Football Features

Former Non League players who made it all the way to the top, then and now

By CJ Smith

Former Non League players who made it all the way to the top, then and now

Published: 18:27, 22 July 2021

While there is a strong propensity for clubs to flash the cash in the transfer market, other players are acquired via more humble means, making their way up from non-league.

Non-league may seem like a lightyear away from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League but, every once in a while, it can serve as a breeding ground for some future top-flight stars to hone their craft and get their break at the top.

Everyone knows about Jamie Vardy’s four-year rise from Conference striker with Fleetwood Town to Premier League winner and record-breaker with Leicester City.

By virtue of his former occupation as a bricklayer, the career path of Charlie Austin, from Poole Town to Southampton, is another many casual football fans will be familiar with. He now plies his trade in the Championship with QPR.

But what about the stars that have been at the highest level for so long that you might have forgotten they ever played in non-league football? Or those that you just simply didn’t know about in the first place? Read on for 14 players you might not know enjoyed a stint outside the English Football League.

1. Michail Antonio – West Ham United

Non-league clubs played for: Tooting and Mitcham United
Years in non-league: 2002 – 2009
Premier League games played: 159
Years spent in Premier League: 2015 – present

After making his breakthrough with London side Tooting and Mitcham United, aged 17, Michail Antonio appeared on the radar of Championship side Reading. Slowly but surely, Antonio developed his game and after 19 goals in a 54 game spell at Nottingham Forest, completed his rise to the Premier League by signing for West Ham United in 2015 for around £7m. Antonio — pictured above during his Southampton days, which is about as far back as his imagery surfaces — has even been called up for various England squads since then, although he is yet to be capped. Now 31, he also became the first West Ham player to score four goals in a league match since David Cross against Tottenham in September 1981 during the Hammers’ 4-0 thrashing of Norwich City in July 2020.

2. Chris Smalling – AS Roma

Non-league clubs played for: Maidstone United
Years in non-league: 2007 – 2008
Premier League games played: 206
Years spent in Premier League: 2008 – 2020

Chris Smalling often came in for stick from sections of the Manchester United support, as well as from that of the opposition. However, making over 200 Premier League appearances for the club was a fantastic achievement for a player who began life in non-league football. Smalling’s performances for Maidstone United quickly attracted the attention of Premier League side Fulham and after two years at Craven Cottage, he found himself rocking up at Old Trafford to play under Sir Alex Ferguson. Smalling — seen above being introduced to the Fulham fans shortly after his move there — won two Premier League titles with the Red Devils, and has picked up 31 caps for England in the process. He spent the 2019/20 season on loan at Roma where his performances were such that the Italian side made his deal a permanent one.

3. Troy Deeney – Watford

Non-league clubs played for: Halesowen Town (loan)
Years in non-league: 2006-07
Premier League games played: 163
Years spent in Premier League: 2015 – 2020

Troy Deeney may not be the most glamorous of strikers, nor is he the most prolific, but you would be hard-pressed to find a Premier League defender who enjoyed marking the 32-year-old when the Hornets were in the top flight. While playing youth football for Chelmsley Town aged 15, the story goes, Troy Deeney was spotted by Walsall’s then Head of Youth, Mick Halsall. Halsall only turned up to the particular game because his son was playing but, despite playing drunk, Deeney scored seven goals in an 11-4 win and was immediately offered a trial with the League Two club — Deeney only showed up to the trial after being forced out of bed and having his taxi paid for by his Chelmsley coach.

Deeney’s trial was successful and the striker was immediately loaned out to Southern League Premier Division side Halesowen Town, scoring eight goals in 10 games. Watford swooped in for Deeney in 2010 and, since then, he has gone on to become one of the Hornets’ key figures, scoring 140 goals for the club in all competitions.

4. Glenn Murray – Retired

Non-league clubs played for: Barrow, Carlisle United
Years in non-league: 2004 – 2005
Premier League games played: 148
Years spent in Premier League: 2013 – 2016, 2017 – 2020 

After earning promotion to the Premier League with Brighton in 2017, 37-year-old Glenn Murray had been a real surprise package, scoring 26 top-flight goals in total. Murray had already scored 11 times in 52 Premier League games during spells with Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, but his enduring effectiveness belies his age. And what makes this equally alarming is the fact Murray turned out in the Conference North for Barrow in the 2004/05 season, scoring six goals in six league games, before he managed just two league goals in 19 games in the Conference National for Carlisle United.

Murray has since told the BBC that his time in the Conference was the time he knew he had ‘made it’ and that it stirred a hunger inside him that is the reason he remained on the books of a Premier League club so close until his retirement.

5. Yannick Bolasie – Free agent

Non-league clubs played for: Hillingdon Borough, Rushden and Diamonds (loan)
Years in non-league: 2006 – 07, 2008 – 09
Premier League games played: 119
Years spent in Premier League: 2013 – 2021

Yannick Bolasie may not have been a success at Everton, but he’s certainly been a star of the Premier League during his time having made over a century of appearances at that level for Crystal Palace and the Toffees.

Workplaces weren’t always so glamorous for Bolasie, though. He began his career at Southern Division One South & West side Hillingdon Borough, while Bolasie also had a 10-game loan spell at Conference Premier side Rushden and Diamonds before eventually working his way up the ladder to become one of Crystal Palace’s most entertaining players as they achieved Premier League promotion in 2013.

6. Callum Wilson – Newcastle

Non-league clubs played for: Kettering Town (loan), Tamworth (loan)
Years in non-league: 2010 – 2012
Premier League games played: 152
Years spent in Premier League: 2015 – present

Despite his injury problems, Callum Wilson has been a consistent Premier League goalscorer for Bournemouth, and now Newcastle, and has even managed to pick up four caps for England, scoring once. With that in mind, it might come as a surprise to some that Wilson only managed two goals in a combined 20 games during in loan spells with Conference Premier sides Kettering Town — the only team former England star Paul Gascoigne has ever managed — and Tamworth between 2010 and 2012.

7. Joe Hart – Tottenham

Non-league clubs played for: Shrewsbury Town
Years in non-league: 2003 – 2004
Premier League games played: 340
Years spent in Premier League: 2006 – 2016, 2017 – present

With two Premier League titles under his belt, a joint-record four Premier League Golden Glove awards to his name, 75 caps for England and 71 appearances in European football, there isn’t much that Joe Hart hasn’t done during his footballing career. And with his two appearances in the 2003/04 season, Conference football with Shrewsbury Town is another thing the shot-stopper can scratch off his to-do list. Within three years of graduating from the Shrews’ youth system, Hart joined the Manchester City revolution for around £600,000. More recently, he was released by Burnley and subsequently joined Tottenham as a back-up to Hugo Lloris.

8. Danny Ings – Southampton

Non-league clubs played for: Dorchester Town (loan)
Years in non-league: 2010
Premier League games played: 140
Years spent in Premier League: 2014 – present

Injury has been very cruel to Danny Ings in the past, severely hampering his time at Liverpool. However, he is finally enjoying consistent playing time with Southampton and has his career back on track, scoring 34 Premier League goals over the past two seasons. Ings is now a fully-fledged Saint but initially joined the club on loan in 2018 — the second loan spell of his career, with the first coming in 2010 when the striker scored four goals in nine Conference South games with Dorchester Town.

9. Ashley Barnes – Burnley

Non-league clubs played for: Oxford United (loan), Salisbury City (loan), Eastbourne Borough (loan)
Years in non-league: 2007 – 2009
Premier League games played: 177
Years spent in Premier League: 2014 – 2015, 2016 – present

Ashley Barnes has been one of Burnley’s unsung heroes over the past couple of years, leading the line with unquestionable commitment and even delivering European football for the club for the 2018/19 season.

Barnes may well have learned some important lessons in hard work and grafting for his teammates during his three loan spells in the Conference Premier between 2007 and 2009 — with Oxford United, Salisbury City and Eastbourne Borough respectively — making a combined 16 appearances in the process.

10. Andre Gray – Watford

Non-league clubs played for: AFC Telford (loan), Hinckley United, Luton Town
Years in non-league: 2009 – 2014
Premier League games played: 115
Years spent in Premier League: 2016 – 2020

Andre Gray became a fully-fledged Premier League striker in 2016, playing back-up to — and sometimes forming a very strong partnership with — Troy Deeney at Watford. Once upon a time, however, Gray was one of the most feared strikers in non-league football, scoring a combined 82 goals during spells with AFC Telford and Hinckley United in the Conference North, and Luton Town in the Conference Premier.

11. Jarrod Bowen – West Ham

Non-league clubs played for: Hereford United
Years in non-league: 2013 – 2014
Premier League games played: 58
Years spent in Premier League: 2020 – present

Jarrod Bowen was deemed not good enough when he failed to convince both Aston Villa and Cardiff City during trials in his earlier years, so he subsequently signed for humble Hereford United in the Conference Premier, away from the limelight and seismic pressure of making the grade at elite-level clubs.

At Edgar Street street, Bowen established himself as a talent far too good for non-league football, making eight appearances as a 16-year-old, which caught the attention of then-Premier League cub Hull City. He actually made seven appearances in the top flight during Hull’s relegation year in 2016/17, but it was the Championship where Bowen rose to prominence and prompted West Ham to secure his services in January 2020, where he has since become a mainstay on the flanks for David Moyes’ Hammers.

12. Max Kilman – Wolves

Non-league clubs played for: Welling United, Maidenhead United, Marlow (loan)
Years in non-league: 2014 – 2018
Premier League games played: 22
Years spent in Premier League: 2018 – present

Kilman’s ascent is unique in that he not only plied his trade in non-league football but also represented the England national futsal team, where he racked up an impressive 25 caps. The Chelsea-born defender started his career in the Fulham academy but soon found his way to Welling United, where he made just one appearance in the London Senior Cup before joining Maidenhead United in 2015.

From there Kilman joined Marlow on loan in the Southern League Division One Central before becoming a key member in the Maidenhead XI on his return and catching the attention of Wolves in 2018, where he has became an important cog in Nuno Espirito Santo’s famed back-three before the Portuguese coach left for Spurs.

13. Che Adams – Southampton

Non-league clubs played for: Oadby Town, Ilkeston
Years in non-league: 2012 – 2014
Premier League games played: 66
Years spent in Premier League: 2019 – present

Following his release from the Coventry City as a 14-year-old, Adams cut his teeth in non-league football and worked his way up the ladder, tearing up each rung he stepped foot on. The dynamic forward was exceptional during spells with Oadby Town and later Ilkeston in the NPL Premier Division before Sheffield United came calling. He showcased his nerves of steel in South Yorkshire before scoring goals by the bucketful for Birmingham, and now on the South Coast.

14. Solly March – Lewes

Non-league clubs played for: Lewes
Years in non-league: 2011 – 2012
Premier League games played: 111
Years spent in Premier League: 2017 – present

March was at the Crystal Palace academy during his early teenage years but he soon joined Eastbourne Borough and then Lewes, where he made one Isthmian League Premier Division appearance and was subsequently offered a scholarship by the Eagles’ M23 derby rivals Brighton in 2011. From there, March has established himself as a Brighton regular and has amassed over 200 appearances for the club, including over a century in the top flight as he helped guide the club to promotion in 2017.

Honourable loan mentions:

Dominic Calvert-Lewin – Stalybridge Celtic (2014-15)

Ollie Watkins – Weston-super-Mare (2014-15)

Nick Pope – Harrow Borough (2011-12), Welling United (2011-12), Cambridge United (2012-13), Aldershot Town (2013-14)

Alex McCarthy – Woking (2007-2008), Cambridge United (2007-2008), Team Bath (2008-2009)