Lifting a pint at Jamie Vardy's old pub
SHEFFIELD, United Kingdom -- Long before he scored a goal against Wales in the Euros, or led Leicester City to a miracle title, Jamie Vardy was a punk kid who played for his local pub, The Anvil, which sits on a corner on the outskirts of town. Most great footballers his age were already in the training academies of the world's biggest clubs, being groomed for stardom, but he couldn't seem to make anyone believe in his talent. After being released from a local professional club, he started over. From the pub team and a factory job to the lowest rungs of professional football, he climbed.
"If he wasn't in football," a guy drinking in the Anvil said not long ago, "he'd be doing a menial job somewhere, working at the f---ing supermarket. But the kid has done well, I admire him. He didn't quit."
The punk kid line, by the way, isn't conjecture or one more media opinion about Vardy, who, along with his wife, Becky, has become tabloid fodder. The guys sitting at the bar called him much worse, in that lovable sort of way that says they are proud of him.
"I saw him about six months ago," a regular named Chris says, "just driving up here in a big ... "
"... Bentley," Fred says.
"He waved to me," Chris says.
They've known Vardy most of his life.
"He thumped a kid," the bartender Fred says.
"He'd cause a fight and run away from it," Chris says laughing, "and let the rest of the lads fight it out."
Fred is 79 years old, and he remembers the Blitz. His parents ran the Elephant Inn, one of the two pubs on Fitzalan Square, and one night in 1940, nearly 300 German bombers targeted the mills outside of town. The air raid sirens sent everyone running in a panic. His mom dragged him toward a shelter. The man who ran the other pub, The Marples, invited them to take cover inside his place, where people huddled in the dark. His mom kept moving, down underground, where they waited. A navigation mistake caused the Germans to release their bombs over the city center and Sheffield burned. When the all-clear finally sounded, and she led Fred back home, they passed the smoldering rubble that had been the Marples. Seventy people inside died. The Elephant Inn sat untouched. Fred served in the Army, and then worked on the railroads, and in the steel mills, and for 25 years as a postman, and the last 20 behind the bar here, pouring pints for his blue-collar regulars.
Chris raised his glass of Magnet bitter.
"My father drank it and my grandfather drank it, and his father," he said. "In a few years, they're doing away with it. Youngsters now drink lagers."
People come in and out, and the guys worry about another regular who should have been in by now. A lot of older guys suffer from health issues, not unusual in a place where so many made their living doing dangerous jobs with their hands. A local gambler hit a few races big and bought people drinks. One man brought in his lunch from home since the pub doesn't serve food anymore. He unwrapped his sandwich and ate it slowly. Sometimes, a poacher will come in and sell pheasants and rabbits killed on the wealthy people's land.
"This is a working-class pub," a regular says. "We all vote Labour. All working men."
Almost nobody from the outside ever comes in. Vardy grew up in an insulated, tribal world, which manifests itself in many ways in his public behavior, from his tweets in blue-collar slang to people who criticized him -- "chat s--- get banged," he wrote, which is now on popular T-shirts in Leicester -- to his racist abuse of an Asian man in a casino, which got caught on security cameras. Most Premier League fans love his working-class roots -- he once played games while wearing an ankle monitor because he'd been arrested defending a friend in a bar fight, and that all began in places like the Anvil.
The local pub team provided a bright spot in a long week, and the players gathered on Sundays to celebrate the match. The owner would put out a big bowl of chips and curry, or maybe some bacon baps or sandwiches, and everyone would just hang out.
Those days are gone.
The team disbanded a few years ago, and the guys can't seem to agree on whether it was two or four.
"They all grew up together and got married and got families," a regular says. "Eight of the footballers, they are all moved away from Sheffield, they all got wives and children. They drink beer and talk about Vardy. That's their claim to fame."
The rain outside got heavier and it turned to hail. Whatever plans the men had fell away, as they took shelter in pints of Magnet and the company of friends. Chris and Fred passed the afternoon telling stories about the city.
"Everybody in Sheffield is the same," Chris said. "Everybody. My father, he was 15 years Royal Navy. And he worked in the steel. Sheffield was gray."
"The smoke," Fred said.
"The smell of steel," Chris said. "When I lay in bed at night, I could hear the hammers going," as he banged his hand on the bar in time to his memories. They made a joke about making love in time to the mills, and Fred poured another round for the men killing time in the bar. This is where Jamie Vardy comes from, not only this actual pub but the world which surrounds it, or at least whatever is left.
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.