Non-league to Premier League: An unconventional route to the top

The academy system has been a long term platform for young footballers to rise through the ranks into the first team.

However, some players found the academy route to not be a way into professional football, instead going through the lower ranks of non-league to reach the heavy heights of professional football.

Here are six players who found their way to the Premier League after starting their careers in non-league…

Jarrod Bowen [Hereford United to West Ham United]

He was not in non-league for very long, but Jarrod Bowen’s rise to Premier League stardom is still one to be admired. Rising through the ranks at Hereford United, Bowen would make his debut for the National League side at the age of 17, making eight appearances and scoring once before the Whites were expelled from the league in the summer of 2014. This opened the door for a move to Hull City, with the forward making his debut two years later in August 2016.

After three and a half years in the first team, rising to become the star of a fledging City side, Bowen would get his big break, heading to the Premier League to join West Ham in a £22 million deal. Since then, the now 27-year-old has become a figurehead for David Moyes’ team, with his goal securing the Irons a first ever European trophy last season, whilst also becoming an England international during his time in east London.

Jamie Vardy [Stockbridge Park Steels to Leicester City]

A part of one of the greatest footballing stories we’ve ever seen, Jamie Vardy’s rise from non-league to Premier League Champion is nothing short of incredible. Having been released by Sheffield Wednesday at the age of 16, Vardy combined playing for Stockbridge Park Steels with his job as a technician making medical splints. The Sheffield-born forward even played for six months with an electronic tag fitted, limiting his game time. After finishing off his time at Steels with 66 goals in 107 games, a move to Halifax Town in the summer of 2010 yielded 25 goals and a league title with the Shaymen, before moving to Fleetwood Town only a year later.

In the 2011/12 season, Vardy was unstoppable, scoring 31 goals as Fleetwood Town won the National League title and achieved promotion to the Football League for the very first time. Leicester City came calling for the striker, signing him for a fee of £1 million, and whilst Vardy struggled in his first season at the Foxes, the rest is history. 180 goals for the midlands outfit, coupled with a Premier League title, the FA Cup and Community Shield will ensure the 37-year-old will go down in Leicester folk law.

Ian Wright [Greenwich Borough to Arsenal]

Much like Bowen, Ian Wright’s time in non-league only lasted a couple of matches before he was snatched up by a much bigger team. His spell at Greenwich Borough was short lived after a Crystal Palace scout was tipped-off by Dulwich Hamlet manager Billy Smith, with Wright arriving at Selhurst Park after a successful trial. 117 goals in 253 appearances, including a dramatic ‘super-sub’ appearance in the 1990 FA Cup final as his goal against Manchester United forced extra-time, before Palace lost the replay.

Wright joined Arsenal in September 1991 for a then club record fee, which began another goal-laden spell where the forward would be the Gunners’ top scorer for six consecutive seasons. By the time Wright left Arsenal, he had become the clubs all time top goalscorer with 185 goals, a feat only beaten by Thierry Henry. Spells at West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Celtic and Burnley followed before retiring in 2000.

Chris Smalling [Maidstone United to Manchester United]

Chris Smalling will be remembered for his spells at Manchester United and Roma, but his time in non-league helped propel him into stardom. The defender started his career at Maidstone United, where he played twelve times before signing for Fulham in June 2008 having initially signed for Middlesbrough before leaving, citing homesickness.

A brief spell of 18 months in west London followed for Smalling, who made his Fulham debut in May 2009. The defender signed for Manchester United in January 2010 before being loaned back to the Cottagers for the remainder of the season. Smalling would end up playing 323 times for the Red Devils, whilst getting capped 31 times by England before moving to Roma to join former manager Jose Mourinho. The 34-year-old’s time in Rome has been successful, but like his time in Manchester, plagued with injuries.

Stuart Pearce [Wealdstone to Nottingham Forest]

After failing a trail at QPR and rejecting an offer from Hull City, Stuart Pearce would reside at non-league Wealdstone for five years whilst working as an electrician before top-flight side Coventry City came calling. Signing for £30,000, Pearce was thrust straight into the starting eleven making 51 appearances at left-back for the Sky Blues, before Brian Clough signed him for Nottingham Forest.

‘Psycho’, as his colleagues called him, would then spend twelves years at Forest, becoming club captain and making 393 appearances for the midlands outfit. Two League Cups followed before Forest were relegated at the end of the 1992/93 season. Pearce remained at the club after relegation, guiding Forest back to the top flight before taking them to the UEFA Cup. After a spell as player/manager and another relegation, Pearce would leave the club at the end of 1996/97. Spells at Newcastle, West Ham and Manchester City followed before the fullback hung up his boots, after scoring an incredible 99 goals.

Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu [Luton Town]

The most recent entry to achieve such a feat, but Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu’s achievement will probably feel a lot more special. Mpanzu became the first ever player to come from non-league to the top flight all with the same club, with the former Boreham Wood player entering his tenth season at Luton Town. The midfielder was an important player for the Hatters on their journey to the Premier League, and has featured in the top flight 18 times so far this season.

Capped twice by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mpanzu has played 389 games so far in the orange of Luton, scoring 23 times and assisting 34 more. If Rob Edwards and his Luton can do the unthinkable and stay up for a second consecutive season on the top flight, it would be a remarkable achievement, much like Mpanzu’s spell at the club thus far.

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