Currently the top scorer in both the English Premier League and Championship are strikers that have had a meteoric rise from non-league football to their current club sides.
This makes me ask the questions: Should more clubs be looking at non-league players? Should Premier League clubs be taking a gamble on a potential non-league gem?
Of course, the players currently top scoring for their clubs are Charlie Austin, who has risen from Wessex League outfit Poole Town to QPR via Swindon, and Jamie Vardy who shone at FC Halifax and then Fleetwood Town. Both players, more impressively, have gone on to be included in Roy Hodgson’s England squads, and Vardy himself has four England caps to his name.
With many clubs in the English game struggling financially there is very little risk or outlay involved when signing a non-league player, with a potentially huge gain. We are seeing an increasing in the number of players signed by League One & League Two sides from non-league football and those players often settle in and perform well. Dagenham & Peterborough are just two examples.
But will the Premier League & Championship sides begin to look down the pyramid?
There have been many players over the last few decades that have been picked from the non-league game and gone on to make it in the top level of English football. Household names such as Les Ferdinand (Southall & Hayes to QPR), Stuart Pearce (Wealdstone to Coventry), Kerry Dixon (Dunstable Town to Reading), Stan Collymore (Stafford Rangers to Crystal Palace), Ian Wright (Greenwich Borough to Crystal Palace), Kevin Phillips (Baldock Town to Watford) and, even further afield, Germany’s World Cup record scorer Miroslav Klose (FC 08 Homburg to Kaiserslautern).
More recent non-league stories have seen Austin and Vardy make their big steps into the professional game alongside Chris Smalling (Maidstone United to Fulham), Tyrone Mings (Chippenham Town to Ipswich & now AFC Bournemouth) and Dwight Gayle (Stansted to Crystal Palace via Dagenham & Peterborough) to name just a few.
There is no doubt that the moves made above worked out fantastically well for clubs and players alike, but are most of these players being released too early without giving them a real chance to show what they can do in the professional game?
For instance, QPR forward Austin was released by Reading, England international striker Vardy released by Sheffield Wednesday, Kerry Dixon was let go by Tottenham Hotspur, current Manchester United and England centre half Smalling was released by Millwall and former 30 goal Premier League striker Kevin Phillips was told he was too small by Southampton and, therefore, also dismissed.
It has been, and will be, a debate that will go on for years to come regarding how many young British players are allowed the necessary game time to settle and progress in top flight football. Young players too often find themselves loaned out to lower league sides and return to their parent club only to be released or sold. They then drop down the pyramid and receive the game time they require and are then often seen climbing back up the leagues some time later.
Stories similar to those of Vardy and Austin will continue to occur as Premier League clubs persist with paying astronomical sums for players. English clubs and their staff have so much financial pressure that they will only buy big names that can deliver immediately and very rarely take a risk on a lower league or non-league player in fear that they may jeopardise their position.
It is time for top English clubs to start looking closer to home at their own stock of youngsters and how they are utilising & developing them and, whilst they are there, have a look into the ever improving non-league football production line to find themselves the latest gem and give us all a new rags to riches story.