As far as rags-to-riches stories go, it’s difficult to top Jamie Vardy’s. The Leicester City scurrier has naturally dominated the column inches this season, and with good reason, sitting as he is atop the league scoring charts. As he smashed in his wondergoal against Liverpool, there was a screenwriter sitting in his personal box, probably with pen (or, indeed, finger poised over iPad) at the ready to inscribe the latest stunning moment in this most remarkable of tales. But Vardy isn’t the only rags-to-riches story in the league this season, and just because his is shining so very beautifully at the moment, it shouldn’t burn so bright as to blind us to the rest.
In 2008, while Vardy was playing for non-league Stockbridge Park Steels, Antonio was suiting up for Tooting & Mitcham United, as a fresh-faced 18 year old. Six years later, both are Premier League players. And while Vardy has become an essential pillar for Leicester’s title tilt, Antonio has been equally busy, cementing his place in the Hammers starting XI. His method of doing so has been tinged with a comfortingly old-fashioned hallmark; hard work.
He arrived at Upton Park with a considerable fee attached, £7 million freshly lining the coffers at Nottingham Forest. He had plied his trade throughout much of the Football League system, and had now arrived at the zenith. But his West Ham career began with a thud, instantly relegated to fifth-from-top in the attacking midfield pecking order, with Dimitri Payet, Manuel Lanzini, Victor Moses and Mauro Zarate all ahead of him. His team began the season in raucous form which – while encouraging for the club prospects – might have deflated the 25-year old Englishman a little; the system was working perfectly, without him in it. Having been so central to Nottingham Forest, here he was, stuck on the bench in the big-time; he appeared just once over West Ham’s first 13 league games.
But then, as West Ham’s first choice attackers were each and all cut down by injury, a chance appeared. There were no illusions here; Antonio was thrust suddenly into the starting XI only by default. But he was there, as ready to affect the match as anyone else on the pitch, and he needed to make his time count. His insertion into the line up coincided with a barren spell of five straight draws, during which his team scored just two goals. Not quite the spectacular attacking impact some of his teammates had made, but Antonio’s work ethic was second-to-none. Graft was the byword for West Ham, and Antonio personified the attitude, as precious points were ground out with much of the team convalescing.
As Antonio found his feet in the top tier, his confidence caught up with his hard-running. He was Man of the Match in the 2-1 win over Southampton, where he scored perhaps the strangest debut goal seen in the Premier League, wildly dribbling himself into a face-plant, and then using said face to deflect Victor Wanyama’s clearance into the goal. Still, they all count, and all of a sudden Antonio’s groove in the bench was gathering dust.
When West Ham faced Liverpool in early January, they were looking to complete a league double, having already romped the Reds 3-0 at Anfield. Here, Antonio set his side on their way, initiating and then completing a superb counter-attack. Tackling Alberto Moreno with venom deep in his own half, Antonio then sprinted the length of the field, to the opposite corner, to slam home a header from close range. It was, in short, a superhuman effort. Having started six consecutive league games, his ethic hadn’t faltered, and hasn’t since; he has played more than 80 minutes in seven of his last 10 league matches, and has run himself ragged in all of them.
By this time, players who had been ahead of Antonio were fit again, but such was his form, Antonio remained the first choice in his position. He had done what was asked of him and more. It was obvious too that his comfort at Premier League level was only quickening his progress. Finishing is all about comfort, and who could argue that Antonio’s goals against Aston Villa earlier this month, or indeed against Liverpool once again this week in the West Ham’s triumphant FA Cup replay, weren’t the product of an attacker with instincts sharpened by the sort of confidence only match-practice can provide. Speaking of that FA Cup replay, an especially harrowing comparison can be made between Antonio’s goal, and recent form, and the host of missed chances and nervy play from the Reds’ own underused marquee Christian Benteke.
Antonio, obviously, isn’t the finished product yet. For all of the fear he might strike into the hearts of Premier League full backs, running madly as he does like a runaway shopping trolley, it is still a style that reeks of a lack of control, more blunderbuss battering than cold, cool dissection. But he has massively improved as a player, and the team has improved as a whole because of it, over these last 12 games. It is encouraging too, for everyone, that, with a little grit, a player can play their way from deep on the bench, out into the warm limelight, even in the moneyed, honeyed world of Premier League football.