In 2010, the year after Cristiano Ronaldo swapped Manchester for Madrid in an £80 million deal, Jamie Vardy moved to Halifax Town for the princely sum of £16,000. While the move didn’t make any back-page headlines, Neil Aspin has reason to remember it well. He, after all, was the manager who secured the 23-year-old’s signature.
As bargain transfers go, parting with such a modest fee for a future Premier League record-breaker, England international and nominee for ‘The Best’ takes some beating. At the time though, and ludicrous as this might now seem, a queue of critics formed to warn Aspin that he was wasting his money.
“It was seen as a big gamble,” the then Halifax boss, who now manages Gateshead, recalled to FIFA.com. “Although £16,000 might seem like nothing, it’s big money at non-league level. And lots of people were telling me not to sign him. There were plenty back then who saw Jamie as trouble.”
There were also, in truth, plenty of reasons for Vardy’s detractors to take such a view. Most notable was the fact that he had not been able to play in midweek matches for a six-month period due to a court-enforced curfew, having been convicted of assault. Vardy also had to wear an electronic tag around his ankle and bid a hasty retreat from some of his team’s away matches.
“If the games were too far, I could only play an hour and they’d have to take me off,” the striker himself has said. “It was a case of hope we were winning, jump over the fence and straight in my parents’ car to make sure I was home in time. You could wear the tag like an ankle guard. There was no way of breaking it, even if you got kicked.”
Less serious, but still stressed repeatedly to Aspin, was the fact that Vardy had just been sent off three times in a single season. Yet despite the whispers about ill discipline and a suspect temperament, the Halifax manager remained focused on the more compelling evidence he had witnessed first-hand.
Lots of people were telling me not to sign him. There were plenty back then who saw Jamie as trouble.
“In the end I just went with what I could see on the pitch, and that told me that he had something about him. I saw a player with tremendous pace and exceptional work-rate, and he excited me. So while the things people were telling me might have made it seem like a gamble, everything I saw with my own eyes told me it wasn’t much of a risk at all.
“The only thing I didn’t know at that stage was his character, so you just hope he’ll knuckle down and not cause any problems. But I can honestly say that he never caused me a minute’s trouble, always trained extremely well and was the kind of guy who’d help the team and play in games even if he had a little knock. He was very driven.
“As for the red cards he’d been picking up, if anything I actually saw that as a positive. It’s so rare in my experience to find a striker with a nasty streak and, while you don’t want indiscipline, aggression was part of what made Jamie the player he was – and still is. All we had to do was curb his tackling a bit as that could be a bit wayward and reckless at times. Once he did that, his aggression was a real asset to us.”
There was, though, a further problem for Vardy to negotiate before he could begin justifying his manager’s faith. It came in the shape of the striker’s day job at a carbon fibre factory, which entailed ten-hour shifts and tough manual labour not conducive to staying fresh and injury-free.
“I can remember finding him lying on the floor of the dressing room in real pain, with the physios working on him,” recalled Aspin. “It definitely didn’t help him at that stage and I’m sure being able to give up that job was essential to him rising to the level he did.”
Even with those additional commitments, Vardy was a sensation at Halifax, scoring 26 goals to fire the club to the Northern Premier League title. His performances earned him a player of the year award and, better still, another move up the ladder to Fleetwood Town – with Aspin and Halifax making a handsome return on their £16,000 ‘gamble’. A year and 31 more goals later, Vardy would be on his way to Leicester City and en route to the glories that have taken him alongside Ronaldo, Messi et al in being nominated for ‘The Best’.
“Everyone loves a rags to riches story and it’s not often you get a player like Jamie making it to this kind of level,” acknowledged Aspin. “I think his background and the way he came up, playing non-league, made him a very popular player even with fans of other clubs. He’s someone supporters can identify with and you could see that when he was close to breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy’s scoring record [for goals in successive Premier League matches]. Everyone was rooting for him and delighted when he managed it.
“Seeing him up for awards like this one is fantastic too, and he fully deserves it. Leicester’s work-rate was so important to the successes they had last season and Jamie set the tone for the rest of the team. I don’t think there were harder-working forwards in the league than him and [Shinji] Okazaki, and there’s no way Leicester could have achieved what they did without Jamie.
“I’m sure everyone who’s been connected with his career will have enjoyed watching him over the past couple of years. It’s just a fantastic story. I’m obviously very pleased that I took that decision to sign him all those years ago and was able to help him a little step along the way. If it was a gamble, I can definitely say it was the best one I’ve ever taken.”