Non-League To The Premier League: 12 Players Who Came Up The Hard Way

Chris Wright

1st, December 2015


With Jamie Vardy currently the flavour of the week (that particular flavour being a subtle mix of WKD blue, ecstasy and two-stroke oil), we thought we’d tip our hat to a few of the other players who did it the hard way – hauling themselves from the non-leagues to the top table of English football by their boot laces at a relatively late age.

Seeing as most fans are familiar with the back-stories of the likes of Stuart Pearce (still working as an electrician at the age of 21), Ian Wright (Sunday League player at 21, Crystal Palace striker by 22) et al by now, we’ve intentionally left them out in favour of a few yarns that you may not be quite so au fait with.

1. Charlie Austin

Austin was playing semi-professional football for Poole Town in the Wessex League Premier Division as recently as 2009, topping up his wages by working as a bricklayer with his dad’s building firm on the side.

Alas, our Charlie just couldn’t stop scoring goals for fun wherever he pitched up and, after passing through Swindon and Burnley on the way up the pyramid, found himself promoted to the Premier League with QPR in 2013.

2. Jimmy Bullard

Having earned his crust with a “proper job” as a painter and decorator for several years, Bullard decided to go all in on the professional(ish) football lark at the age of 20 when he was given a pay-as-you-play deal by non-leaguers Gravesend & Northfleet FC, now known as Ebbsfleet United.

He was then scouted and signed by West Ham in 1998. However, after failing to make the grade at his boyhood club, Bullard eventually wound up at Wigan Athletic (after a short but successful stint with Peterborough) in January of 2003.

Two seasons later he was playing in the Premier League, duly winning the hearts of a nation by virtue of being a bit of a wally britches.

3. Gary Hooper

Hooper started his career playing non-league football for Grays Athletic in 2004 as a 16 year old (with his dad driving the team bus to away games) in both the Conference South and Conference National.

Much like Austin, Hooper’s relentless scoring rate caught many an eye and soon he was snapped up by Southend United. Continuing to bang them in, Hooper passed through Leyton Orient, Hereford United, Scunthorpe United and Celtic before finally making it to the Premier League with Norwich in 2013.

As things stand, Hooper is the only man to have scored in the Premier League, the Championship, League One, League Two, the Conference, the FA Cup, the League Cup, the SPL, the Scottish Cup, the Scottish League Cup, the Europa League and the Champions League.


4. Troy Deeney

Having failed to make inroads at Aston Villa as a youth, Deeney was about to pack it all in and become a builder.

He kept up his apprenticeship while playing non-league football for Chelmsley Town before being spotted and plucked by League One side Walsall. After three seasons with the Saddlers, Deeney submitted a transfer request amid a flurry of Championship interest and it was Watford who eventually took the £250,000 plunge.

He’s still there and still scoring dem goals.

5. Chris Smalling

To be fair, Smalling was still quite young when he made the leap up and out of the amateur game in 2008, though the leap itself has proved prodigious.

From Maidstone United to Manchester United and England (via Fulham) in the space of three years and all by the age of 21. Hells bells.

6. Les Ferdinand

Ferdinand was still plugging away at non-league Hayes at the age of 21 before QPR took him off their hands for a mere £15,000 in 1987.

Shortly thereafter before he went on to become one of the most prolific strikers of the Premier League era.

With the money Hayes received as part of Ferdinand’s £6million move from Loftus Road to Newcastle, the club were able to build a brand new hospitality suite.

Bet you can’t guess what they called it…

7. Malcolm Christie

Christie was playing for Nuneaton Borough by night and stacking supermarket shelves by day when he was signed as an 18-year-old by Derby County, then of the Premier League, in 1998.

He quickly forced his way into the first-team by 2000 and spent two more years with the Rams before leaving for Middlesbrough in February of 2003.

Sadly, a raft of relentless injuries (including a bad spinal injury) forced the striker to bow out of the game altogether in January 2009, aged just 32.

He now works as a salesman for Aston Martin.

8. Rickie Lambert

As the legend goes, Lambert was playing fourth division football at the age of 25. By 32, he was playing regularly in the Premier League and had even featured for England at a World Cup. Suddenly that bloody beetroot factory seemed a long, long, long way away.

It just so happens that in the meanwhile the old-fashioned frontman spearheaded Southampton’s mercurial ascension up the league ladder, scoring oodles of goals in every single division on the club’s long-overdue return to the top flight.

9. Grant Holt

A story comparable to Lambert’s, Holt was playing non-league football for Barrow at 22 and even League Two football for Shrewsbury at 28.

Even so, through sheer determination and hard graft, the former tyre-fitter eventually managed to blast his way into the Premier League with Norwich in 2011-12, scoring 45 league goals in successive promotion seasons beforehand and even managing to bag 15 goals in his first season in the top flight.

It all fell a bit flat after that, but the peak was glorious.

10. Kevin Phillips

Having been released by Southampton as a kid, budding full-back Phillips signed for non-league Baldock Town on semi-pro terms in the summer of 1991.

Perhaps fatefully, an injury crisis forced Baldock to deploy Phillips into a striker role where he proceeded to score a healthy amount of goals in the Southern League.

The story goes that Phillips was stacking shelves in a supermarket when Watford came a callin’ in December of 1994.  The Hornets splurged £10,000 to land their man, who swiftly went on to become one of the Premier League’s most lethal finishers with Sunderland.

Bargain on aisle 4.

11. Gareth McAuley

McCauley didn’t play a Premier League game until he was 31, and previously hadn’t played professionally before the age of 24.

Indeed, the West Brom centre-half spent much of his early career playing amateur football in his native Northern Ireland before making the hop to League Two with Lincoln City in 2004.

Two years later he joined Championship side Leicester City on a freebie, impressing sufficiently to earn a move to Ipswich Town when the Foxes were relegated in 2008.

He was then purloined by West Brom of the Premier League in the summer of 2011, and quickly became one of the club’s most reliable hands and a genuine fan’s favourite thanks to his adept, no-nonsense approach.

Just to add to that, he’ll also be going to major international tournament next summer.

12. Steve Finnan

Who else but the pub trivia legend himself? As you probably well know, Finnan was and is the only man to have played in all four English league divisions as well as the Conference, the World Cup, the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Cup and the Intertoto Cup on his way up the ladder from lowly Welling United to the very top.

Now aged 39, Finnan makes a decent living as a professional Jamie Carragher look-a-like. He’s even stood in for Carra on Monday Night Football a few times without anybody noticing.

BONUS: While his career pre-dates the Premier League by a decade or two, ex-Manchester City defender Tony Book didn’t turn pro until he was 30 years old.

He duly went on to become City’s most decorated captain by winning the First Division title, the FA Cup, the League Cup, the Cup Winner’s Cup and the FWA Footballer of the Year Award between 1966 and 1974.

Any more for any more, Pies fans? Let’s hear them…