Like any sport, football has a soft, romantic underbelly. One of the reasons the FA Cup is held in much higher regard than any other knockout competition in this country is the notion of a group of part-time binmen triumphing against the mega-rich Premier League superstars.
Running this a close second is the rags-to-riches tale of the binman who secures a contract from his local park club to Manchester United in a dream move, and in recent years the romantics in the game have more reason to get misty-eyed over Roy of the Rovers tales, as clubs are increasingly looking towards non-league for the rough diamonds to fire them to glory.
Fergie may not have come calling but Neil Warnock and Alan Pardew certainly have. The former has just signed striker Simon Thomas from Ryman Premier outfit Boreham Wood while Charlton snapped up Conference top scorer Stuart Fleetwood last month and have also had Team Bath’s prolific striker Sean Canham – who found the net an incredible 41 times last season – on trial. Meanwhile, Yeovil Town have signed no fewer than 4 players from the Blue Square South and below over the summer as they prepare for another push for promotion from League 1.
But this isn’t necessarily a throwback to the days where the likes of Les Ferdinand, Iain Dowie, and before them Kerry Dixon would start out with non-league teams, or drop down to part-time football after failing to secure a full-time contract.
Non-league players today have never had a chance for greater exposure with Setanta Sports televising the Blue Square Premier, the managers know many teams in the Conference have now gone full-time, while the part-time teams have upped their fitness and skills in order to compete at the top level.
Moves like Paul Parry (Hereford to Cardiff) and DJ Campbell (Yeading to Brentford, then Birmingham and Leicester) are becoming increasingly common as Championship and League 1 clubs cast their eyes further down the league in order to avoid paying over the odds for half-decent league players. Not that all non-league stars come cheap – Plymouth had to pay Exeter City a six figure sum for Jamie Mackie in January, while Crewe made a similar bid for Fleetwood at the same time, only for the striker to turn down a move by electing to stay at Forest Green for the rest of the season.
But with more managers becoming more familiar with non-league players, or indeed making the leap to manage a league club, expect to see these sort of moves become more common. Crystal Palace and Charlton are two teams who have good links with the local community and aren’t afraid of giving untested young players a chance. Below the championship, Southend have regularly raided Grays and Ebbsfleet for players, while Peterborough’s League 2 promotion was largely built around Aaron McLean, Craig Mackail-Smith and George Boyd, all of whom were signed from the Conference.
Crewe, a club with a reputation for developing young players, have made frequent forays into the world of non-league while Gillingham’s Mark Stimson and Yeovil’s Russell Slade – both managers with non-league history behind them – have slowly built teams out of players they knew from their days in the Conference. And with AFC Liverpool getting the thumbs up from Rafa and co. at Anfield, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility than Benitez may take a fancy to one of AFC’s Northern Counties League starlets if they catch his eye during the coming season.
Six of the best: non-league players who’ve made it to the top.
1. Les Ferdinand
If there was ever an advert for starting your career at the lower reaches of the game, ‘Sir’ Les is surely that man. He started out with Southall and then Hayes before moving to QPR for a £15,000 fee. Ferdinand is held in high regard at Loftus Road as one of their most famous footballing sons and some Hoops fans may argue that since his departure to Newcastle in 1995, he’s never been properly replaced.
Les scored on his England debut, nearly fired the Magpies to the Premier League title, was presented with the PFA player of the season award by Pele and still managed 14 goals in the Premiership for Leicester City at the age of 37. A true legend of the English game and one of non-league’s finest exports.
2. Stan Collymore
One of the English game’s more mercurial figures, Collymore started out at Conference side Stafford Rangers after being rejected by Woverhampton Wanderers and Walsall. His non-league goalscoring exploits earned him a move to Crystal Palace, but it was at Southend United where he first came to attention, scoring 18 goals to keep them in the First Division.
Frank Clark moved to take Collymore to Nottingham Forest for £2.2m in 1993 and helped them to third in the league – and European qualification – in 2005. Despite moving to Liverpool, and later Aston Villa, Leicester City and Bradford City and winning three England caps, Collymore’s destructive personality frequently got the better of him and he will be always placed in the ‘what might have been’ category. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most talented players to have come out of non-league.
3. Kevin Phillips
Phillips is that classic example of the player who built up his career from the non-league game after being rejected by a league club, in this case Southampton, who thought he was too small to be a striker. Phillips ended up stocking shelves at his local bakery and turning out for Baldock Town as a right-back, before shifting back to up front.
Glenn Roeder clearly saw something in the diminutive frontman and paid £10k to take him to Watford, before then-Sunderland manager Peter Reid snapped up Phillips after Ipswich dithered over a transfer fee. The striker took the Premiership by storm in his first season in the top flight netting 30 goals and taking both the Premiership and European golden boots. Had he wanted to, there’s no doubt Phillips could have been back in the Premiership with West Brom.
4. Kerry Dixon
Forget Lampard, Drogba, and Terry – Kerry Dixon is THE Chelsea legend with 193 goals to his name, making him the club’s second-highest ever goal-scorer behind Bobby Tambling. Rejected by Spurs as an apprentice, Dixon went to Chesham and then Dunstable Town (where he’s currently co-manager). Reading took a chance on the youngster before Chelsea paid £150,000 for his services – some of the best money Ken Bates ever paid during his time at the club. Dixon helped the Blues to the Second Division title in 1984 before finishing joint top First Division scorer with Gary Lineker a season later. He scored four goals in eight England appearances and went to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
5. Alan Pardew
If the Charlton boss seems so keen on non-league players, it’s probably down in part to his own origins. Pardew started out as a glazier while kicking around non-league pitches with Whyteleafe and nearly quit football altogether when he went to work on a building site in the Middle East for six months. On returning to England, he combined his career in glazing with spells at Corinthian Casuals, Dulwich Hamlet and Yeovil Town before Crystal Palace paid £4,000 for him in 1987. Pardew was 25.
Two years later he was the driving force behind Palace’s promotion to the First Division and in 1990 he scored the winner in the 4-3 FA Cup semi-final victory that set up the memorable final against Manchester United, which Palace eventually lost on the replay. A highly regarded spell at Charlton – where he was the club’s top scorer in 1993 – was followed by a spell at Barnet, where he became player-coach, the first step on his managerial career.
6. Steve Guppy
At one point Guppy was considered the best crosser of a ball in England after David Beckham and was seen as the answer to England’s perennial left-sided problem. But despite only winning one England cap, Guppy has had the type of career that many players would have been proud of. He was a late entrant into the game, not turning professional until the age of 23 with Wycombe Wanderers, who were still a non-league team.
Under Martin O’Neill, Guppy was a key part of the Wycombe side that romped to the Conference title in 1993, and part of their play-off push to Division 2 a season later. He was snapped up by then Premier League table toppers Newcastle United, but Guppy couldn’t break through and joined Port Vale before O’Neill came calling again and Guppy found himself part of the Leicester team that won the League Cup in 2000. Guppy followed O’Neill to Celtic before eventually ending up at Wycombe. When he turned out for Stevenage Borough in the 2007 FA Trophy final he became the first player to play at both the old and the new Wembley.