The English non-League has become a breeding ground for players who have slipped through the Football League system. Players often play non-League football after being released by League clubs and work their way back up the football pyramid.
Many notable players have made the well-trodden journey from non-League back into the Football League and often to the English top flight. Here are some of the higher-profile players who have made that particular journey:
Wright had a tough upbringing and was sent to jail when he was 19 for driving offences. He suffered the blow of being rejected by both Southend and Brighton after trials. The affable striker never gave up, though.
The forward made his Football League relatively late, as he joined top-flight Crystal Palace just before he turned 22. Wright signed for the Eagles from Greenwich Borough, where he was playing semi-professional football.
He was a star at Palace before earning a big move to Arsenal. Wright went on to achieve legendary status in north London, becoming the club’s top goalscorer, scoring 185 goals in 288 games. His goals helped the Gunners to a Premier League title, two FA Cups, a League Cup and a European Cup Winners’ Cup.
The forward also made 33 appearances for England at international level scoring nine goals. He is arguably the ultimate example for players not in the league system to never give up on their dreams.
The Leicester forward is another example of a player from the Non-League not only playing in the English top flight but thriving and becoming a star. Vardy’s story is straight out of Roy of the Rovers.
The forward was released by his boyhood club Sheffield Wednesday. Vardy then played for numerous Non-League outfits, such as Halifax and Stocksbridge Park Steels. However, it was at Fleetwood Town where he really caught the eye.
Leicester City took a chance on the then-non-league sensation by buying him for a reported fee of £1m, a record fee paid for the non-league player. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2016, just four years after playing non-league football, Vardy helped Leicester City become the most unlikely Premier League champions.
It was fitting that Vardy, who has had to fight his way back up the football system, was one of the team’s best-performing players. Vardy has scored an impressive 134 Premier League goals in 293 appearances for the Foxes. Even in his mid-30’s Vardy is still performing at the highest level of football, making up for lost time.
The forward, nicknamed Sir Les, played non-league football for the likes of Viking Sports, Southall and Hayes until he hit the big time in 1987 when QPR splashed out £50,000 to sign the forward from the latter.
Ferdinand had brief loan spells with Brentford and the Turkish club Besiktas. However, he really made his name at QPR before enjoying spells at Newcastle and Tottenham, among others in the Premier League.
He scored 149 Premier League goals in 351 appearances while representing England at international level on 17 occasions, scoring two goals.
Arguably, Ferdinand’s most significant achievement came in 1995/96 when he was awarded Premier League Players Player of the Year.
The diminutive forward started his career with Southampton but was released for being too small. He played semi-pro football for Baldock Town, where he often played as a central defender. However, an injury crisis saw his true striking instinct kick in.
Watford took a chance and paid Baldock Town an initial £10,000 plus £5,000 in potential add-ons. However, it wasn’t until a switch to Sunderland in 1997 that Phillips showed his real eye for goal.
His goals helped the Black Cats to promotion to the Championship. The highlight of his top-flight career was yet to come, as in the season 1999/2000, the forward finished as the Premier League’s top goalscorer with 30 goals. His tally was also enough to see Phillips claim the European Golden Shoe, which is an award that no other Englishman has ever won.
The forward also played for Southampton, Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Crystal Palace, amassing a total of 93 top-flight goals in 263 appearances. At the peak of his career, Phillips picked up eight caps for England, although he failed to find the net.
The man now famous from Hounslow to Hollywood, Jones made a name for himself as a midfield hardman for Wimbledon in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, Jones started his career as a semi-pro at Wealdstone while also working as a hod carrier on a building site.
He also spent a season on loan in the Swedish lower leagues with IFK Holmsund, where he helped the team win the Swedish fifth-tier title.
His big move came in 1986 when Wimbledon paid Wealdstone £10,000 to sign the midfielder. Jones quickly gained a reputation as a tough-tackling midfielder and played a vital role in the Dons’ 1988 FA Cup final 1-0 win over Liverpool at Wembley.
Jones left Wimbledon for the first time in 1990 to join Leeds before stints at Sheffield United and Chelsea. However, he returned to Wimbledon in 1992 and stayed with the club until 1998, when he joined QPR as a player coach, where he retired from playing later that year.
His persona of a hard man certainly caught people’s attention, as he later acted in numerous movies playing up to his reputation, in films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Gone in 60 Seconds.
The Jamaican international took the long route round to the Premier League. He started his career with Tooting and Mitcham as a youth player, and during six years with the club, he had unsuccessful trials at both Brentford and QPR.
The forward wasn’t in the Tooting and Mitcham first-team long before Reading took a chance on him. While at Reading, he spent stints on loan back at his old club, Cheltenham Town, Southampton, Colchester and Sheffield Wednesday. He then joined the latter on a permanent deal before another move to Nottingham Forest in 2014.
His career-defining move came in 2015, though, when West Ham paid a fee of £7m to bring him back to the capital. Antonio proved to be a bargain, as he has gone on to become the club’s record Premier League goalscorer with 59 goals in his 218 appearances in the English top-flight.