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Premier League players past and present look back on non league spells with pride

Premier League players past and present look back on non league spells with pride ahead of this year’s Non League Day this weekend.

People often think that the Premier League’s top players were nurtured by clubs academies from the age of 10, to achieve the pinnacle level of English football.

This is not necessarily true. Past and present great talents began their journey in Non-League football, before they made it to England’s top flight.

These are the players who will complete this unorthodox voyage. Some may even surprise…

Jordan Pickford

While at Sunderland, the Everton goalkeeper gained valuable experience with loan spells at Alfreton Town and Darlington, where he made 17 and 12 appearances, respectively.

Pickford, said about his debut for Darlington against Fleetwood Town in January 2012: “I remember my first game for them.

“About 10,000 fans turned up for Fleetwood Town at home.

“It was when Jamie Vardy was getting big hype, but luckily he wasn’t in the game that day. It was Richard Brodie, a big centre-forward.

“I remember coming for a cross. He was meant to be a big lad and I’ve absolutely nailed him, and that just settled me right down. I started to become a man from that day really.”

Pickford was able to have confidence-boosting moments during the non-league match, but he also learned to accept mistakes. He most notably did this in a 2012/13 match against Alfreton Town.

“I remember playing Lincoln at home, and Mark Prudhoe was coming and watching me all the time, the Sunderland goalkeeping coach,” says Pickford.

“There was a big 6ft 4in centre-forward for Lincoln. I thought, ‘I’ll come for this ball’, and he’s beaten me in the air somehow. I’ve tried to recover the save, couldn’t, and the ball’s gone in the back of the net.

“I was gutted. But then I turned around to Pruds and said, ‘It’s a learning curve.’ The next thing I did was fine and I turned round to him then and started laughing.

“To this day, he keeps mentioning that story, to say that’s how he knew I could become a top keeper.”

Adam Webster

After making 24 appearances at Aldershot Town, the centre-back went through the divisions to become a regular in Brighton & Hove Albion’s first-team. This helped them achieve a top-six finish in the Premier League.

Webster said: “It’s a cliche but I’ve come the long way round. A lot of players do it now, come from non-league and all the way into the Premier League.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve had it bad, but when I was 16, 17, travelling with the first team, I was standing up at the back of the bus, washing dishes, making coffees for everyone and you’d be scared to do anything wrong. You’d even be scared to speak!

“That was all part of being a youngster back then. Make the coffees, do the washing up and not sit down the whole journey. Young lads now have it so easy, they don’t get any stick for it. It’s just the way the game has changed.

“I definitely wouldn’t change it because it keeps you grounded and makes you appreciate it even more.

“It’s definitely a goal for me to one day play for England. But my immediate goal is to play well, stay in the team and do as well as I can for Brighton.

“There’s players in the England squad who came from the lower leagues, non-league, you can see the pathway there and, long term, that is a target for me.”

Webster said in 2019: “I played against Swansea and his team last year, I was playing in a good footballing team but Swansea were another level, they played a lot of football and I remember thinking: ‘I’d love to play like that one day.’

“It’s been perfect for me. He’s very calm. He knows how he wants to play, has his own ideas, he’s very relaxed, but the lads really like him and he’s been really good. He’s been great for me, his style suits my game.

“As soon as you know a Premier League club wants you, you want to take that chance. Every player wants to play in the Premier League. I’m just grateful that Brighton showed faith in me, brought me to the club and hopefully I can repay them.”

Ethan Pinnock

After graduating from university with a 2:1 degree while playing for Dulwich Hamlet, Pinnock moved up the non league system and signed for then National League side Forest Green Rovers. He helped them win promotion to the EFL during his only season at the club before moving to Barnsley and then joining Brentford.

“I was quite tall, but I wasn’t a physical kind of player, I hadn’t fully grown into my body. Playing at that level was an eye opener,” Pinnock told Brentford’s official website.

“The transition was quite a big one. In non-league, it’s a lot more physical contact. You have a lot less time on the ball and you need to protect yourself. Players aren’t getting paid loads, they’re playing for their families.

“It meant a lot to the players I was playing with and against, so everyone had that tenacity and that physical edge – every game meant something. I had to match that physicality.”

“Starting where I started, if you told me when I was at Dulwich at 19 or 20 years old that I’d be scoring against Liverpool in the Premier League, I wouldn’t have believed you – it was a quite surreal feeling,” he said.

“All my family were there at the game as well, so it was pretty special.”

Dan Burn

When he was 11 years old, he was released by Newcastle United. He began playing non league football for local clubs New Hartley, Blyth Town, and Blyth Spartans. In 2009, he joined Darlington and in two seasons was promoted to Fulham. Before returning to the Magpies at the beginning of 2022.

“I was looking through the Premier League funding figures and it’s good to see the grants the club have been receiving,” Burn says. “It’s nice to see where the money is going to. Spartans are a big part of the community here and have been around a long time.”

Dan Burn feared his football dream was over when he was earning £9 an hour collecting shopping trolleys in an Asda car park.

Even when he got a break at Darlington aged 17, it was on a £55 YTS scheme. “It was costing me £80 a week in petrol to get to training! So I crammed three or four of the lads in the car for lifts so I could take £20 quid off them.”

“I have had a roller-coaster career, ups and downs.

“I was an 11-year-old who thought he was going to be the next Alan Shearer and the best in the world. Then I wasn’t invited back to academy training. Knowing you are not at Newcastle anymore does have a big effect on you.

“At 17 I was playing football at a level where I could just enjoy it. I played for Blyth Spartans. I also played for New Hartley on a Saturday and even then, I was not really getting a kick.

“I needed money to go and do things with my mates, like the cinema. I was only working Saturday. It was £9 or something. When I went to Darlington, it was YTS at £55 a week.

“All these things which got me to the stage I am. They pushed me more. I had grafted and felt that helped. I was released by Fulham at the age of 24 too. I went from getting my Premier League debut to two seasons later, being released. There were not a lot of clubs coming looking. Wigan were the only team who came with a contract.”

Ben Foster

“Non-league football is really important. When Premier League football isn’t around and you want to watch local football, it is the time to go and get behind your local football team.

“I’m very lucky to have a couple of local football teams [close to me], one in particular that I started at when I was a youngster, and I will go and watch them. I have Leamington FC and Racing Club Warwick – the latter of which was the first side I joined when I left youth-team football at 16.

“I stayed there until I was 18 years old and that was where I got my big break. Luckily a scout from Stoke City was driving past, saw the floodlights, stopped in and watched me play – the rest was history. I have a lot to thank non-league football for.”

Foster goes on: “It makes you grow up very quickly. You can hear everything. The difference between playing in the Premier League in front of 30,000 or 40,000 and playing in front of 2,000 – you can hear the 40-year-old man behind your goal telling you some unsavoury things. It sticks and makes you grow up very quickly and you have to adapt to it, but it gave me a very good grounding going into the rest of my footballing career.

“It’s all about playing first-team football. You really learn when you have a crowd in front of you because that is when it matters and when you learn what you are made of. I always say to the younger players that they need to go and cut their teeth out on loan in places like non-league. Just playing in a team set-up and feeling part of the team is really important.

“The good thing that has happened in the last few years is the number of players that have been plucked from obscurity and who are now first-team players. Myself, Jamie Vardy, Chris Smalling and others – it’s so important that clubs and the Premier League support [Non-League Day] and push it because there are so many uncut gems waiting to be unearthed.”

Jarrod Bowen

As a 17-year old, the West Ham United winger made a senior debut for Hereford United in March 2014. His impact was so great that Hull City signed Bowen in the summer of 2014. Bowen was transferred to the Hammers in January 2020.

“I only ever wanted football,” says Bowen, who has gone on to make 120 Premier League appearances and score 25 goals in the competition.

“I didn’t like school, I didn’t really listen in school…I always wanted to be a footballer. I didn’t want to do my GSCEs but I did them – it was just football, football, football!

“To then be told that football’s not happening, of course, it’s difficult, and it’s hard, but it gets you ready for almost the real world of football as well because there’s always so many disappointments in football with the highs [and lows] that you have.”

Recalling his first senior goal for Hereford in a 3-2 home win over Alfreton Town, he went on: “It was a dream…my boyhood club. I used to go there every week, and to play and score at the famous Meadow End was special for me because all my friends were watching.

“It was only eight games, but the situation that Hereford were in at the end, a relegation battle, for me at the age of 17, it stood me in good stead because I had that non-league changing-room feel, what it means to win games and what’s at stake.”

With West Ham in a battle to avoid dropping out of the Premier League, Bowen’s past experience could prove crucial with the matches remaining.

“I think anything that happens now you are ready to deal with it,” he adds.

Solly March

Prior to joining Brighton & Hove Albion in December 2011, March featured as a youth team player at Eastbourne Borough before he joined his local club Lewes. After three months at the Dripping Pan, he signed for the Seagulls.

“It’s a good part of my football upbringing is where I am first joined professional club for a few years and i enjoyed it um it’s a lot of travelling but it’s part all part of it really as a youngster trying to try and get good games in a higher level you can so I enjoyed it I appreciate where I am now more from where I came from obviously I enjoyed my time there I had a good friend a good group of friends good teammates there and um yeah I was only left 18 months but I probably well I enjoyed my football most before here even before playing at Palace I think enjoying the football was massive so I think that’s where I took that leap from knowing I was half decent to knowing I could make it so it’s a big part of that Lewes I think that’s when I realised I was maybe a level above sort of the players there and then obviously coming into Brighton I just maybe find that again and obviously you just gotta keep finding at the level you go higher level you go you’ve got to keep finding that belief to realise you’re as good as them you can’t be better than them it’s a big step up but obviously I’m grateful I made that one and I think I said it makes me appreciate it more.

“I don’t think anyone expected that many people to be there I think see pictures of it and it’s just the whole the Brighton sea front, whole sea front just rammed of Brighton fans and I think that was a big realisation with going into the into the big leagues so yeah that was um that was a big moment much in the fifth minute of stoppage time that’s a mad five minutes it was um I don’t know what happened now it’s hard to explain obviously before because the frustrating things I think the performance was so good I think that’s what more hurts more than anything obviously we played well I think one of the best performances we’ve put in as a team in the last few years consistency is massive obviously I know I can play at a high level and produce good performances I think um training hard and looking after my body is a big part of that I think if i feel fit I know I can play well so I think doing that bit off the pitch in the gym and keeping myself fit that’s the main thing if I keep myself.

Jamie Vardy

Vardy was 27 when he made his Premier League debut having spent nine years plying his trade in non-league at Stocksbridge Park Steels, Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town.

Vardy joined Leicester in 2012 and helped them win the PL title in 2015/16.

Vardy was released as a teenager by Sheffield Wednesday and rediscovered his love of the game in the lower leagues.

“One of the lads who’d been released at the same time as me played for a Sunday league team and asked me to go, so I just went and started playing again, to try and get the enjoyment back,” he says.

And he felt that his time at Stocksbridge Park Steels, Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town was crucial to his development.

“I wasn’t the biggest lad,” he says. “Centre-halves in non-league are big, stocky and just look at you, being small, and think, ‘Right, we’re just going to kick him.’ But I kind of enjoyed that side of it.

“It never made me stop. It would just make me want to get them back by scoring the goals.”

“When you’re at non-league clubs, there are people who’ve been there 40, 50 years,” he says.

“It’s literally their life, making sure that the clubs survive and making sure that grassroots football is still going. They are the people that deserve real credit.”

Jonathon Page

“Getting the amount of [match] minutes I’ve had this season has been really good,” Page says. “Especially as in the last two seasons, I’ve had quite a lot of injuries.”

Page is one of over 40 players currently on loan from Premier League to non-league clubs, and he believes it has helped other aspects of his playing and personal development.

“In academy football you don’t get exposed to playing against many physical teams, so to get that exposure is really good,” he adds. “It adds another part to your game.

“It’s [also] really good to be part of the community. You just feel part of the club.”

Josh Brownhill

Growing up in a football-mad family, Josh Brownhill learnt a great deal from kickabouts in the back garden with his older brothers, particularly Joel.

“That’s what got me to where I am now,” the Burnley midfielder says while chatting with Joel. “With all the battling and my older brothers kicking me around and winding me up, making me see red as always.”

The football bond formed when they were younger remains strong and Josh regularly goes to watch Joel play at nearby Padiham FC.

“Non-league is like the foundation of football,” he says. “Some great players have come out of non-league and made a career for themselves.

“For every area and for every kid growing up, there’s always an opportunity to play football.”

From non-league to Premier League

Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal): Worksop Town
Tyrone Mings (Aston Villa): Yate Town, Chippenham Town
Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa): Exeter City, Weston-super-Mare AFC
Danny Ings (Aston Villa): Dorchester Town
Solly March (Brighton): Lewes
Adam Webster (Brighton): Aldershot Town
Kieffer Moore (AFC Bournemouth): Paignton Saints, Truro City, Dorchester Town
Darren Randolph (AFC Bournemouth): Welling United, Accrington Stanley
Chris Mepham (AFC Bournemouth): North Greenford United
Adam Smith (AFC Bournemouth): Torquay United
David Brooks (AFC Bournemouth): Halifax Town
Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth): Weymouth
Sam Surridge (AFC Bournemouth): Weymouth, Poole Town
Charlie Goode (Brentford): Hadley, Hayes & Yeading, Hendon
Ethan Pinnock (Brentford): Dulwich Hamlet, Forest Green Rovers
Shandon Baptiste (Brentford): Hampton and Richmond Borough
Conor Gallagher (Chelsea): Dorking Wanderers
Christian Pulisic (Chelsea): Brackley Town
Marcus Bettinelli (Chelsea): Dartford
Tyrick Mitchell (Crystal Palace): AFC Wembley
James Tarkowski (Everton): Maine Road
Jordan Pickford (Everton): Alfreton Town, Darlington
Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton): Stalybridge Celtic
Jamie Vardy (Leicester): Fleetwood Town, Stocksbridge Park Steels, Halifax Town
Brendan Rodgers (Leicester): Newport County, Witney Town, Newbury Town (Pl)
Danny Ward (Leicester): Tamworth
Kalvin Phillips (Man City): Wortley
Jack Butland (Man Utd): Clevedon United
Harry Maguire (Man Utd): Chesterfield
Nick Pope (Newcastle): Aldershot Town, Harrow Borough, Cambridge United
Dan Burn (Newcastle): Darlington, Blyth Spartans, Blyth Town
Karl Darlow (Newcastle): Newport County
Paul Dummett (Newcastle): Gateshead
Callum Wilson (Newcastle): Kettering Town, Tamworth
Matt Ritchie (Newcastle): Dagenham & Redbridge
Steve Cook (Nott’m Forest): Eastleigh, Havant & Waterlooville, Mansfield Town
Wayne Hennessey (Nott’m Forest): Stockport County
Dean Henderson (Nott’m Forest): Stockport County
Lyle Taylor (Nott’m Forest): Eastbourne Borough, Concord Rangers
Ryan Yates (Nott’m Forest): Barrow AFC
Alex McCarthy (Southampton): Woking, Cambridge United, Team Bath
Che Adams (Southampton): Ilkeston Town, Oadby Town
Sonny Perkins (West Ham): Leyton Orient
Danny Ings (West Ham): Dorchester Town
Jarrod Bowen (West Ham): Hereford United
Craig Dawson (West Ham): Radcliffe Borough
Michail Antonio (West Ham): Tooting & Mitcham United
Max Kilman (Wolves): Welling United, Maidenhead United, Marlow

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