For the first time in years England fans up and down the country exploded in joy over a goal that was scored in a friendly. Jamie Vardy’s flick at the near post past the best goalkeeper in the world Manuel Neuer was very much the kind of goal Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne would have scored, and in many ways, the two are remarkably similar.
In other ways they are nothing alike, Gascoigne was one of the best players of his generation and perhaps the most gifted to ever wear the shirt of the Three Lions while Vardy, although a remarkable success story, will never be remembered as a world class player. We will leave that to Dele Alli.
Where they do draw comparison though is the way both have them have captured a nation.
Gascoigne put smiles on football fans’ faces at a time when the sport was in the doldrums. The Geordie made his first-team debut for boyhood club Newcastle United in 1985 – the same year of the Heysel disaster, the same year as the Bradford fire disaster and four years before Hillsborough. Football in England around that time was also a period where pitch invasions were commonplace all over for reasons of violence and not those of celebration more typically seen in 2016.
Gazza’s brilliance helped provide the sort of distraction that only sport can from such dark times he also made a big contribution to the transformation of football with his dazzling displays at Italia ’90. Those tears in the semi-final against west Germany put football in a good light again and would lead to the formation of the Premier League two years later which has led to a more commercialised game but also a safer one that more traditionally welcomes families as opposed to just dads and sons.
The tears that captivated a nation: Gazza cries at Italia 90
And this is where Vardy comes in. Due to the amount of money in the Premier League the so-called ‘top’ teams dominate. Chelsea and Manchester City, who 20 years ago were not typically challenging for titles, have been crowned champions three of the last four years thanks to Russian and Abu Dhabi billionaires respectively.
This year, however, some new kids are in town: Leicester City, and Vardy is the poster boy.
While football is thankfully no longer trapped in the unmitigated horror that is constant tragedies and a fear of going to matches, the modern fan is so disillusioned with the game due to ever-increasing ticket prices and football players being multi- millionaires that the beauty has been in danger of being lost but Vardy is bringing it back.
Just over a decade ago, Vardy was playing non-league football with Stocksbridge Park Steels after being released from his beloved Sheffield Wednesday. In 2012, as England were preparing for their last European Championships, Vardy was still in the Conference with Fleetwood Town and now he is one of the top scorers in the country’s top division and will probably be on the plane to France in the summer.
People enjoy Vardy because the Leicester striker could be one of them. The man playing with mates in a park and ten years later stepping foot in the Premier League in true cliché ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff. Gascoigne is much the same, the local lad who supported and played for local club and, it would not be unfair to say, did not possess the most athletic stature, but this again endears him to the people who watched him. That could be me.
Although, to both Vardy and Gascoigne, there is a darker side.
Gascoigne has had a very troubling and very public battle with alcoholism and has admitted to being violent to now ex-wife Sheryl during their marriage whereas Vardy has been filmed being racist to a Japanese man in a casino but we don’t like to remember these events, perhaps wrongly, but such is sport. It gives us great memories and we don’t want them tarnished.
If England do the impossible and win Euro 2016 Vardy will have gone one better than Gascoigne and done the thing Gazza always dreamed of – leading England to a major tournament win.
We are barely at Christmas and the 2015-16 Premier League season has given us plenty of talking points already. From surprise table-toppers Leicester City to Chelsea – the holders who have fallen from grace – and, of course, a certain Jamie Vardy – but more on him later.
The winter festivities bring out many celebrations and, most enjoyably, an even more bumper football fixture list. It is also the time of the year we see people start to talk about the end-of-season awards – here is BenjaminWillsBlog’s pick of the top 11 men so far.
Goalkeeper: Jack Butland (Stoke City)
Even before this season Jack Butland was lauded as one for the future for the England team – his inclusion into the Euro 2012 squad at just 19 years of age proved that but recent performances could already have him pushing for a start at the next Euros.
Asmir Begovic’s switch to Chelsea in the summer paved the way for Butland to make the number one shirt at Stoke City his own and he has grabbed the opportunity, like most crosses he has faced, with both hands.
Butland has made 56 saves and kept seven clean sheets (second to Costel Pantilimon and Heurelho Gomes respectively), but he has an average save-per-game rating of 3.29 and a 98% success rate at claiming crosses.
Honourable Mentions: Heurelho Gomes (Watford) and Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Right-Back: Cedric Soares (Southampton)
Perhaps an early surprise name on the team sheet ahead of Hector Bellerin and Kyle Walker – mainly due to Southampton failing to build on their seventh placed spot from 2014-15, but Cedric Soares has filled the Nathaniel Clyne-shaped hole in the Saints’ defence seamlessly.
The Portuguese full-back has won 38 tackles – more than Arsenal’s Bellerin and Walker of Tottenham having played a game less than the former and two less than the latter and he has made nine blocks – six more than Walker and seven more than Bellerin. He also has just one fewer clearance than the pair.
Soares also plays a role in the opposing half superbly. He has created 18 chances and made 17 key passes, yes, you guessed it, six more than Walker and eight more than Bellerin.
Honourable Mentions: Hector Bellerin (Arsenal) and Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur)
Centre Back: Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
Even the most diehard Manchester United fan, in fact, especially the most diehard Manchester United fan, will tell you that the Red Devils have not been fun to watch this season – but Chris Smalling is one man who gives them reasons to be cheerful.
Louis van Gaal’s defensive tactics has stunted the normally attack-minded Manchester United in front of goal but on the flip side it makes them pretty sturdy at the back and Smalling is the finest example of that.
Smalling has had a hand in United having eight clean sheets from the 16 league matches where he has featured – the only one he missed was the humiliating 2-1 loss at AFC Bournemouth.
Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal for Manchester United
Centre Back: Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal)
“Best defender in the Premier League” – those are the words of Rio Ferdinand and Thierry Henry, both esteemed pundits and football legends, high praise indeed – and Laurent Koscielny has justified it this season.
The mercurial Frenchman has been ‘le Roche’ at the back for the Gunners as they make their latest bid to win the title for the first time since the historic 2003-2004 “Invincibles” side.
Koscielny’s display in the recent 2-1 win over fellow title-chasers Manchester City was arguably his performance of the season with Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne and Wilfried Bony all failing to cause him much trouble – only a wonderful Yaya Toure goal prevented Arsenal from keeping their eighth clean sheet.
Under the Kos-h: Best defender in the league? Yes according to Ferdinand and Henry
Honourable Mentions: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), Steve Cook (AFC Bournemouth), and John Stones (Everton)
Left-Back: Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
Patience is a virtue, as is hard work, Nacho Monreal has both in abundance. Just two years ago you were more likely to see Monreal on the Arsenal bench while Kieran Gibbs occupied the left-back role, now roles have reversed and Monreal has even became one of the league’s finest in the position.
He also finds himself overlooked in the Spain squad with Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta of Barcelona and Chelsea respectively preferred over him but if he carries on like this he may get his deserved chance.
Arsenal, as ever, are impressing with their flair game of pass-and-move, which Monreal does contribute to too, but it is his work rate first and foremost that has endeared him to his fans.
Quite a Dish: He had to wait, but Nacho is proving to be a great starter
Honourable Mentions: Nathan Ake (Watford) and Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)
Centre Midfielder: Ross Barkley (Everton)
What a yo-yo player Ross Barkley is proving to be – down, up, down, up…
Barkley properly burst onto the scene in 2013-14, three years after he broke his leg, and scored six goals in 34 games in his debut full season in the Premier League but last season he only scored two goals and registered two assists.
This campaign however he has truly blossomed, he already has six goals and six assists to his name, he has made 31 key passes and created 33 chances from the heart of the Everton midfield, pulling the strings like many expected of him at an even earlier age. France, here he comes.
Centre Midfielder: N’Golo Kante (Leicester City)
Every good side needs a midfield enforcer and league leaders Leicester City (yes, really), have one in N’Golo Kante.
The previously relative unknown Kante was snapped up in the summer from Ligue 1’s SC Caen for £5.6 million, just one year after playing in France’s second tier for the same club and, for the time being at least, he finds himself top of the Premier League table.
Practically everyone in Leicester’s path have been outfoxed from August to December and, if Claudio Ranieri’s men keep up the story of the season, Kante could be commanding a higher transfer fee in six months time.
Unpredicted star: N’Golo Kante believe how well he has done but Caen can
Honourable Mentions: Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur) and Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace)
Right Midfielder: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
A Leicester player for Player of the Season? Only in 2015-16. Riyad Mahrez has been a star for the side many tipped for relegation before a ball was kicked.
Mahrez has been involved in 18 of Leicester’s 37 goals this season (11 goals, seven assists) which is more than any other player in the league.
He only scored three goals in the year Leicester got promoted to the Premier League from the Championship and netted a solitary one more last season. Keeping hold of the Algerian beyond January seems crucial if the Foxes want the fairytale to have a happy ever after.
Wing Wizard: Mahrez is Algeria’s most dangerous export since petroleum
Blink during an Arsenal match and you will probably miss an assist from Mesut Ozil. The 27-year-old German has set up 15 league goals already, as many as David Silva has in a single season and only five fewer than the Premier League record over an entire season held by Henry, also of Arsenal.
Ozil has found the back of the net of his own accord twice, made 52 key passes and created a whopping 67 chances for the rest of Arsene Wenger’s squad.
If the Gunners are going to win their first title in 12 years, the King of Assists is going to need to keep providing moments of magic as, at times, he completely runs the game almost single-handedly.
Honourable Mentions: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) and Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
Left Midfielder: Dmitri Payet (West Ham United)
West Ham United’s impending move to the Olympic Stadium is expected to attract some big names to east London, but that process began as early as this June when Dmitri Payet signed for the happy Hammers for around £12 million.
Payet recorded the fourth highest assist total in Europe last season for Marseille (17), only then Wolfsburg man de Bruyne (20), Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi (both 18) provided more.
He started in England how he finished in France too, he scored five goals, made three assists, created 46 chances and fashioned 43 key passes in just 12 games. Unfortunately, an ankle injury sustained in November stopped him in his tracks and it could rule him out for up to another two months.
Child’s Play: Payet has made Premier League defences look like dummies
Honourable Mentions: Gerard Deulofeu (Everton) and Sadio Mane (Southampton)
Striker: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
Where do you start with Jamie Vardy? His story? Only naturally. Non-league Halifax Town to Premier League Golden Boot via Fleetwood in four years is literally film worthy if the DailyMail are to be believed. In fairness, his rise has been something more akin to Hollywood film sets rather than English football pitches.
Vardy only scored five goals throughout last season as Leicester narrowly stayed up but the Sheffield-born striker has 15 in 17 currently, with 13 of them coming in 11 consecutive games – overthrowing Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of adding to the score-sheet for ten games on the trot.
While Wayne Rooney continues to struggle for United, England could may well have a trick up their sleeve in Vardy to lead the line at next summer’s European Championships in France.
Jamie Vardy’s having a party: The Leicester man can’t stop scoring
Honourable Mentions: Odion Ighalo (Watford) and Romelu Lukaku (Everton)