England: The Jamie Vardy Precedent

What Jamie Vardy has achieved this year has been fun to watch.  Vardy’s much-referenced backstory and his intense, energy-based style of play makes him a welcome anachronism within the Premier League and, purely for the variation it has offered, his scoring streak and rise to prominence has been very novel.

The next question is over England and specifically whether the attributes he has traded off domestically have any value at international level.  Will he start in Spain tomorrow night?  If so, in what position?  And does he represent a valuable long-term option to Roy Hodgson? Can he help England defeat the most recent European championship winners, against the odds?

In the here and now of this international period, those are all worthy questions and they have understandably spawned a lot of debate, but within the broader context the specifics of this situation are relatively incidental. It’s not important whether Jamie Vardy succeeds or fails, merely that he’s given a proper opportunity to do one or the other.

Of course, Vardy himself will be hoping to use the upcoming friendlies to stamp his passport to the European Championships, but that - while a noble cause - is relatively incidental.

Healthier precedents need to exist around the English national team and, although it should still represent the pinnacle of a player’s career, access to that level of the game needs to be improved - or at least the notion that sustained good form can lead to a starting birth needs to be reinforced.

When Roy Hodgson talks of Jamie Vardy, he has an almost regretful tone.  It’s as if - and apologies if this does the England manager a disservice - the Leicester forward’s scoring run has created an inconvenience for him. Hodgson must realise that there’s a strong public appetite for the player’s inclusion against Spain and presumably also recognises that using him in anything other than his club position will attract criticism.

There are obvious similarities to be drawn with the Andy Johnson situation in the last decade.  Johnson wasn’t the most talented player, but he scored more Premier League goals than any other English player in 2004/05 and forced his way into Sven-Goran Eriksson’s senior squad.  Still, his international career (8 caps) bore all the hallmarks of tokenism and was comprised almost entirely of substitute appearances and run-outs in positions in which he was never likely to succeed.

Was Johnson good enough to play for England consistently?  Probably not, but nobody tried particularly hard to find out.

Vardy is unfashionable and he lacks the big-club CV of Wayne Rooney and the youthful promise of either Harry Kane or Saido Berahino, but England must still be a meritocracy and it must always reward good performances. While not a topic which needs further exploration, the modern era has repeatedly shown that certain players are protected at international level and that reputation and status often combine to lock under-performing players inside the squad.  Wayne Rooney is the most pertinent current example of that undesirable phenomenon, but there are plenty of others - as the caps list attests to.

Although there’s a logical reason as to why, the national team sometimes appears overly preoccupied with longevity.  Players are called up and used on the basis that they are likely to be fixtures in the squad for many years.  That’s very sensible, because it allows a squad’s core to grow and mature together and for chemistry to develop, but that shouldn’t be the sole governing mentality.

Jamie Vardy is twenty-eight, so he is not likely to win fifty caps, but there’s no obvious problem with England tapping into the energy that he’s currently generating.  Form and confidence are the great equalisers in professional sport and, even when they create a slightly distorted reality, those sparks can still fuel a fire.

Vardy can’t be ignored and there’s no justification for bending his England career, regardless of how brief it may be, around the egos of more senior internationals.  He is not a multi-positional player and he perhaps doesn’t possess the most varied skill-set, but he is performing to a very high standard in a certain role for his club and if his country is unwilling to replicate those conditions it would be just another instance of their capacity for self-defeat.

England are always focused on a future that never seems to arrive.  Players are indulged because of what they might do in two or three years time and poor form is tolerated in the hope that it will eventually end.  Jamie Vardy is playing well now and he is scoring goals today; flashes of lightning can be used if they’re caught and bottled.