From scrawny teen to top of the Premier League

English striker Jamie Vardy, left, has become the poster boy for the late-blooming star athlete.
English striker Jamie Vardy, left, has become the poster boy for the late-blooming star athlete.

BY JUDITH STILES | Spring has finally arrived, along with a lovely smattering of city flowers that nudge everyone into a good mood. Finally. But what if the mood is broken because you suddenly get cut from your beloved soccer team? Oh, no!

It usually is not so sudden and is most often preceded by a lot of time on the bench. Even so, it can be heartbreaking for an adolescent, especially one who plays on competitive travel teams, to be cut from the squad.

The youthful love of playing soccer is a magical journey. So do not despair, keep going, and look to English footballer Jamie Vardy for inspiration.  At age 16 he was “released” — cut — from his youth team at Sheffield Wednesday F.C., having been told he was too scrawny and too small.

However, 13 years later, scrawny Mr. Vardy won the coveted Premier League Player of the Season Award, plus the Football Writers Association Footballer of The Year Award, an honor only doled out to the all-time greats, such as George Best, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo. On top of that, Vardy propelled his team, Leicester City, to win this year’s English Premier League championship, and he also broke Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record by scoring in 11 consecutive games.

Vardy has captured the attention of the entire sports-loving world, bringing international notice to his style of play and his rise from rejected adolescent footballer, to factory worker, to award-winning star of the English Premier League.

What is it about Jamie Vardy as a player and a person that helped him survive being cut from Sheffield Wednesday F.C., only to rise up to be a top player on Leicester City in the E.P.L.? This was the question I had the good fortune of asking Richard Scudamore, the executive chairperson — top guy — of the English Premier League.

“He is a fantastic example of a number of vital components coming together to make a complete player,” Scudamore answered. “There is focus, determination and tenacity, but that only takes you so far. He has developed an athletic energy that, combined with honed skills, makes him extremely effective and opponents very wary. Why now and not perhaps in the past? Not for me to say but it gives hope and encouragement to many.”

Plenty of adolescent players have focus and determination — and, yes, it will only take you so far. Long before being scouted by Leicester City, Vardy made a name for himself scoring goals for Stockbridge Park Steels (Level 8 of the English football system). In 2011, he moved to F.C. Halifax Town, where he scored 26 goals in his first season, and then to Fleetwood Town in 2011, where he scored 31 goals in a single season.

During those years, he was getting known as a “hit man” on the pitch, with a nose for the goal and an instinctive ability to find space on the field. Off the pitch, he made a different sort of name for himself when — while playing for Stockbridge Park Steels F.C. in 2007 — he received an assault conviction and as punishment had to wear an electronic tag for six months that monitored his mandatory curfew.

Vardy continued to be resilient and hardworking as scouts noticed his spitfire energy that even pushed his teammates to play at his signature fourth-gear pace. In 2012, he signed with Leicester City and the rest is history.

Vardy ended this glorious 2016 season with a very impressive 24 goals and six assists, and his story, as Scudamore says, gives hope and encouragement to many.

If you are a New York City youth player hoping to get scouted — perhaps for that prize college scholarship — take note of what Coach Tom Giovatto looks for in a player. Giovatto started out as a Greenwich Village neighborhood player — a star in the Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League. Years later, he went on to be head soccer coach at St. Francis College, a Division I program. In 2013, he was named the North Atlantic Region Coach of the Year, as well as the Big Apple Soccer Coach of the Year. He knows his stuff.

“Spotting potential is different for all coaches,” Giovatto said. “Some things I look for in a player are good technique, work ethic and is he coachable? I look for players that will fit well in the system we play. I also always look at the way that they interact with their teammates, coaches and the refs.”

As teen players develop, they are often told by coaches that, “cream rises to the top.” But rising to the top and getting scouts to notice doesn’t just happen because of gravity. It took Jamie Vardy a long 13 years of hard work, perseverance and fine-tuning his skills.

For teens in New York City, opportunities to get scouted have increased in the last decade because the soccer “season” has morphed into playing games year-round, including training camps, development programs, tournaments and showcases. So, if you find yourself cut from last year’s team — no problem. Pull up your socks and find a new team. Think of Jamie Vardy.