For neutrals this has been an amazing, refreshing Premier League season. Finally Tottenham Hotspur have emerged from decades of incompetence and underachievement to challenge for the title with a young squad with an English core under the hugely impressive Mauricio Pochettino. Theirs is a story of the value of hard work, adventurous football and a trust in youth. Everything which Manchester United used to be and rather wish they are now. Five points above them at the summit of the table are the ultimate fairy story, Leicester City, who have gone from relegation certainties to title winners elect in twelve months on a relative shoestring, managed by the impossibly likeable Claudio Ranieri, who has few titles on his CV and whose previous job as manager of Greece was essentially ended when he lost home and away to the Faroe Islands.
From comical failure and ridicule to being on the verge of one of the most remarkable successes ever seen in English football. He, his club and Spurs have the majority of the country wishing them well. Leicester in particular are a much needed reminder that nothing is impossible in football and that the closed shop in which the top of the Premier League has operated in recent years is not as exclusive as we imagined.
However, as a Manchester United fan the Leicester success is somewhat tainted and I find myself willing Spurs to overhaul them. When I try to rationalise it this feels deeply unfair of me. The likes of Ranieri, the nicest of good guys, Mahrez, Drinkwater, Albrighton et al deserve their success and all of the money, accolades and goodwill that will come their way as a result. However, I cannot see past my deep dislike of one man at the club: Jamie Vardy.
Vardy is supposed to be the ultimate in fairy stories, non-league footballer turned England star, all achieved through hard work and an unshakable belief in his ability. I get that, and he should be admired for making his dreams come true. One problem for me is that he’s not a particularly nice man. The video of his relentlessly racially abusing a casino employee is a deeply disconcerting one. The man in question had done nothing to Vardy other than catch his eye and the player only stopped when his girlfriend and friends persuaded him to move along. This is not normal drunken behaviour, the kind of thing that can happen to anyone when drink causes you to take leave of your senses. I have been steaming drunk a thousand times and have never racially abused anyone, never physically assaulted someone, never driven a car under the influence. The alcohol simply unlocks something in a person’s character that when sober and in control they recognise is not socially acceptable and so keep to themselves. Alcohol merely dulls the inhibitions.
Fast forward to last Sunday and Leicester’s vital home match against West Ham. The home side led through a typically excellent finish from Vardy but then, seeking a second, the striker surged into the box, defender alongside him, before throwing his lower limbs to his right, into said defender and going down trying to earn a penalty. Referee Jon Moss was wise to this trick and promptly gave Vardy his second yellow card, consigning him to an early bath which would ultimately cost his side two points. Angered at having been caught out Vardy made sure that Moss knew that he considered him to be a ‘f*cking c*nt’ before trapsing off the field. We are still waiting to see if any further punishment will be forthcoming.
I have to admit that I felt a surge of schadenfreude within me as this was taking place, as well as when West Ham scored twice late on to put Leicester’s Dream on hold. My dislike for Vardy is immense, fuelled by his general character and something which happened 18 months ago which has deeply affected my footballing experience ever since. On the 21st of September 2014 Manchester United travelled to Leicester having made a poor start to the season. However, a 4-0 home win over QPR had raised spirits and confidence. With Di Maria, Falcao, Rooney and Van Persie at the club goals and excitement were not unreasonably expected over the coming season. At the King Power Stadium United lived up to expectations. Playing an attacking, vibrant system the away side were soon two up through Van Persie and a truly world class finish from Di Maria. When Herrera added a third just short of the hour (Ulloa had already cut the deficit) Leicester’s goose appeared cooked. Enter Jamie Vardy, gathering the ball on the left hand side of the box. He stepped inside the challenge of right back Rafael to make space either to run on goal or cross for a teammate. Instead he did neither, throwing himself to the ground under the most minimal of contact. The referee awarded the penalty which David Nugent scored and the rest is history. The crowd roared, filled with renewed hope, and United’s injury-hit back line capitulated, conceding a further three goals for a humiliating 5-3 defeat from a game they had totally under control.
Whilst there were wider issues at play than Vardy’s blatant act of cheating, weaknesses within the United squad which would have been exposed at some point, the Leicester defeat clearly scarred Louis Van Gaal. Out went attacking verve and in came two holding midfielders and excessive caution, a conservatism which has endured to this day. We cannot predict future events, or know how life might have been had circumstances been different, but we do know that Vardy’s dive directly precipitated United’s manager’s long, painful, tedious drift into extreme conservatism and the subsequent drain it has had on the fans.
And so, for some, Leicester’s ‘fairytale’ isn’t quite as pure as we may be led to believe. A part of me hopes that they do get over the line, for the sake of Ranieri and the vast majority of his players. But I did take pleasure in Vardy getting some comeuppance for diving last weekend and am pleased that his subsequent tirade against Jon Moss showed the world his true colours. If it and any subsequent ban costs his club the Premier League title then he will have to live with that for the rest of his days. It will be an outcome from which I will take great satisfaction, because he deserves to suffer for his actions, just as his actions have made me suffer the last 18 months of United’s football under Louis Van Gaal.