Stuart Pearce the current England under 21’s manager and future coach of the Great Britain Olympic football team has said that ““There are gems in Non-League football just waiting to be discovered.” Haven’t we heard all that twaddle before? Well yes we have from all sorts of sources, or even the bloke down the pub. I believe Pearce as he comes across both genuine and honest.
Pearce is well qualified to voice an opinion on non league footballers given his own humble beginnings in football to his successful career as a player and manager. Pearce spent 5 years at Wealdstone in non league and qualified as an electrician before joining league football full time with Coventry City and later enjoying several years under the tutelage of the legendary Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. He played 78 times for his country and who could forget his heroics in the penalty shoot out against Spain at Wembley? His self made crowd motivation at Euro 86 is firmly etched into English football folklore.
I tend to agree with “Psycho” that there are some uncut diamonds in the semi professional ranks who have grabbed their chances with both arms and there are more waiting on (sic) the wings and harbouring ambitions to join the pro ranks.
Too many players are disregarded as youngsters by professional clubs who then look for the quick fix which ends up costing money and not guaranteeing success. Many clubs nowadays are looking at harnessing talent cast aside by other clubs and this refuge for players is often found in the lower strata of the paid ranks and non league.
A young man released from his contract or not offered YTS has often got a point to prove and given the correct guidance and with the right attitude can often prove his previous clubs wrong and give himself a springboard back onto the pro ladder. Remember these young players don’t become bad players overnight.
Wednesday 29th November 2006, Gigg Lane, Bury – FC United of Manchester were flying high at the top of the North West Counties league Division 1. The visitors that night were Atherton Collieries who were not having the best of seasons and the Red Rebels were probably expecting maximum points on their way to their second successive league title. Anthony Pilkington and the rest of his team mates had not read the script.
Pilkington from Darwen had been a promising junior at Preston, Manchester United and latterly Blackburn Rovers but had not been offered YTS terms so like hundreds of other young hopefuls looked to further his spiralling career by joining the ranks of non league. That night Pilkington produced one of the finest displays from a centre forward I have ever seen in 30 years of watching the semi pro ranks. He ran the two FC United centre halves ragged. No mean task when you consider that the experienced Rob Nugent had followed a similar path to Pilkington playing at Ossett Albion having been released by Sheffield United and his partner that night Billy McCartney had several years experience and a glowing reputation and respect amongst his peers. Pilkington scored a well deserved hat trick. His second goal of the three was a delight.
After only 4 games at Atherton Pilkington was snapped up by Stockport where he played 80 games and earned a growing reputation that had several league clubs knocking on the door for his signature. He eventually moved to Huddersfield Town where he played 92 games and a built a reputation that had Norwich City amongst his many suitors. Pilkington eventually signed for Premier League new boys Norwich in July 2011 making his senior debut in a 1-1 draw against Real Zaragosa a month later. Currently Pilkington is a member of the Republic of Ireland under 21 squad but is still able to play for England once he declares his true international allegiance.
At Norwich City Pilkington teamed up with non league legend Steve Morison who had enjoyed a glowing career in the lower leagues. Morisons career had followed a similar path to most non leaguers having been released by a pro club – Northampton – then joining the semi pro ranks – at Bishops Stortford. It wasn’t long before he found his scoring boots and developed into one of non league most prolific and lethal goal scorers. A move to Stevenage Borough (where he eventually became captain) ensured his arrival at the top of the non league echelon where scored an impressive 68 goals in just 127 appearances. Along the way Morison has collected a host of awards including eight caps for England C and scoring three goals and partnering another non league legend, George Boyd in the Borough attack. Morison bagged the winner in a 3-2 win at Wembley and lifted the FA Trophy as captain of Stevenage.
After losing 4-3 in the play offs to Cambridge United Morison along with his burgeoning reputation was on his way to Millwall in a £130k deal. He settled in well at Millwall scoring an impressive 35 goals in 85 appearances, winning the play offs in 2010 and despite offers from several other league clubs, including Nottingham Forest, he earned himself a prestigious move into the Premier League with newly promoted Norwich City for an undisclosed fee. Morison has since pledged his allegiance to Wales through his Welsh ancestry making his debut on 11th August 2010 in Wales’ 5–1 victory against Luxembourg. He scored his first international goal for Wales in a 2–1 victory against Montenegro on 2nd September 2011. Morison has always had faith in his ability and has never been afraid of putting in a transfer request.
Rory Patterson was released by Rochdale as a youngster and made his way around several non league clubs until finding his spiritual home at the newly formed FC United of Manchester. Nicknamed “the man with no name” by the FC United faithful the young striker had a prolific scoring record at the Red Rebels and that coupled with mercurial displays meant finding his way to Bradford Park Avenue and Droylsden before returning to Northern Ireland with Coleriane where 30 goals in 33 appearances and the golden boot as Northern Ireland top league goalscorer earned him the first of his 5 international caps including 1 international goal. Patterson joined Plymouth Argyle in June 2010 and is currently on loan with Linfield until the end of this season. We haven’t seen the last of this young Irishman…………..
There are many players who have made the transition including Michael Kightly, D J Campbell and Chris Smalling who only three years after leaving Maidstone United is now a regular for Manchester United and England.
Non league football from the Conference down to the West Riding County Amateur League is a hotbed of talent waiting to be discovered and with transfer fees in the full time game hitting an all time high more and more league clubs are looking to expand their scouting network by scouring the semi pro and non league ranks to strengthen their squads.
And finally………………………….who could ever forget legendary Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright. Wright plied his trade in the non league ranks until he was 21 when he was spotted playing for Dulwich Hamlet FC (as have many others since – George Elokobi, Albert Jarrett, Marlon King and current Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew)………….as they say the rest is history.
Until next time
The bloke down the pub
PS anybody got a number for a good sparky?