It’s tempting to think that, in this day and age of multi-million-pound deals, footballers are all somehow born into the Premier League.
It’s tempting to think that, in this day and age of multi-million-pound deals, footballers are all somehow born into the Premier League. Yet many of the superstars that we know of and love today have had to climb through the ranks the good old fashioned way. They started in non-league teams playing for passion more than anything else, only for their talent to be scouted for life-changing transfers.
Here we take a look at some of the most prolific players to come out of non-league football and into the top tiers of the English divisions.
Jamie Vardy is perhaps the number one success story for non-league players. As a teenager he was dropped by Sheffield Wednesday, moved to non-league to play for Stocksbridge Park Steels, and then on to Halifax Town in 2010.
In these early days, Vardy was already making an impression. He scored 25 goals in 37 appearances at Halifax, the team that Warrington fans will remember from our recent run in the FA Cup. His success only heightened with a transfer to Fleetwood Town in 2011, where he scored 31 league goals to become the top goalscorer in the conference league, and Player of the Year for the team.
Vardy contributed greatly to Fleetwood’s promotion to League Two, though he wasn’t destined to stay at the club to see them through the next season. His next move was to Leicester City, then a Championship side. They must have sensed his potential, as Leicester paid £1 million for Vardy, a record-breaking deal for non-league football at the time.
In 2014, Vardy helped Leicester City win the Championship, proving how crucial one cog can be when it comes to the fluency of the whole machine. It was Vardy’s time to shine, and in the 2015/16 season, Leicester lifted the Premier League trophy, with Vardy securing his spot as the Premier League Player of the Season.
Since then, Jamie Vardy has represented England in Euro 2016, as well as in Russia in 2018. He is a shining example of how a non-league player can, with skill and perseverence, become a household name and a football hero.
Charlie Austin is another world-famous footballer who was once a non-league player. He started out training with Reading youth teams, but was released at 16. Austin found his way into non-league football with Kintbury Rangers, and then later Hungerford Town. When he moved to Bournemouth, Austin became semi-pro in the Wessex League with Poole FC, while also putting in the shifts as a bricklayer.
Austin scored 46 goals in the 2008/09 season and was quickly picked up by Swindon Town. Again his performance was nothing short of impressive, and he scored another 31 goals in 54 games, prompting his move to Championship side Burnley, and then to QPR, where he found his feet and rose with the team to the Premier League. Austin scored 18 Premier League goals before QPR were once again relegated, but he now plays for Southampton.
Gary Hooper also has an excellent story. He started at Grays Athletic, and after playing through multiple divisions was eventually signed by Celtic, before playing for Norwich in the Premier League. Hooper is the only player to score in all 4 of England’s top leagues, both domestic cups, the Champions League, Europa, Scottish Premier League, Scottish League Cup, and Scottish Cup.
It’s easy to focus on the glory of the strikers. That’s how it tends to be. But the hardcore football fan sees the whole picture, from defence to attack, whereas the casual viewer looks only at the goals. Every position counts, and players from all positions have risen up through the ranks from non-league to Premier League.
Honourable mention then goes to Chris Smalling, who started his career at Maidstone and now plays for Manchester United, regular Champions League favourites, and may one day be the club’s captain. Then there’s Steve Finnan, who was rejected at Wimbledon before signing for non-league Welling United. He had many successful seasons with Fulham.
Legendary England keeper Joe Hart also started off in the non-league with Shrewsbury Town, and got the club back up to League Two. Manchester City recruited him, and he eventually went on to win the Golden Glove with the team in 2010/11, as well as being England's first choice keeper. Any position can rise up through the ranks, and players like Smalling, Finnan, and Hart are a testament to that.