Jamie Vardy, a £1million buy from Fleetwood Town in the Conference in 2012, is the Premier League’s leading goal scorer. That is an astonishing feat and he is one short of Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s all time record of scoring in ten consecutive Premier League matches.
He had such self belief that he inserted a clause in his contract that he would get a bonus if he played for England when signing for Leicester in 2012.
Rarely has a non league footballer gone up the Premier League pyramid so quickly, three heady years of hard graft and self belief, and often more importantly a manager that believes whole-heartedly in him (initially Nigel Pearson, the ex-Leicester manager.)
Clubs spend millions on their academies, and even the smaller scale academies cost £3m+ per year or more to run and clearly favour players through this route rather than taking a punt on a non-league player.
Even Arsene Wenger, a believer in youthful players prefers to buy his youth and raw players in Europe such as Bellerin and Fabregas rather than in England. The last truly lower league player signed by Wenger was Jack Wilshere from Luton Town in 2001 (aged 9). He has since bought Walcott (aged 16) Oxlade-Chamberlain (18) and Calum Chambers (19) from Southampton.
The trajectory of Vardy will change opinions, and make clubs forage harder in the lower leagues. But probably teams in the Championship or below will be more affected by Vardy’s success than Premier League clubs.
A man well versed in the lower leagues is John Still, manager of Luton Town, who put the following 11 together of non-league players playing at Premier League clubs (both past and present players.)
Most recently Chris Smalling from Maidstone Utd, Joe Hart from Shrewsbury and Ian Wright from Greenwich Town have followed the route of Vardy. John Stones was playing for Barnsley 3 years ago before signing for Everton (for £3m) and is now valued at in excess of £40m by Chelsea.
Dele Ali at Tottenham signed from MK Dons for £5m looks like one of the buys of the season, like Vardy promoted to the full England squad very rapidly. Jack Butland in goal for Stoke (from Birmingham City) has had an astonishing season.
Talent is very hard to spot playing a rougher style of often route one football, on terrible quality pitches. Nigel Pearson the ex-Leicester manager summed up Vardy’s traits as “finishing ability, pace and utter self-belief.”
A number of factors combine to make it rarer and rarer for a Jamie Vardy to make it in the Premier League:
- Short Managerial tenure, means pressure on the manager means he takes less risks with the “untrusted”.
- Club pressure to justify their own academies cost, provides a bias to in house academy players.
- Opportunities? only a run of injuries gives a player a chance for first team action in PL due to the size and depth of Premier League squads.
- Perception:the idea technique far outweighs desire and ability, a very arguable notion.
Even from Ireland, Roy Keane, a £47,000 buy from Cobh Ramblers in 1990 to Nottingham Forest and Seamus Coleman a £50,000 buy from Sligo Rangers have shown what is possible on tiny budgets.
One of Liverpool’s greatest ever goal scorers was Ian Rush a £300,000 buy from Chester City. Ian Wright second only to Thierry Henry as Arsenal’s record goal scorer went from Greenwich Borough (to Crystal Palace) to Arsenal in 7 years.
As Joe Hart, Joe Gomez, Rickie Lambert, Jack Butland, John Jo-Shelvey, John Stones, Chris Smalling, Jamie Vardy, Ashley Williams,Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon, Aaron Ramsey, Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines show with their combined 2000+ Premier League appearances, the talent is there in the lower leagues, but prejudices are very hard to break. Hopefully the ascent of Jamie Vardy will help to change that perception.