Midfielder Jamie McGuire spoke to Matt Halfpenny about the high-flying exploits of former team-mate Jamie Vardy in last week's matchday programme for the game against Dagenham & Redbridge.
Drawing parallels between Leicester City hot-shot Jamie Vardy and tenacious Mansfield Town midfielder Jamie McGuire may seem a little far-fetched, but delve a little deeper and it’s soon apparent that two players plying their trades at opposite ends of the professional football spectrum have far more in common than simply sharing the same Christian name.
These days, there is little which links the two. One is the Premier League’s top scorer with 19 goals, boasts four England caps and is chasing the title with a Foxes side currently leading the way by two points from Tottenham.
The other has spent much of his time at Stags in the engine room battling to further improve the club’s League 2 position.
But a few years ago, the duo’s career paths were far more analogous. Not only were they team-mates at Fleetwood Town, but good friends to boot, helping the North-West club clinch a place in the Football League for the very first time by winning promotion from non-league’s top flight at the end of the 2011-12 season.
Both players, too, were able to revel in that success having made it the hard way after being rejected by professional clubs early in their careers.
Vardy was released by Sheffield Wednesday, only to climb back up the leagues with Stocksbridge Park Steels, Halifax and then Fleetwood, while McGuire underwent a similar journey with the likes of Cammell Laird, Droylsden and the Cod Army, having been deemed surplus to requirements at hometown club Tranmere.
Of course, it is Vardy who has gone on to take his standing to a whole new level, scoring in a record 11 consecutive Premier League games earlier in the season to earn a new contract until 2019 and become the name on everyone’s lips.
But you won’t find the slightest hint of jealousy from McGuire, 32, who is delighted to see his ‘old mucker’ mixing it with some of the best players in the world every week, and putting himself in contention to play for Roy Hodgson’s England in this summer’s European Championships.
“I remember when Jamie Vardy first signed for Fleetwood in the Conference and he was ‘frightening’ – he took the division by storm,” enthuses McGuire. “We had a good squad and some good characters such as Steve McNulty, Andy Mangan (who recently scored Shrewsbury’s FA Cup winner at Cardiff City), Nathan Pond, who is still there, and Lee Fowler.
“But Jamie was the outstanding player in the side and the league (scoring 34 goals in 40 games in all competitions before a £1 million move to Leicester). I think he is the best player I have ever seen at that level and probably will be the best I ever see in non-league, so we ended up winning the league by a record points total.
“Everyone could see he was going to kick on to another level, but it’s great to see just how far he has gone, although it doesn’t surprise me.
“It took him a couple of years to find his feet at the higher level, but he is showing his class now and I’m pleased because he is a great lad. We still text each other regularly and I go down to see him when I can and he gets me the ticket for the odd game. I went round the other week and we had a few games of snooker, a few cups of tea and a catch up.
“You need to stay down-to-earth to keep having the success, but I think Jamie will do that because he is not one to get carried away with things and it hasn’t been an easy ride to the top, so now he will want to stay there.”
A campaign at the top end of the table followed Conference North play-off final success, as the Highbury club showed they were not overawed by playing at Conference level, only for them to be defeated in the play-off semi-finals by AFC Wimbledon.
There were no such problems in the next season, however, bringing the first silverware of McGuire’s senior career and making him a Football League player once more.
McGuire recalls: “That was a fantastic time for me, when I went from being a part-time footballer to being a full-time professional. Fleetwood climbed their way up through the leagues and it was great to be part of something like that.”
For a while, the gritty midfielder fell out of love with the game and didn’t play competitively. It was only when he began playing part-time for the team of shipbuilders Cammell Laird in the North-West Counties League – alongside a job as a pipe insulation and pump fitter – that a spark was re-ignited.
“We had a team full of young lads coming through together. One of them was Jon Walters, who has gone on to play for Stoke in the Premier League and will be going to the Euros with Ireland,” explains McGuire.
“We actually played Eastwood when (former Mansfield boss) Paul Cox was in charge of them and (current first team coach) Richard Cooper was playing. We had always beaten them when we played them in the league and were 1-0 up with a minute to go, but they scored twice late on to win it and deny us.”
Now in his third campaign with the Stags, McGuire has been given an extended run to impress following the turn of the year and was able to help the Stags to three wins and a draw prior to the 3-0 setback at automatic promotion chasers Plymouth Argyle.
He says: “It hits the nail on the head to say there is a real understanding between the players in our squad. They know everyone will not get in all of the time, but that everyone can come in and do a good job when required, as has been proven throughout the season.
“I have got a go of late and have just tried to do as simple a job as instructed by the gaffer (Adam Murray). It was a disappointment at Plymouth, but we now have to get back on track for the final 14 games (at the time of writing) we have to come.
“I would rather be in our position with points on the board and having played a couple more games than some of those chasing. They will now have to play each other, plus they will be playing Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, which is tiring, and we have got that out of the way.”
McGuire currently shares a house in Mansfield Woodhouse with Reggie Lambe and loanee Daniel Alfei. He believes the camaraderie which that garners can only be good for the team.
“We do quite a lot of things together; sitting down and eating for a start, but we also have our own space at the same time,” adds McGuire.
“It’s fair to say that there is plenty of banter and there are a fair few pranks played too!”
But there was no joking around from Mansfield chairman John Radford when he came out and publicly backed the players after a disappointing 2-0 home defeat to Luton as he insisted there was no need to make a raft of changes – and was subsequently rewarded by a decent run from the team that carried them back into the play-off places.
McGuire admits: “It was a massive confidence booster for the players to read the chairman’s comments because he is the boss after all. For him to say we were doing really well laid the foundations for the run we have been on.”