GOOGLE ‘The next Jamie Vardy’ and, in less than a second, you will be greeted with 641,000 results. From Stocksbridge Park Steels to Premier League champion, England international and Hollywood movie, the striker is Non-League’s poster boy.
And everyone wants to find his successor, not least the man himself. That’s why he’s set up his V9 Academy with the aim to give players an opportunity of his own.
Since launching last year, applications have flooded in and the scouts, led by Head of Recruitment and Project Leader Lee Tucker, have been scouring the country.
In all, 42 players will be selected for a five-day programme held at Manchester City’s world-class Etihad Campus in June. The culmination will be a game in front of nearly every football club in the country and some from abroad with the chance to earn a professional move.
Tucker has been busy signing players up to V9, and he can already sense the excitement.
“Jamie’s story resonates with so many people in Non-League,” he says. “He’s like the archetype; a player who has gone from the level they’re playing at to an England international.
“The players have been so excited about the prospect of coming on V9. They’re so enthusiastic. They see Jamie as what can happen. There’s the potential. ‘It could happen to me’. It’s that hope.
“One of the really rewarding things about this job has been listening to the players who maybe thought their chance had gone. They’d missed out on the academy system or they’d been let go from it, got to 22, 23 or 24 and think, ‘That’s me now. I don’t get back in’.
“I think this is where V9 is really filling that void for players who are still good enough to play at a higher level. It’s that opportunity for them to show the scouts that will be there in the week.”
Most clubs have bent over backwards to help, but Tucker admits it hasn’t always been a smooth process with some sceptical about the idea. He’s hoping the success of the first year will build momentum into the second year.
He says: “In some ways it might look like it’s too good to be true. ‘So this doesn’t cost us anything and we get all of the transfer fee if they get a move?’
“I think some are wondering, ‘Where’s the catch?’ But there’s no catch, it’s just what Jamie wants to do to put something back into the place where he’s come from himself.”
Former Hibs and Rotherham boss Alan Stubbs is one of a handful of top coaches who will oversee the week-long training camp at V9.
He’ll be joined by his assistant John Doolan, QPR duo Chris Ramsey and Simon Ireland, Sunderland’s Robbie Stockdale, Sheffield United U23 coach Travis Binnion and Bristol City goalkeeper coach David Coles. ]
Stubbs offers insight from the other end of the spectrum, and how Non-League players are perceived at the top of the game.
“Clubs have certainly broadened their horizons when it comes to a scouting point of view,” Stubbs says. “They would predominantly look at the Championship and League One. More or less browse over League Two and then it would be European-based.
“Now, the publicity and the proof of what’s happened over the last few years with Vardy and Andre Gray, everyone knows they are there, it’s just whether they want to look hard enough.”
He also believes there’s a certain romance that supporters buy into when it comes to a rags to riches story like Vardy’s. ]“The biggest thing, from the outside looking in, is people appreciate someone coming through in that way,” he says.
“They know they’ve had ups and downs, they’ve not taken ‘no’ for an answer, they feel they are good enough and when they finally get the opportunity you say, ‘He deserves it’.
“He’s not come through an academy where sometimes it’s false. They’ve gone out there, took the bumps but come through the other side. There always seems to be a greater respect for someone when they do that.”
Stubbs says the benefits of life at the bottom of the ladder is plain to see when it comes to producing players to win football matches.
“It’s vital U21 players can encounter that because it’s the one thing the Premier League and top Championship U21 teams can’t replicate,” he says.
“They can’t give them that experience. Going out on loan to Non-League clubs gives them that experience of what it is really like on a Saturday at 3pm when you have to earn three points and all your training in the week comes down to that 90 minutes of football.”
A six-part Sky Sports documentary will show the process of selecting the V9 candidates, with the film crew out at grounds every weekend. But while they close in on their final selection, Tucker says there’s still time for players to burst onto the radar.
“We’ve gained real momentum since signing up players, but there is still time for people to apply from Step 1 to Step 5 and we’re still out at games,” Tucker says.
“We’ve got names in the frame, but it doesn’t mean to say there aren’t places still to go for.”