dundee United, Mellon recalls a chat he had with Vardy during their only campaign together. ‘I remember one conversation we had on the training pitch like it was yesterday,’ says the Scot. ‘I pulled him over and said, “You can play for England, you can’t settle for this level”.

‘I played with some unbelievable strikers – Andy Cole, Ian Wright, John Aldridge. I knew that if he would live off the pitch like a top player then the world was his oyster. He needs to be challenged. He thrives on being told he can’t do something. If he’s being told he’ll slow down at his age then he will thrive off that. I still draw on my experiences with him and use them when talking to my players.’

Until this season, Vardy had little joy in the Cup with Leicester. He was even injured when the Foxes met Fleetwood in the third round in 2018 and watched the game in Pilley’s private box.

‘He hasn’t changed as a character, even if his lifestyle probably has,’ smiles Curwood, who hopes to meet Vardy at Wembley in his role as chairman of the FA Cup Committee. ‘I think his opening gambit when he walked into the box was, “You’ve put some weight on, Curwood!”. It will be pretty special if he can lift the trophy. The FA Cup is about stories like this and I can’t wait for it.’

‘It’s hard not to feel like this final is his final,’ argues John Morris, Vardy’s long-time friend and agent. ‘His 14-year history with the competition and his legacy with the FA Cup is what the competition is all about.’

Vardy’s role in the semi-final win over Southampton – a typical charge down the left before setting up the only goal for Kelechi Iheanacho – warned Chelsea what to expect. Vardy’s ability to use both feet troubles elite defences just as it did semi-professional ones in his Stocksbridge days.

Vardy made 26 appearances for his country between 2015 and 2018, scoring seven times

‘A lot of players are so one-footed but with Vardy, defenders didn’t know if he was going outside or inside,’ remembers Andy Ring, one of his early strike partners. ‘Even when he was 19 or 20 he could finish either side and I still see that now. He played on some shocking pitches. The bad bounces, bobbles, divots… that’s helped his touch for sure.’

The surface on Saturday will be considerably better as Vardy tries to bring an improbable conclusion to a remarkable tale. From Stocksbridge to Halifax to Fleetwood, they will be rooting for him.

‘For people who want to believe dreams can come true, Jamie Vardy’s is the best story that has ever happened,’ argues Mellon. ‘There’s why you should attack your dreams.’

Lovell adds: ‘We’re still in touch and when we used to see each other before Covid, it would be like old times. This lad’s life has turned full circle – career, money, lifestyle. I’m very proud of him. Earlier in his career he was thinking about jacking football in and moving abroad. I’ve said to him many times, “Thank God you didn’t!” If he could win the Cup it would top everything off for him.’

Perhaps even that centre back who was so upset by Vardy back in the day would agree.

From Stocksbridge to Halifax to Fleetwood, all will be rooting for the 34-year-old on Saturday




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