Released by Sheffield Wednesday for being ‘too small’, Jamie Vardy resurrected his career via works team and non-league football to become a Premier League champion with Leicester City and an England striker. He claims that his path less trodden is strewn with similar ‘gems’ that his self-funded V9 academy can polish and promote.
But what chance do outliers really have when clubs, fans and TV are complicit in their pursuit conventional stars?
Or to put it another way, players, that in Tim Sherwood’s memorable observation, that have surnames that typically end in ‘i’, ‘o’ or ‘a’ and come with an exotic price-tag to match.
It is a serious question that cuts right to the heart of Jamie Vardy’s V9 project, the subject of a six part series that begins this September on Sky 1.
And on the face of it, Vardy’s V9 Academy has enjoyed good early success.
From 100 hopefuls, Vardy’s staff picked out 42 applicants to take part in a week-long programme at Manchester City’s Etihad Campus. They are listed below and many of them will be familiar names to fans of lower league clubs throughout the UK.
Goalkeepers: Jamie Butler (Hemel Hempstead), Brandon Hall (Woking), Ashley Rawlins (Market Drayton and AFC Telford)
Defenders: Liam Bateman (Kettering Town), Curtis Coppen (North Shields), Zaine Francis-Angol (Kidderminster), Nathan Green (Dulwich Hamlet), Alex Gudger (Brackley Town), Will Hendon (Worthing), Cieron Keane (Worcester City), Andy May (Whitby), Will Miles (Burgess Hill Town), Manny Parry (Braintree), Alex Penny (Nuneaton), Jordan Tunnicliffe (Kidderminster)
Midfielders: Shane Byrne (Brackley Town), David Carson (Whitby), Ryan Croasdale (Kidderminster), Elliott Durrell (Chester), Shane Henry (Spennymoor), Jordan Keane (Worcester City), Ben Marlow (East Thurrock), Zac McEachran (Banbury), Connor Oliver (North Ferriby), Andi Thanoj (Harrogate Town), Tom Elliott (Nuneaton Town)
Forwards: Oladapo Afolayan (Solihull Moors), Alex Akrofi (Tonbridge Angels), Keagan Cole (Hendon), Ryan Hall (Curzon Ashton), Joe Ironside (Kidderminster), Ricky Korboa (Carshalton), Mikel Miller (Carshalton), Danny Newton (Tamworth), Elton Ngwatala (Kidderminster), Brandon Scott (Cray Wanderers), Glen Taylor (Spennymoor), Lamar Reynolds (Brentwood Town)
So far Danny Newton, Alex Penny, Lamar Reynolds and Blair Turgott, have all signed professional deals. But the results back up the impression that the idea of jumping from the eighth tier of English football to the Premier League, as Vardy has done, can’t be done, if at all, without significant intermediate steps.
Newton, a 26-year-old maintenance engineer by trade, has scored three goals in his first five games for League Two Stevenage, having caught the eye of V9’s Head of Recruitment, Lee Tucker at Tamworth.
Newton, nicknamed ‘the wasp’ due to his all-action style, spent time at Leicester’s centre of excellence as a youngster, without finding favour anywhere much. Like the throwback player he is, Newton still carries his boots to games and is an advert for conventional values of pace, energy, determination and a finisher’s knack for getting in the right place at the right time. He’s an anachronism in Premier League terms, a ‘pest’ that never lets defenders rest.
Newton scored 29 goals for Tamworth in the National League North last season but you don’t see players like him at the pinnacle of the game any more because the demands of the modern game can’t accommodate them. No-one watching The Next Jamie Vardy, or standing on the terraces at Stevenage or Tamworth would seek to dismiss the qualities Danny Newton does possess. However, like most of these V9 recruits he lacks the rounded checklist qualities of an elite Premier League player. He has raw talent and rough edges but low level competition takes its toll on players. Bad teams, bad fans and bad pitches brutalise talent. It is a fact that the supporters of non-league football throughout the UK can’t, or don’t care to see as they exentuate the positives.
“I’ve just played non-league,” Newton told The Guardian. “I was at Hinckley United in the Conference North when I was 17. I broke into the first team and was playing every week for three years and they went bust.”
Newton’s strike partner at Hinckley was Andre Gray, who joined Watford for £18.5m from Burnley in the close season. “Luton took him and he’s progressed after getting that chance,” Newton says. “I’ve just left it a bit late. I’m 5ft 11in, I’m quite physical on the pitch, so it’s nothing to do with size. A lot of it’s right place, right time.”
Vardy himself sank to the depths of English football after being freed as ‘too small’ by Sheffield Wednesday, joining Stocksbridge Park Steels. He had spells with Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town before Leicester signed him for £1m five years ago. Hardened to the robust physicality of non-league, Vardy is a rare example of a player capable of adjusting to the pace, quality and mental pressures of the top division.
Joining Newton at Stevenage is Ex-West Ham winger Blair Turgott who was also snapped up at the V9 camp. The Boro allegedly fought of interest for the former England u19 international from Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Molde, Northampton and Kilmarnock. Not so long ago, Blair Turgott’s star shone very brightly as a former teammate of Raheem Sterling, Nathaniel Chalobah, Jordan Pickford and Nathan Redmond at the 2011 U17 World Cup in Mexico. But his story is a timely reminder that talent in itself is simply not enough.
After 90 minutes for his latest club, the one-time hot prospect has found himself sent out on loan to Borehamwood in pursuit of game time.
Turgott spent last season at fellow National League side Bromley, scoring 15 goals in 47 appearances and Wood boss Luke Garrard told his club’s website: “He played at this level with Bromley last year and he was very successful; he has got goals in his game and I think that he can hurt defenders because of his pace and his trickery, so it is very exciting.
“I know that he is going to be a success, he brings added quality to what we’ve already got in the squad and he will boost competition at the top end of the pitch.”
The ex-West Ham youth will not be able to wholly make this latest fresh start quite yet, however. And possibly not at all.
Turgott is due back at Southwark Crown Court in October to answer two fraud charges from a case that’s details alone ensure that the player’s media profile is higher now than at any other point in his career to date.
And away from the headlines, the fickle nature of football – at every level – is no better illustrated than in the example of Ellliot Durrell, another V9 alumnus who features prominently in the first episode of The Next Jamie Vardy. Typical of a career of hard knocks, the likeable, diminutive wide player was left ‘disappointed’ at the manner in which he was released by Chester in the summer after being led to believe he’d have a new deal there just five months previously.
The 27-year-old wide midfielder, who featured in 50 of Chester’s matches last season, scoring nine times, was a surprising omission from the Blues’ retained list this summer. He will likely be best remembered at The Deva Stadium for this Goal of the Season against Borehamwood for The Blues.
Nonetheless, Chester’s about-turn was a decision that left the former Wrexham midfielder seeking a fourth new club in four years. Thanks to the V9 Academy, he has another bite at the cherry at Chester’s National League rivals Macclesfield. Having failed to persuade the gallery of invited top club scouts from the UK and Europe in Manchester, it seems likely that Ellliot Durrell’s natural level is probably exactly where he is, for all his quality on the ball.
And so it is almost certain to be with most of the first crop of V9 graduates.
Football at every level is basically a game of horses for courses. A lower level club can prosper with players who are strong and have a good level of fitness and tenacity. Elite league clubs though see an extremely high level of technical ability as a prerequisite, alongside a supporting cast of other athletic, mental and tactical qualities. Qualities that only a few consistently possess.
Understanding where a club is in the pecking order, broadly how they like to play and a sense of their budget, will broadly dictate what they want, what they need and who will sink or swim within their ranks. Though we tend to focus on the ones that get away, the reality is that as an aggregate of what’s out there, the talent tends to rise to the top. It is just at a level further down that everything that’s black and white at the top and bottom of the game takes on endless shades of grey.
Recently I was asked to help find a club for a young African player who’d been playing in Portugal for a well regarded club. Easy on the eye, with a good CV, his highlights showed up well with him excelling as an underage international against the likes of Brazil. A contact put him to an agency that recently took Marko Arnautovic to West Ham, amongst others. Predictably, they couldn’t place him with the feedback loud and clear: “The world is full of good players but too few great ones.” He just wasn’t special enough.
And this is likely to be the ongoing reality for V9. Its founder is looking for another man in his image, The Next Jamie Vardy. He may just have to settle for a procession of the next Danny Newtons and Blair Turgotts.
The reality is that bar the odd, very rare outlier most people and most footballers find their level for good reason. Sadly, it is their fatal flaws, much more than their abilities, defining their chances of success, why they are let go, and why they fail to bounce back up the leagues if they establish themselves lower down.
The Next Jamie Vardy starts on Sky 1 on Saturday 16 September 11am.