Non-League graduates battle for Premier League supremacy

All eyes will be on this Saturday’s top of the table clash as Leicester City face Manchester United at the King Power Stadium. Not the words that Leicester (or perhaps even United) fans were expecting to read only days before they open their advent calendars.  It’s remarkable that these two sides will battle for top spot this weekend.

Even more remarkable however, are the stories behind the men who have been inspirational in propelling them there. United, whilst not the attacking force of yesteryear have the meanest defence in the league, with the ever present Chris Smalling, formerly of Maidstone United at its core.

The opposite can be said of Leicester. Up until West Ham’s drubbing at the hands of Spurs on Sunday, Seven Premier League sides had conceded  20 or more goals this season; those sides sat 20th, 19th, 18th, 17th 16th, 15th,  and………. 1st. Unlike the bottom 6 teams though Leicester have goals in them,  and lots of them, thanks to their centre forward who has now equalled Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in ten consecutive Premier League games, Jamie Vardy formerly of Ebsfleet town.

Both of these players have come a long way since their days at non-league level. Smalling’s rise has been more gradual, making his professional debut with Fulham after leaving Maidstone in 2009 and joining Manchester United a year later. Despite the potential, his early years at Old Trafford were hampered by a combination of injuries and often being played out of position at right back. Only in the last 12 months since he’s been injury free and a regular at the center of United’s defence has he started to blossom into a top defender.

Vardy’s rise has almost come from nowhere. Whilst Smalling was playing for Manchester United and England Vardy was plying his trade with conference side Ebsfleet Town, after helping them gain promotion to the football league he was signed by his current club Leicester in 2012. What makes Vardy’s form this season even more startling is the absence of any obvious signs in his previous years at Leicester of such prolific goal scoring ability. In the Championship he netted a decent but unspectacular 20 goals in 63 games, and before March 2015 he only had one Premier League goal to his name, he now has eighteen. Whether this run continues or ends up being short lived, Vardy has written himself into the Premier League history books, which would have been unimaginable 4 years ago.

To even be in the squads for Saturday would represent an extraordinary journey for these two players. However they are far from just squad players, Smalling has been the stand out defender in England this season and Vardy is the league’s leading scorer. If you were to name a shortlist for the Premier League’s player of the year so far both would have to be included.

Of course they are not doing it alone; United’s stubborn defence has the league’s best goalkeeper in David De Gea behind them and owes much to the midfield protection provided by Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Rihad Marhez would also run Vardy close as Leicester’s outstanding player this season.

However there is no doubt about the key individual encounter this weekend, Vardy versus Smalling, the league’s hottest striker versus its most in form defender. Who comes out on top in the battle of the non-league graduates will likely go into December top of the pile.

Premier League clubs could do a lot worse than looking at the cases of Smalling and Vardy and paying more attention to the talent in lower league football. John Stones is another example of a young player coming to top flight prominence after being plucked from the lower leagues. If a Premier League club can find a gem in the lower leagues the rewards are obvious. The combined total Fulham, Leicester & Everton paid for Smalling, Vardy & Stones was under £5m. A fraction of what they would fetch today.

The attitude of these players is also to be admired. Vardy plays every game as if his life depended on it. Speak to anyone who worked with Smalling in his younger days and they will tell you it’s his work ethic and desire to improve that has got him to this level, rather than an obvious natural talent.

Perhaps that determination and desire for the game we see in Smalling and Vardy comes from an appreciation of where they are. They know what it’s like at the bottom, so they have the hunger to stay at the top, they’ve lived in the real world (Smalling had a job as a waiter when he was younger) unlike many young players cocooned by the cosy bubble at Premier League clubs, becoming millionaires after barely kicking a ball and ultimately losing that hunger to make it to the top.

Of course this won’t and shouldn’t mean that Premier League clubs will start raiding every non-league club for players, but too often English clubs waste millions of pounds on average foreign players that lack the desire needed to be successful in England. A greater appreciation of talents in the lower leagues can only benefit the Premier League and ultimately England’s national team. Nowhere will this be more evident than at the King Power Stadium on Saturday evening.