Jamie Vardy’s academy helps non-League players follow in his footsteps

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After his well-publicised rise from non-League to English champion, the Leicester striker has launched a project to allow others to take the same route

10 December ~ Everyone knows the Jamie Vardy story by now. Released by Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, he was forced to start at the bottom with Stocksbridge Park Steels. Moves to Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town gave him the platform to impress, and a £1 million transfer to Leicester City in the summer of 2012 changed the course of his life.

Vardy’s own experience was the inspiration behind the V9 Academy, which he established last year, aiming to promote the best non-League players and help them to reach the Football League. Danny Newton was one of its first recruits and most notable success stories. Then at Tamworth, the offer to take part came about unexpectedly, as he recalls: “We were playing AFC Fylde. They were top of the league at the time and beating everyone by four or five goals. The V9 scouts had come to watch a few of their players but I ended up playing really well. I battered their defenders about and scored the winner. We won 1-0 and I got a message on Twitter a couple of days later asking me to apply.”

A tireless, hard-working striker in the Vardy mould, Newton was enjoying the most prolific season of his career and would end up with 28 goals for Tamworth in the National League North. He filled in the application form and was then invited to the King Power Stadium to meet Vardy, along with two other non-League players who had been signed up. The trials took place in June 2017.

“You go to the Etihad Campus for a week and stay over. You train for four or five days with the V9 coaches and then play a couple of games at the end of the week in front of scouts from all over. It’s basically putting you in the shop window,” says Newton. “It was obviously the first of its kind when I was on it and a lot of the lads didn’t know what to expect. People were trying harder than they needed to, and doing stuff they wouldn’t normally do. As we got into the week, a lot of the coaches and the staff who were working there reminded us that we were here for a reason and to play our own game.”

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It clearly worked for Newton, who scored the winner against a PFA side made up of released players looking for new clubs, and soon had an offer on the table from Stevenage. At 26, and after a decade of playing senior football for non-League clubs such as Hinckley United, Nuneaton Town, Barwell and Leamington, he’d finally made it to the professional ranks.

“I always felt like I was good enough but I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to show it. It was nice to finally get it to happen. It’s better late than never. A lot of teams are now looking at non-League players because there are obviously good ones out there. It can be done,” he says.

“There are a lot of things I learned in non-League that I probably wouldn’t have done at a youth academy. That experience toughened me up. It’s hard graft going to work full-time and then heading straight to training afterwards. You play on Saturday and then you’re back to work on Monday. You’re constantly chasing time. It can be a hard slog.”

After earning a move to Stevenage, and becoming the first of the V9 Academy to make the step up to the Football League in the process, Newton started the season in great form, scoring on his debut in a 3-3 draw with Newport County. That goal settled his nerves and he had six in his first 11 games as a professional footballer. Although that rate slowed, he still ended up with 16 from 51 appearances in all competitions, to finish as the club’s top scorer and player of the year.

“I’m very self-critical, but if someone had offered me that when I signed, I’d have snapped their hand off. I won some awards too at the end of the season so it was pretty positive in that sense, but looking back I always want to do better.”

Newton, a former maintenance engineer, was rewarded for his performances with a new contract back in August. After successfully adapting to the demands of full-time training, and bridging the gap to League Two, he’s confident of helping Stevenage to challenge for promotion alongside another V9 Academy graduate, Luther Wildin. The 20-year-old right-back was also signed up to take part in Vardy’s project when Stevenage bought him from Nuneaton at the end of last season. Both are now key components in Dino Maamria’s side, steeled by the experience of non-League and embracing a new opportunity. Sean Cole

This article first appeared in WSC 381, December 2018. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here