For millions of children across the globe, playing professional football in the English Premier League remains the ultimate goal. With money pouring into the English game and at an exponential rate, the elite clubs now possess scouting networks which can discover any young talent, from every corner of the earth. In fact, clubs like Chelsea have since ran into trouble by using this method of player recruitment so much.
In 2017, the Premier League had the highest percentage of foreign players of any European League which was an obvious worry for the England manager Gareth Southgate.
So, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the old fashion, ‘rag to riches’ route of non-league part timer to Premier League football star is a thing of the past. But you’d be wrong.
Of course, Jamie Vardy’s remarkable rise from Stockbridge Park Steels to Leicester City and England is the most documented example. Vardy had a deadly scoring record in non-league football scoring just under a goal per game for Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town before securing a non-league record transfer to then Championship side Leicester City for £1 million. He since has become an England international and right now it’s hard to argue that he’s the most in-form striker in the Premier League with eleven league goals this campaign.
But Vardy is not alone in climbing the football pyramid from base to summit. Troy Deeney, Charlie Austin and Chris Smalling are just a few who have made the same journey and are now plying their trades in top divisions across Europe.
So, with all this money sloshing around and foreign managers dominating the Premier League hotseats, are these clubs in fact neglecting local, homegrown talent and missing the ‘diamonds in the rough’ lurking down the divisions?
I’ve recognised the amount of non-league players transferring to Football League clubs is increasing. I’ve played against many of them. Managers in the Football League now are realising that players from non-league are honest, hungry and experienced in playing men’s football. Three vital attributes that managers want. I’ve never been a big believer of the U23’s leagues which are meant to mould elite young players into becoming professionals. Matches are often slow, lack competitiveness and a hard watch. Admittedly, they can help the young, potential superstars develop and the teams offer mirror their first team counterparts, but the cold reality is that very few youngsters at these Premier League clubs ever make their debuts.
It’s a stark contrast when looking at the top of the non-league pyramid. The matches are fast and furious. Yes, the style of matches may be less aesthetically pleasing to the football purist, but passion and full commitment are always apparent.
So, what am I suggesting? It’s a double-edged sword. I think there has never been a better time to be playing non-league football. If you consistently play well and impress, then there is ample chance you’ll get the offer to play higher and turn professional. Some players receive this opportunity but decide to remain part-time rather than become a full-time professional.
It’s understandable because a player can often earn more money for his/her family if they play non-league football and have a regular day job. But I would implore players to take a chance and become the best player you can be.
On the other hand, if you’re a young professional in the Football League, sitting on the bench for the first team or playing in the 23’s league every week, I would strongly suggest you go on loan to a lower league side. Play adult football, play in front of passionate non-league crowds and fight for the three points every week which means so much to them.
When at Wycombe Wanderer’s I often sat on the bench as a youngster getting thirty minutes here and the odd start there. I would often make good impacts but overall it was very difficult to play my best football because I was never in a rhythm. I was twenty-four years old when I played my first full season (fifty plus games for Hampton & Richmond). It was the most enjoyable season I had had albeit and a lower level than Wycombe. I learnt a huge amount and played some of my best football. But looking back, I probably left it too late. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Go play week in, week out and enjoy your football!