For millions of young English football fans, the ultimate dream is to play in the Premier League. The competition to get there, of course, has become incredibly fierce. With the top clubs signing up all the talent at an early age, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is impossible for a young player to get to the top the old-fashioned way.
But you’d be wrong. The history of the Premier League has been illuminated by the performances of players who cut their teeth in non-league football. The latest name to be added to that list is West Ham’s newest signing, Oladapo Afolayan. The 21-year-old striker was plucked from the ranks of Solihull Moors of the National League earlier this month and has earned a life-changing three-and-a-half-year contract with the Hammers. West Ham fans will be watching his development keenly and will be hoping that they’ve found the new Jamie Vardy – as will sports betting fans considering betting on the Hammers.
To celebrate Afolayan’s rise from non-league to Premier League, here are five of the most famous players to have made that same transition.
Perhaps the most famous non-league graduate of all, Vardy was originally on the books of Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, but was released at 16.
The young striker dropped into non-league football, finally getting his career underway with Stocksbridge Park Steels before moving to Halifax Town in the Northern Premier League in 2010. A successful 25-goal stint at Halifax was followed by a transfer to Fleetwood Town in 2011, for whom he banged in 31 league goals, landing the team’s Player of the Year trophy and helping them to win promotion to League Two.
Vardy’s prodigious scoring exploits soon caught the attention of clubs at the other end of the professional scale, and in 2012, Vardy was signed by then-Championship team Leicester City for a fee of £1 million – a record for non-league football. However, that fairytale journey was just the beginning of the Jamie Vardy story. Playing a key role in Leicester’s Championship victory in 2014, Vardy subsequently found his feet in the Premier League, and during the 2015-16 season he set a Premier League scoring record and scooped numerous awards, including the Premier League Player of the Season title as Leicester pulled off a remarkable triumph. The dream was made complete when Vardy was chosen for England’s Euro 2016 squad.
Released by Reading as a youth player, Austin turned to non-league football and by the age of 20 was playing semi-professionally for Wessex League side Poole Town, at the same time as holding down a part-time job as a bricklayer at his father’s construction company.
However, after scoring 46 goals in 46 games for Poole, Austin was snapped up by Swindon Town. He scored 31 goals in 54 games for Swindon before moving on to Burnley of the Championship and eventually signing for QPR, helping them to win promotion via the play-offs in 2014. In his first season in the Premier League, he finished as fourth highest scorer with 18 goals, and although QPR were relegated that season, Austin was soon back in the Premier League, signing for Southampton, for whom he still plays.
Hooper began his football journey as a teenager for Grays Athletic. Starring for Grays as a prolific striker in the Conference South and Conference National, Hooper caught the eye of Southend United and went on to have spells for Leyton Orient, Hereford and Scunthorpe, before being picked up by Celtic.
After scoring 63 goals in 95 appearances for the Scottish champions, Hooper moved to the Premier League with newly promoted Norwich City, for whom he set a record by becoming the first Norwich player to score in four consecutive Premier League games at Carrow Road.
Hooper is the only player to have scored in England’s top four leagues and two domestic cups, the Champions League, the Europa League, the Scottish Premier League, the Scottish League Cup and the Scottish Cup.
Deeney’s hopes of becoming a Premier League star appeared to be over when he was released by Aston Villa. Deeney considered giving up football entirely and focusing on a job in the construction business, but he continued to play at non-league level with Chelmsley Town while working on his apprenticeship, and was given another shot at professional football when League One Walsall spotted his potential.
Deeney grabbed his opportunity with both hands. He spent three seasons at Walsall, developing a reputation as a strong, hard-working forward, and in 2010 he moved to Watford, where he became the first Watford player to score 20 goals in three consecutive seasons, and made his Premier League debut for the club in 2015. He has regularly been linked with big-money transfers to other top sides but continues to be first-choice striker for the Hornets.
Originally a full-back, Phillips was released by Southampton as a youth player and signed for non-league side Baldock Town in 1991, where he played semi-professionally while working in a local supermarket. An injury crisis at Baldock led manager Ian Allinson to play Phillips as a makeshift striker – and the rest is history.
Bought by Watford in 1994, he went on to score 246 league goals for nine different clubs, including 92 goals in 263 Premier League appearances. A prolific top-flight striker, he won numerous awards, including the European Golden Shoe – the only Englishman ever to win it.
As the stories of these five strikers demonstrates, there is a lot of talent to be found in the lower leagues. Let’s hope that Afolayan can add his name to the illustrious ranks of former non-league footballers who have made their mark at the top of English football.