In this season’s FA Cup some non-league names have made themselves known across the country, especially those of Lincoln City and Sutton United, with Lincoln becoming the first non-league team in over a century to reach the quarter-finals. The Imps will travel to the Emirates to play Arsenal, who defeated Sutton at Gander Green Lane in the previous round. Prior to this encounter I look at some of the top players in England who played in the Conference or even lower.
Chris Smalling – Maidstone United
The current Manchester United centre-back played in the depths of the Isthmian Premier League for Kent side Maidstone United in the 2007/08 season, Smalling had to juggle playing in front of a few thousand people and being included in England youth teams. Smalling was bought by then-Premier League-side Fulham for an initial fee of £10,000 after Smalling returned from joining Middlesbrough after complaining of being homesick. Smalling has played for Manchester United 149 times and has 29 caps for England.
Dwight Gayle – Bishop’s Strotford
Gayle is currently the 2nd top scorer in the Championship for top of the table Newcastle, scoring 21 goals in England’s 2nd division this season. During the 2011/10 season, Gayle played for Conference North side Bishop’s Strotford while on loan from Dagenham and Redbridge, through out the course of the season Gayle bagged 29 goals in 42 games earning him a move to Peterborough the following season and then making the switch to Premier League team Crystal Palace for a reported £4.3 in 2013.
Troy Deeney – Halesowen Town
In 2006 Troy Deeney was signed by League Two side Walsall and immediately loaned out to the little-known Halesowen Town, who then played in the Southern Premier League in the 7th tier of the English football pyramid. Deeney scored 8 goals in 10 games as the Yeltz finished 6th in the league, missing out of a play-off place by 2 points. Deeney ended up at Watford in 2010 and is now a regular scorer in the Premier League and is club captain, with many tipping him to be included in Roy Hodgson’s England squad in the build-up to Euro 2016.
Charlie Austin – Kintbury Rangers, Hungerford Town, Thatcham Town (never played), Poole Town
Southampton striker Charlie Austin spent most of the beginning of his career in the lower leagues of English football. Austin played 99 games in non-league football between 2006 and 2009 before joining Swindon, holding a very impressive goal to game ratio, especially for Poole Town where he scored 48 games in 42 games. Since Austin made it into professional football he has been proven as a prolific Premier League striker for QPR and Southampton but his career has been hampered by injuries, without these setbacks he would certainly have played for England.
Jamie Vardy – Stocksbridge Park Steels, Halifax Town, Fleetwood Town
Perhaps the greatest rags-to-riches football story of the modern era, England striker Jamie Vardy has only ever played for one professional football club and that is his current club Leicester City obviously. Before his title heroics of the 2015/16 season where Vardy scored 24 goals as he helped Leicester win their first ever league title, he was plying his trade in non-league football. In the 2011/12 season Vardy was the top scorer in the Conference with Fleetwood town, earning them promotion to the football league, at the end of the season Vardy was the first £1m non-league player when he joined Leicester and the rest is history.
So throughout the years, non-league football has been a great proving ground for some top English players. Every club have it’s own hidden gem that could make it at the top of the English game while some clubs just have cult heroes whether they are Matt Rhead or Wayne Shaw.
What other great talents have come from non-league? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by Franziska