How the f*ck is port and Red Bull fan Jamie Vardy still this good at 32?

Jamie Vardy celebrates goal for Leicester City v Arsenal

In late 2016, Jamie Vardy went 16 games without a goal and was labelled a ‘one-season wonder’. For a man whose diet has at various points included port, Red Bull, vodka, coffee and tobacco, his subsequent recovery and late-career excellence is as impressive as his title win.

Jamie Vardy’s rags-to-riches life story, culminating in Leicester City‘s 2015-16 Premier League win, has been told a million times, and its rendering as a Hollywood film — still in the works, apparently — will be as palatable as three cans of Red Bull before breakfast.

But while the ascent from non-league to Premier League is the most script-worthy element of Vardy’s life and career, it might not be the most impressive in a footballing sense.

Over the last three seasons, the Leicester striker has, with the exception of one grim period playing alongside Islam Slimani, kept up a ridiculous goalscoring record, losing none of the hunger that propelled him to greatness in the first place.

He’s now 32 and showing few signs of decline.

Unfortunately, consistency is rarely cause for celebration. Adrian Butchart, screenwriter of Goal! and the eternally forthcoming Vardy biopic, might reasonably decide that the last three years, in which Vardy has scored bucketloads but won no trophies, would not make great cinema.

He would probably be right, too. Since Leicester pulled off the unlikeliest of league triumphs, Vardy’s only honours — an eighth-place finish in the Ballon d’Or and a BBC Goal of the Season award — have come from votes, not victories.

A dramatisation of Alan Shearer and Ian Wright making their choice? Turgid.

But while a streak of mid-table finishes do not contain the drama necessary for the silver screen, they are perhaps better evidence of a player’s objective quality, shown clearly outside the euphoric haze of that miracle season.

Vardy’s longevity at the top of his game is as remarkable as his rise to it.

One-season wonder

To fully appreciate Vardy’s late-career excellence, it’s worth remembering how he was perceived during a bleak three-month period in late 2016 — a period in which many observers wondered if the striker’s form of 2015-16 had been as lucky as, say, Danny Simpson becoming the league’s best right-back.

Vardy, a title winner just a few months prior, had entered the slump of all slumps, going 16 games without a goal between mid-September and mid-December.

Leicester, victims of their striker’s goal drought, tumbled down the table and looked in danger of relegation.

It signalled a sharp change in attitude towards Vardy. Seemingly destined to live his life under three-word epithets, the forward went from a ‘rags to riches’ player to something altogether less pleasant: a ‘one-season wonder’.

Media compared him to James Beattie and Andy Johnson. Some journalists worried he was “in danger of disappearing down the plughole”. Fans wondered, with varying levels of glee, whether he had made a mistake in turning down Arsenal.

Even Michael Owen joined the pile-on, calling the out-of-form striker a “streaky” player.

“I wouldn’t class Vardy as a natural goalscorer,” Owen said. “When he gets in front of goal, it’s often: head down, hit it as hard as you can.”

The timing of the 2016 Ballon d’Or awards couldn’t have been worse.

Although the Leicester man finished eighth in the world rankings, ahead of superstars like Zlatan Ibrahimović, his present-day struggles against the likes of Sunderland made the honour seem ludicrous.

Vardy had become one of the league’s least prolific strikers, and his decline appeared terminal.

Criticism gives you wiiings

Of course, Vardy advocates always expected the slump to end.

In the midst of Leicester’s collapse, captain Wes Morgan argued that his non-scoring team-mate was “definitely the same old Jamie Vardy”, despite evidence to the contrary.

He was right.

In the final 13 games of the 2016-17 season, Vardy scored eight league goals, benefitting from a new manager bounce under Craig Shakespeare.

He has maintained that high level ever since.

Across the 2017-18 season, the striker scored 20 goals — including the Goal of the Season volley against West Brom — despite playing under two managers. He looks set for a similar haul this year, in which Leicester have again switched bosses and tactics mid-campaign.

He has also, throughout his time in the top flight, developed a knack of scoring against the biggest teams.

But it’s not just the consistency amid club disorder that’s so impressive about Vardy. It’s that he’s still at the absolute peak of his powers in his thirties. Not only has he shrugged off the threat of being a ‘one-season wonder’, he has, with similar ease, shrugged off all the effects of ageing.

His critics should be eating their words. In his almost three seasons since winning the title, Vardy has scored 51 Premier League goals aged 29-32 years old. Michael Owen, in his three full seasons at the same age, managed five.

A remarkable plateau

“Maybe some people thought I’d be a one-season wonder,” Vardy told The Guardian in August 2018. “Who knows? People can say what they want.”

They’ll be saying something else today, but perhaps they still won’t be saying quite the right thing.

Thanks to our fondness for familiar narratives, Vardy’s fairytale rise up the football pyramid will probably define him forever. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But those who appreciate brilliance less neatly packaged should treasure the part of the story that is less obviously compelling — the ‘happily ever after’ part of the fairytale that has followed Vardy’s most concrete achievement.

If Hollywood ever goes through with this godforsaken film, a few words about Vardy’s post-2016 career will likely play over the closing credits, a footnote to an already concluded story, a brief reassurance that the protagonist did not fall victim to a career-ending form of diabetes.

In reality, Vardy’s prolongation of excellence — formless, mid-table, without narrative — is his finest achievement.

By Benedict O’Neill

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