Tomorrow afternoon, at 3 O’clock, Jamie Vardy will walk out into St James’ Park and attempt to make history by matching Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in 10 straight Premier League matches. Moreover, against a Newcastle side that have looked defensively unreliable all season (though they have kept two clean sheets on the spin having not earned one since 22nd of August), few people may be inclined to bet against him.
Throughout Vardy’s scintillating goal-scoring form, pundits and fans alike have been heaping praise upon the Leicester striker for the grit, determination and talent required to forge a Premier League career from humble non-league origins, having been playing for Conference side Fleetwood in 2012, and for Halifax Town the season prior.
However, whilst nothing should be taken away from Vardy’s accomplishments, or indeed his talents, his apparent rarity perhaps also has something to do with the attitude taken on by clubs regarding the transfers of players from lower league backgrounds.
Of the current crop of Premier League players, Vardy is accompanied by perhaps three high profile former non-league transfers. Ashley Williams was taken from Hednesford to Stockport County and then to Swansea, but he was only transferred to a League One team and helped take Swansea up to Premier League status. Joe Hart helped Shrewsbury from Conference football into League Two, playing there before being taken by Manchester City (and then immediately farmed out on loan). Chris Smalling is perhaps the best example, going straight from Maidstone to Premier League Fulham, and then later to Manchester United. Perhaps his defensive position means he draws less attention.
Nonetheless, there are still only three, and whilst there are others (for example Charlie Austin) who have made it to the big time from humbler backgrounds, they are few and far between. Past top division stars from the non-league tiers include Les Ferdinand, Stuart Pearce, Ian Wright, Kevin Phillips, Chris Waddle, John Barnes, Stan Collymore, Andy Townsend and the list goes on. It simply is not the case that top Premier League academies are just finding all the talent now, and there’s nothing left to mine out of the lower divisions. If that were true, then we wouldn’t have a shockingly low turnout of English players in the English top division (which then impacts on our national team).
Rather, the lack of non-league players is indicative of top teams being unwilling to gamble on unknown quantities, or go searching through lower divisions; instead they look for proven talent overseas or from other Premier League and perhaps Championship teams.
When Jamie Vardy signed for Leicester from Fleetwood (and even then it was to a Championship side from a side about to play in League Two having been promoted), it was for £1million. Not only that, but it was the record transfer for a non-league player. In today’s game in the Premier League, that’s absolutely nothing. You’d barely even call that a gamble.
Take a look at the recent transfer histories of the top Premier League sides. Manchester City have bought 20 players since the start of the 2012/13 season who have actually made an appearance. Of these, 6 cost less than £10m, including Scott Sinclair and Maicon, who cost a combined £11m for a total of 22 appearances in all competitions. The only one who cost less that Martin Demichelis’ £3.5m was Bacary Sagna who was free since his contract ran out, and was hardly an unknown quantity coming from Arsenal.
Similar tales come out of their rivals. Manchester United have signed only 4 players under £12 million since the start of 2011/12; aside from the free Sergio Romero and Victor Valdes, Nick Powell and Alexander Buttner cost a combined £9.9m for a total of 15 appearances. Without boring you with excessive examples, the list does carry on; Chelsea signed van Ginkel for £8m, resulting in just two apperances in one of the worst offenders of this theme.
If Premier League teams are willing to fork out so much for what ultimately comes to so little, why is it that they have relatively few scouts watching non-league matches? Why must they only pounce upon the non-league players that have first got themselves into a Football League team before being willing to have a ‘gamble’? If Scott Sinclair and Marco van Ginkel aren’t a waste of money, then top clubs should buy a full 11-man team of top non-league footballers for a combined £5m or so (or less) if any are worth fielding in the Premier League. If the answer is none, it still saves money.
Whilst not a serious suggestion, it would probably yield more success than buying players for relatively hefty sums that you know you most likely aren’t going to play.
It was highlighted to me recently that, come January, Jamie Vardy will be one of the top strikers in Europe who hasn’t played a European competition this season and thus won’t be cup-tied (and so might be snapped up by a Europa League or Champions League chasing outfit).
I don’t think that it is likely to happen. I also don’t think that it would be smart for Vardy to take such an offer if it did come, since he’d probably be discarded for a bigger name in the next transfer window. However, the fact that anyone is willing to talk of him in such terms is just a reminder that we shouldn’t look past how extraordinarily impressive Vardy has been and how much he deserves the recognition he is getting.
Unfortunately, he is far from a representation of the Premier League and transfer system at the moment. If we want more Jamie Vardy’s, both in terms of bargain transfers and English talent, then our top clubs need to look down the football pyramid, not overseas. If improving our English players isn’t enough of a compensation, then maybe pointing out that Chelsea and co often buy players for 5 or so times the price of Vardy and never play a competitive minute’s football could show that there is not a lot for clubs to lose in taking a gamble.