FOOTBALL: The Big Step Up
By Cassie Mandrake
This time last year, at age 18, Jamie Fielding was a second choice right back in the Hastings United squad playing in the Bostik League South-East – the eighth tier of English football.
In April, after eye-catching performances in the first team over the second half of last season, he trialled at Premier League club Leicester City, then signed for Stevenage, of League Division 2. Last month he made his debut for them.
Midfielder Adam Lovatt, aged 20, remains for the time being a Hastings player, though a contract to sign for AFC Sunderland in last January’s transfer window apparently only failed at the last minute when there was insufficient time to complete his medical. Sunderland did not repeat their offer in the summer, but Lovatt is still said to be trailed by other clubs, including Leicester.
United’s Italian striker Davide Rodari, also 20, is another player reported to be scouted on a regular basis by English league clubs.
So with that in mind, let’s look at five footballers who have already successfully gone from non-league hopefuls to top-flight stars, paving the way for the non-league stars of today.
Vardy was a key figure in Leicester City’s astonishing title win in 2016, bagging 24 goals in just 36 outings. He finished as the joint highest scorer in the division and earned himself a call up to the Euro 2016 squad, a feat he repeated for the 2018 World Cup.
But he had reached these heights the hard way, coming up through the non-league ranks. He was rejected by Sheffield Wednesday as a youth and, according to the Guardian newspaper, was paid £30 per game to play for Stocksbridge Park Steels whom he helped out of the eighth tier of English football. He later moved to Halifax and ambitious Fleetwood before securing his big move to the Foxes.
Austin began life as a trainee with Reading but failed to make the grade. He worked as a bricklayer while playing part time for several teams including Kintbury Rangers, Hungerford and Thatcham Town. That included stints in the ninth tier of the English game, one lower than Hastings.
He eventually found himself up front for Poole Town, again at step nine, but his ability to put the ball in the net caught the eye of Swindon Town. Given just the briefest of chances, Austin made himself a success. His strike rate of 37 goals in 65 games alerted Burnley, then Queens Park Rangers, with whom he made his Premier League debut before moving to Southampton.
Jones is now known as a Hollywood actor, but he was once just a hod carrier from London, plying his trade with Wealdstone in the Alliance Premier League (now styled the National League). After a couple of seasons with them, he made a move to Swedish club IFK Holmsund (their Division Three) before switching to Wimbledon in 1986.
As part of the Crazy Gang he earned both success and infamy, lifting the FA Cup in 1988 but never far away from a red card. He later played for Chelsea and Leeds but returned to Wimbledon as they battled away in the Premier League.
One of the newest players to go from rags to riches is Southampton striker Che Adams. He cost the Saints £15 million this summer, a decent sum when you consider his background.
Adams was released by Coventry City at 14-years-old and went on to play for Oadby Town in the United Counties League, step nine of the English game, before a stint with Ilkeston two levels higher. It was with the latter that he started to reach his potential, scoring nine times in 21 matches to alert Sheffield United.
Two years later, then aged 20, he was transferred to Birmingham City where, last season, he became only the third Blues player in 40 years to hit 20 goals in a season, before moving on to St Mary’s.
Few players evoke such national pride as Stuart Pearce: his wild-eyed joy at scoring a penalty against Spain in Euro ‘96 will live long in the memory of anyone who saw it.
‘Psycho’ played for Nottingham Forest, Newcastle, West Ham and finally Manchester City in an uncompromising career on the left-hand side of defence. But he began his career with Wealdstone in the Alliance Premier, working as an electrician and spending five seasons with the non-league side, before a move to Coventry City.
The rest is history: 78 England caps, two league cups, a First Division title with Manchester City, and a spell as England Under 21 manager. Something for the likes of Adam Lovatt to truly aspire to.
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