Non-league football possesses some of the most hidden gems in English football.
Throughout the EFL, and even the Premier League, there are an array of talented players who have worked their way up from the depths of non-league and have flourished under their new teams, such as the likes of Joe Ward at Peterborough, Joe Lolley at Nottingham Forest and, of course, Jamie Vardy at Leicester City.
With Vardy having just accomplished the incredible achievement of becoming the 29th player since the league began to join the ‘100 club’, after his tap-in following some impressive Harvey Barnes pressing on Saturday, he will forever be remembered as not only a centurion, but also as an inspiration and icon to the non-league players who are yet to be discovered by a side above England’s fifth tier.
But who are they?
Kabongo Tshimanga- Boreham Wood
Boreham Wood have had an excellent 2019/20 campaign after the disappointment of last season, but the recruitment process led by manager Luke Garrard was pivotal in the signing of Oxford City’s Kabongo Tshimanga.
The Congo striker has always been prolific in front of goal, having joined the MK Dons youth team at Under-10’s level he worked his way through the ranks, and after scoring 42 goals in 25 games at Under-18’s level he was granted a position in the Dons squad.
Tshimanga never scored a goal at senior level however, and was shipped out on loan to several different clubs, having stints at Aldershot Town, Chelmsford City, Corby Town, Nuneaton Town, Chesham United, Throttur Reykjavik and Yeovil Town before eventually being released by MK- but Tshimanga would make his former club regret this.
National League North side Boston United took a punt on the youngster, and he had a fairly average season at York Street, disposing 8 goals in 34 games before his one year contract came to a close and manager Craig Elliott decided not to extend his stay in Suffolk.
However, this was the best thing possible for Tshimanga, who was given an opportunity to impress in the National League South at relegation threatened Oxford City, and quickly found his feet for City, even scoring a hat-trick against League Two side Tranmere Rovers in the FA Cup.
At the end of his first tenure for Oxford, Tshimanga had finished as the league’s top scorer, with 24 goals, and received the supporters and player’s player of the season award, as well as being included within the National League South team of the season. It heated up for his signature and quickly became conspicuous that the striker would not be in England’s sixth tier next season, and it was Boreham Wood who secured his signature for the 2019/20 season.
At just the age of 22, Tshimanga has scored 15 goals in 29 games for the Wood, finished as the league’s third top scorer and even represented the England ‘C’ team, but it would require a fee to pry the frontman from Boreham Wood as he has one year remaining on his contract.
Simeon Akinola- Barnet
As Barnet prepare themselves for the National League play-offs, many will be keenly watching and scouting those on show in the journey for EFL football. However, with six clubs battling it out for League Two football, that means five of those clubs will be full of underwhelmed players who are denied the prospect of EFL, with Barnet currently looking like outsiders after only just creeping into the play-offs due to the points-per-game ratio.
The attacker, who has lived from Lagos, to Madrid, to London, began his career at Spanish outfit Alcorcon after a successful trial, but featured for their Under-9’s futsal team before moving to England. He was not lacking football in Britain, as Boreham Wood were the side who snapped him up to join their youth academy where he prospered, scoring 53 goals for the reserves side, before getting his opportunity in the first team. He made 21 appearances for the Wood, scoring 2 goals, but also enjoyed loan spells at Billericay Town and Harrow Borough, which became permanent for a tribunal fee of £2400 in 2012.
Akinola would go onto become a Borough stalwart, making 75 standout performances for the Reds before he was scouted and signed by Braintree Town after two years at Harrow Borough. It would be at Braintree where he would be under the spotlight, being the only notably applauded player in a relegated side, and due to his valiant efforts Barnet were the side to bring him to the EFL in 2017, after over 100 appearances for the Iron.
Just eight months after joining the Bees Akinola was destined to join Lincoln City, but the EFL squandered his move and he has remained at the Hive ever since to the delight of the fans, having made just shy of a century of appearances and having scored 14 goals in 32 games this season. With that sort of form and his age, Akinola is entering the prime of his career and if Barnet do fail to reach the promise land of the EFL, he could be an absolute steal.
Adam Marriott- Kings Lynn Town
Perhaps the most red hot player in non-league football right now, Adam Marriott has been scintillating this season.
The story of Kings Lynn Town has been a fairy tale even Norwich City are enjoying, a phoenix club rising from the ashes and reaching their highest point in history- what’s not to love? The key man in the Linnets National League North title this season has been that man Marriott, who has scored an incredible 28 goals so far this season, eight more than his closest competitor Lee Ndlovu of Brackley Town, and has been a fan favourite for his efforts.
Marriott is no stranger to Norfolk, having began his youth career at local rivals Norwich before joining Cambridge United in order to break into their first team. And the Englishman would go onto do that and become somewhat of a Cambridge staunch, between 2009 and 2014 making a combined 125 appearances for the U’s, including two productive loan spells at Cambridge City and Bishop’s Stortford, and scoring 67 goals in that time.
In July 2014, Stevenage signed Marriott from Cambridge with the promise of EFL football for a five figure fee, he impressed in pre-season, scoring five goals, but only made 19 league appearances for the Boro before his contract expired. He was part of the rebuild job at Lincoln City however, as he was their fourth summer signing to help direct the Imps back in the right direction, as he made 20 appearances but scored just 4 goals in that time.
Eager to get back to his lethal ways, Marriott opted to drop down a few leagues in the hopes of re-discovering his prolific form he had at Cambridge, and this turned out plausible. The striker netted 31 goals in 43 appearances for Royston Town, but left at the end of the season revitalised and was brought in on a free transfer by Boston United in the National League North.
After a stale stint at Boston, Marriott joined Kings Lynn, where he would become a club legend, in October in the Southern League Premier, but flourished for the Linnets and eventually became the leagues top scorer, despite joining it two months later than anyone else. He helped guide his side into the National League North where he has once again burgeoned and thrived under Ian Culverhouse.
Tom Crawford- Notts County
One for the future maybe, Tom Crawford has had a reliable first two seasons at Meadow Lane, since joining from relegated Chester in 2018. The attacking midfielder is just 21 years old, but has acted as an irreplaceable back up to Mitch Rose in midfield, showing the creative flair and spark when coming off of the bench for the Magpies when needed.
Like Barnet and Boreham Wood, Notts County will be contesting in the 2019/20 National League play-offs and with County as one of the favourites, Crawford’s future could be hanging in the balance, he is yet to break into the first team entirely and could lose patience if Neal Ardley doesn’t take a punt on the young man soon.
At the height of 6″1, Crawford was part of the Stoke City academy before being released at the age of 15 and was quickly snapped up by non-league side Chester FC. Following brief senior football and loan spells at Runcorn Town and Leek Town, he broke into the Seals first team and impressed as a youngster in his 17 appearances and due to high interest, he rejected a contract extension at the Deva Stadium and was welcomed by League Two side Notts County.
Despite the fact the Magpies went down, Crawford enjoyed a stint at AFC Fylde on loan and is now awaiting for the play-offs with his side, but his dominating performances in the trequartista role could be key to an EFL club taking a chance on the prolific midfielder.
Brendan Kiernan- Harrogate Town
Creativity in a midfield is pivotal to the attacking presence within the forward play, and Harrogate Town have the perfect outlink with Brendan Kiernan.
Entering the prime of his career, there is no better time for an EFL club to take a punt on Kiernan, who is now 27, and has bags of experience behind him having spent time at twelve different clubs mainly across non-league. The attacking midfielder began his career at Bromley but was signed by the Fulham academy at a young age and excelled.
In fact, he impressed so much that he was allured by Crystal Palace’s youth academy at 16 years old but was released in 2009 to the interest of a number of clubs, yet it was AFC Wimbledon who ended up being his desired destination. At the time, the Dons were brawling it out in the National League and Kiernan only made the singular appearance as his side were promoted to the EFL, but he became a yo-yo player in the squad next season drifting between the bench and the starting line-up and making 16 appearances before being exiting the club by mutual consent following a turmoil of managers.
Kiernan found himself on trial at his local side Bromley in the National League South, where he impressed enough to earn a contract with the Ravens. He had an excellent first season at Hayes Lane, making 39 appearances, scoring 3 goals and assisting 14, but to the disappointment of the fans he opted to leave the club for pastures new and joined Ebbsfleet United at the end of the season. After a brief spell at Staines Town, Ebbsfleet, Lingfield (where he scored 8 goals in 7 games), Hayes and Yeading and once again Bromley, Kiernan had become somewhat lost with his career and was keen to settle down at a club and make a real impact, which is where Hampton and Richmond FC awaited.
In the Ryman Premier League, Kiernan became a club loyal, going onto make 31 appearances, assisting 15 and scoring 12, which is just under a goal contribution a game to put that into perspective. In his time with the Beevers he would go onto help the club sail to promotion to the National League South before leaving for Welling United.
Following a season at Welling, Kiernan joined National League high-flyers Harrogate Town, where he has flourished under Simon Weaver in the club’s play-off campaign. At the age of 27, Kiernan has only played EFL football once which was at AFC Wimbledon, so the creative flair will be hungry for the prospect of proper league football and to really showcase his talents above non-league level.
Which players do you think deserve a chance in the EFL? Leave your answers in the comments below.
Featured Image Credit – Catherine Ivill/Getty Images