From Grassroots to Wembley: The Six Non-League Players to Receive England Caps

non league match attacker taking on defender

Every football fan has dreamt of putting on the shirt for their country. While for some special talents at top academies the pathway to reach the pinnacle of the game may be clear, for others, honing their skills on local pitches, it can often seem like a mere pipe dream.

In recent years, however, some of the biggest names in English football can thank the Non-League system as the place that they learned their trade. The likes of Ian Wright, Joe Hart and Jamie Vardy all began their careers in the lower echelons of the English football pyramid system before their ascent to the top of the game, earning 134 England caps between them and each winning the league on at least one occasion.

While the meteoric rise of Wright, Hart and Vardy may seem like fairy tale stuff, incredibly six players in history received England caps while still playing for Non-League sides. With the National European championships just around the corner, here are the six iconic Non-League players to play international football for England.

Alfred Bower (Corinthians, 5 England Caps 1923-27)

Probably the most famous amateur football club in history, Corinthians are often credited as popularising the beautiful game around the world. Maintaining amateur status throughout their history, Corinthians are famed for their ideals of sportsmanship and fair play.

It wasn’t just the club alone making a name for itself in football though, during a ten year spell at Corinthians, featuring in FA Cup ties against the likes of Blackburn Rovers, West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City, Alfred Bower earned five full international caps for England, as well as 13 amateur caps.

Bower’s five England appearances rank as the most ever for a Non-League player, but not only this, he also captained the national side on three occasions, the last of which coming on 12th February 1927 in a 3-3 draw with Wales, with football legend Dixie Deans scoring twice in the game. Bower’s final match leading out the national side is also the last time a Non-League player has captained England. Truly iconic stuff.

Claude Ashton (Corinthians, 1 England Cap 1925)

Our second player on the list is another ex-Corinthian with an extraordinary tale. A multi-talented athlete, Claude Ashton personified versatility, featuring in various positions during his playing career, including goalkeeper, centre forward and wing-half. Ashton scored a remarkable 145 goals in 208 appearances for the club and was selected for the England national side for the match against Northern Ireland on 24th October 1925. He captained the side playing as a centre forward during the 0-0 draw, and is the last player to have captained England in his only international appearance.

True to his multitalented form, Ashton was also a first-class cricketer, playing 127 matches during an 18 year career.

William Bryant (Clapton, 1 England Cap 1925)

Born in Ghent, Belgium, William Bryant spent a significant part of his career playing in the Football League for Millwall, featuring 132 times and scoring 30 goals. However, it was during his time at Non-League Clapton that Bryant earned his solitary England cap, with the centre half earning his call up for a match against France in May 1925.

After a six year spell at Millwall, Bryant returned to Clapton before retiring in 1933. He remains one of a select few England internationals to have been born outside of England.

Vivian Gibbins (Clapton, 2 England Caps 1924-25)

In the days of amateur and professional footballers playing alongside each other it wasn’t uncommon for players to be registered to more than one club at a time. As an amateur, Vivian Gibbins was one of the most prolific goalscorers in English football, becoming the first unpaid West Ham player to finish a season as top-scorer for the club, scoring 18 times in the 1930-31 season.

Deciding not to play permanently for West Ham during his first four years at the club, Gibbins also played for Clapton, winning the FA Amateur Cup on two occasions. Whilst registered as a Clapton player, Gibbins won two England international call-ups, featuring twice against France on 17th May 1924 and 21st May 1925, scoring a brace in a 3-1 victory in his first appearance.

Leaving a lasting legacy at the club, the entrance to Clapton’s Old Spotted Dog ground is named the Vivian Gibbins Memorial Gate.

Edgar Kail (Dulwich Hamlet, 3 England Caps 1929)

Edagr Kail is one of football’s great unknown stories. An original one-club-man, Kail turned down lucrative professional contracts to remain an amateur at his beloved Dulwich Hamlet. A prolific forward, Kail scored 427 times for Dulwich during a 14 year spell at the club.

In 1929, Kail earned a call-up to England’s continental tour, featuring three times against Spain, Belgium and France, scoring twice on his debut. His appearance against Spain marks the final time a Non-League player has featured for England.

Bernard Joy (Casuals, 1 England Cap 1936)

Though earning his England international call-up after Edgar Kail, Bernard Joy actually played for Arsenal at the time of his cap against Belgium in 1936. Joy was, however, registered as a Casuals player at the time and therefore makes it as the last player to feature on our list.

While his classification as a Non-League England player is open for debate, Joy is noted as the last amateur to ever play for the national side.

From the amateur era to the modern-day game, the Non-League continues to provide an inspirational platform for the development of some of England’s future stars of the game.

By Bob