|Fleetwood v Leicester, FA Cup third round|
|Venue: Highbury Stadium Date: Saturday, 6 January Kick-off: 12:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC One, BBC radio 5 live and the BBC Sport website and app|
Jamie Vardy returns to Fleetwood Town in the FA Cup this weekend as a Premier League champion and England international.
Whether he starts, takes a seat on the bench or even in the stands, the Leicester City striker is guaranteed a hero’s reception at Highbury Stadium, where he is still adored by supporters.
Vardy joined Fleetwood from Conference North side Halifax Town for £150,000 in August 2011 and famously left for Leicester just nine months later for £1m, having scored 34 goals in 42 games to fire the club to promotion to the Football League.
Vardy has since played a leading role as Leicester wrapped up a fairytale Premier League triumph two seasons ago and won 19 international caps, including outings at Euro 2016.
But around these parts it’s his Fleetwood exploits that still resonate and he is fondly remembered by former colleagues at the club – and not just for what he did on the pitch.
‘He rolled up in his jeans and his T-shirt’
In August 2011, Fleetwood owner Andy Pilley was desperate. His expensively assembled, newly-promoted side had started the Conference season badly. Seven points from 12 was below expectations but Pilley’s big worry was goals. Fleetwood had scored just three in four games.
Pilley decided to revisit the Vardy option. Vardy had scored 23 in 33 games the previous season as Halifax won the Northern Premier League. He had already got three in four the following campaign.
Fleetwood vice-chairman Phil Brown recalls: “We considered bringing him in earlier but the fee was quite prohibitive for a player at that level. But this was a season where we had great promotion aspirations.
“The chairman, right at the death of the transfer window, decided he would write the cheque. Vardy signed on the penultimate day of the window.
“All the paperwork had been left with me because the secretary was away. He just came wandering into my office with his dad. He rolled up in his jeans and T-shirt, quite nonchalant. He never seemed fazed by anything but I think it was a big deal. It was his first full-time contract.
“We had a game that night against York at home that we wanted him to play in. We arranged for him to go to a local hotel to relax, have something to eat and unwind.”
Cling film, cake, and socks with no toes
Vardy took no time to settle in. He scored his first goals in a 3-2 win at Kettering, three more in his next two games and then, after a suspension following a red card, scored in 19 of his next 27 games, racking up 27 goals in the process.
But Vardy’s impact was not only being felt on the pitch.
Kit manager Danny Moore: “He came into the changing room. A slight lad. Everyone thought, ‘Who is this?’. He didn’t look like a normal footballer. Within a couple of days everyone knew what he was about.
“He got really pally with Jamie McGuire and Andy Mangan. They were the jokers of the group. Things were always going on, general things with clothes and cars. You knew if anything happened those three would be behind it.
“On the chef’s birthday they wrapped his car in cling film and covered it with food. It was planned days in advance. There were bits of food all round. It was totally enclosed. All the lads were hiding and watched the chef come out and walk across the car park. He stopped and looked at the car. It was like take two. Everybody started laughing. He loved it.
“Big things like that were planned but some of it was off the cuff. Tying shoelaces together. Deep heat in clothing. Nobody ever confessed but you just knew. Lads would go to put their socks on and there would be no toes in them. Anyone who was not cute enough to put their stuff out of the way was a target.”
‘Defenders were terrified’
Nathan Pond is Fleetwood’s longest-serving player and was a team-mate of Vardy’s in that 2011-12 campaign.
The pair belong to the same WhatsApp group, have been in touch since the third-round draw was made and have already agreed to exchange shirts this weekend.
Pond: “He wasn’t shy that’s for sure. I am one of the first in on a morning. He used to arrive with a can of Red Bull, jeans, T-shirt, skinhead. You could hear him before he came into the changing rooms, shouting to someone or politely abusing somebody.
“I had never heard of him. The first thing you realised from the first couple of training sessions was his pace. Defenders were terrified of his speed. He was giving defenders 10 yards’ head start and still running past them.
“As a defender, we just had to stay in the game knowing he would create something special. Even basic clearances he could latch on to because he was that quick.”
|Vardy at Fleetwood|
|Joins the Conference Premier club in 2011 from Halifax having helped them win promotion to the Blue Square Bet North|
|Earned £850-a-week playing for Cod Army|
|Helped Fleetwood win the title and their first-ever promotion to the Football League with 31 goals in 36 appearances – he finished top scorer in the league|
|He also scored three goals in four FA Cup appearances that one season, including a strike against Championship club Blackpool|
|Championship side Leicester sign Vardy for an initial £1m – a record fee for a non-league player|
The £1m man
While there has been some doubt over Vardy’s participation because of a groin injury that kept him out of the 3-0 win against Huddersfield on 1 January, he is optimistic he will be involved and his family has hired one of the corporate boxes in Fleetwood’s main stand to watch the game.
It is only Fleetwood’s third appearance at this stage of the competition. Vardy’s goal in the first, a 5-1 defeat by Blackpool, catapulted him to national attention.
Vardy explains: “[Blackpool manager] Ian Holloway came out after the game and starting raving about me. He was the one who said he would pay £1m. That was it. After that the chairman said unless someone pays that, you are not going anywhere.”
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Bids came in that January from Blackpool and West Ham. Pilley told Vardy he could not leave as he had a job to finish. Instead, he increased his salary and promised his record signing should anyone match the offer at the end of the season, a deal would be struck.
Brown: “As the season went on became more obvious what would happen. There were an army of scouts from quite big clubs here for pretty much every home game from a couple of months into the season. It was like a Who’s Who for some games, particularly in midweek when the bigger teams didn’t have games. Then Premier League managers were here.”
The bins need emptying
Vardy’s move to Fleetwood meant he had to leave home for the first time.
He ended up sharing a house with four team-mates. Vardy says it was an enjoyable experience, but it is fair to say keeping it tidy was not top of their agenda.
Moore: “You can imagine a group together. I would go round and there would be bottles and plates on the side. The bins in the kitchen were full. There were takeaway food cartons. I would pick all the stuff up and put it in the kitchen and put stuff in the bin to try and keep it a bit tidy. I was getting rid of as much stuff as I could but I wasn’t going to wash up or hoover.
“The club asked me to make sure the house was being looked after. I said ‘yeah, yeah but it might just benefit from a cleaner going round to give it the once over’.”
Vardy put Fleetwood Town on the map
The warmth of the reunion this weekend will be genuine. However, both parties have their reasons to want to win this tie. Fleetwood have never been to the fourth round, Vardy has never been beyond the fifth, where Leicester were beaten by Millwall last season.
Yet once the spoils are decided, the affection will return for a down-to-earth Yorkshireman, who played a short but significant part in the Fleetwood story.
Pond: “He will get a great reception from the fans and he deserves it. He is their hero. He is the best player Fleetwood have ever had, the one who put the club on the map. Every time he plays for England, Fleetwood get mentioned.
“He is an example to all the young players in our squad: ‘Look at Jamie Vardy. He started at Fleetwood Town’. That is what they should aspire to be like.”
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