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fox hunter Vardy’s storied road to Wembley lined by tragedy, toil – and prematch omelettes

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Jamie Vardy is about to earn the unique distinction of having played in every round of the FA Cup. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA

Jamie Vardy is about to earn the unique distinction of having played in every round of the FA Cup. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA

Jamie Vardy is about to earn the unique distinction of having played in every round of the FA Cup. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA

As befits FA Cup final week, Jamie Vardy is wallowing in nostalgia.

The tales come tumbling out – his early days kicking a ball against the turnstiles at Hillsborough, his first taste of playing in the competition at Stocksbridge Park Steels in a preliminary-round qualifier, and why victory in today’s final against Chelsea would represent “the last box fully ticked” in his list of achievements with Leicester.

And yet there is one reflection which is more sombre. Last Sunday, Vardy’s former strike partner at Halifax Town, James Dean, was found dead in Oswaldtwistle, having been missing for four days. Lancashire Police said his death was “not being treated
as suspicious”.

Vardy and Dean had terrorised defences together in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, leading Halifax to the title in 2011. Vardy ended the season with 22 goals, a return which secured his move to Fleetwood and ultimately set him on the path which reaches Wembley today.

It is a poignant story, and the contrast between the fates of one-time team-mates whose paths diverged so wildly – and tragically – is not lost on Vardy.

“I was absolutely devastated hearing about it,” he says. “I got a message from our old team-mates to let me know just as it had been released in the newspapers.

“What it does show is the things that go off during lockdown. A lot of the lower leagues were just cancelling the season. If you’ve not got that in your life, it must be hard when you’re locked up at home as well.”

The news will have been particularly bitter for Vardy, for whom a non-League background is far more than just some jolly Cup final colour.

The days on wind-blasted, potholed pitches were fundamental in creating the striker who has gone on to be a Premier League champion, a Golden Boot winner and England international. That rustic energy is obvious every time Vardy plays, as is the work rate, which was evident when he used to graft in factories before jumping in his battered Renault Clio to dash to matches.

Vardy is about to earn the unique distinction of having played in every round of the FA Cup, but dreams of Wembley were distant during his years growing up in Hillsborough, near his beloved Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium.

“We used to have a derelict garage and say the garage was the net. The amount of noise it used to make was definitely upsetting the neighbours,” he says, smiling. “That is the enjoyment side of it and having a laugh with your mates. I think that’s where it all starts for kids.

“There was one time while I was at Wednesday and I bumped into the then-academy director outside Hillsborough. He said, ‘Now I know why we have had to paint the exit doors on the stadium’ – because we used to go in the car park and play football against them as well. I said, ‘I do apologise, it is the only place we have a net’.”

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In 2007, while at Stocksbridge Park Steels, Vardy made his first appearance in the competition, against Curzon Ashton – true to form, he scored in a 3-2 victory – but he did not play in the first round proper until 2011, when he was with Fleetwood, who were still in the Conference.

“For a club in non-League, the FA Cup is the one where you want to progress as far as possible because of the money you get from winning a game,” says Vardy.

“It keeps them afloat and covers their wage bill for two years. It’s helping them make the stands and pitches better, it’s massive for those clubs. Back then I was enjoying myself and playing with a group of lads who were all mates. Turn up, enjoy ourselves, play football, try and win a game.

“To have gone all the way from the bottom and played in every round just makes it even more interesting, and me even more determined to try and get the win on Saturday.”

The spirit of non-League’s gnarled battlefields continues to flow through Vardy, and he is still in WhatsApp groups with many of those old team-mates.

He has doggedly refused to change, despite his famous story which is known around the world, sticking to his pre-match routine of Red Bulls and an omelette.

The mentality of enjoying every minute will never be diluted. “If I didn’t have football then I’d probably still be in the factory where I used to work, making splints for people with drop foot,” he says.

Vardy was 34 in January and there will inevitably come a time when his story has to end. Brendan Rodgers, the Leicester manager, insists he is “irreplaceable” but Vardy has not even contemplated the dreaded “R” word.

Vardy will represent one of the biggest threats to Chelsea in Leicester’s first FA Cup final appearance for 52 years, and he is acutely aware it is a competition the club have never won.

He insists that whatever happens, the upward momentum under Rodgers and owners King Power will continue.

“If you look at the nine years since I’ve been here that’s all it’s ever done, it’s carried on progressing,” he says.

“I think winning the league probably set us back a bit because it wasn’t supposed to happen, so we weren’t ready for it, on and off the field. That steady progress now is exactly what we’re seeing.”

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