Wednesday Jan 18, 2017
As football supporters, we’re all suckers for a success story. There’s something heartwarming about tales of talented kids from humble backgrounds getting their big break as they’re plucked from their neighbourhood by insightful club scouts and thrust into top-class academies, where they develop the skills that will one day see them grace the world stage.
However, not every rags-to-riches story features a footballer reaching for the stars during their adolescence. Some players remain under the radar until they are already well into their career, with their dreams of playing in the Premier League having faded years ago.
Take Jamie Vardy, a man that Lambs supporters undoubtedly remember from the winning 2011-12 season. Starting out at Stocksbridge Park Steels after being dumped by Sheffield Wednesday as a 16-year-old, Vardy spent five years playing non-league football before a haul of 31 goals in 36 games for Fleetwood Town as they took the Conference Premier title in 2012 saw then-Championship side Leicester City snap him up for a reported non-league record fee of £1million
One season, Vardy was playing on muddy pitches with part-time players, the next he was the Foxes’ talismanic forward, leading their charge towards Premier League promotion, survival and then, incredibly, the title itself, which in turn sealed a Champions League debut for the Midlands team. Could Vardy and Leicester do the inconceivable and conquer Europe? If they did, they would no doubt find out how difficult it is to defend the Champions League, as 888sport has previously covered.
Vardy has deservedly received a lot attention for his remarkable rise up the football pyramid, but he is far from an anomaly. There are many examples of players who were seemingly destined to spend their career performing in front of small crowds, juggling playing with a full-time job, but the beauty of football is that absolutely anything can happen.
Remember DJ Campbell, the striker who went from the Isthmian Premier League - the eighth tier of English football - to the top flight in less than 12 months? After failing to win a contract at Aston Villa in his youth, Campbell kicked around non-league for several seasons during spells with Chesham United, Stevenage Borough, Billericay Town and, eventually, Yeading.
Campbell caught the eye of BBC One viewers when Yeading faced Newcastle United in a televised January 2005 FA Cup match. This saw him move up to the third tier of English football to sign for Brentford six months later at the grand old age of 23. In January 2006, he moved up another two levels, this time to Premier League Birmingham City. Campbell spent the next eight flitting between the top three divisions, enjoying successful spells at Blackpool in the top flight and Ipswich Town in the Championship.
Campbell shot to stardom so quickly that Tamworth supporters didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of him, but there are several current Premier League stars who have graced The Lamb Ground with in recent years. Many will recall Welshman Neil Taylor sweeping up at the back for Wrexham between 2007 and 2010 before Swansea City, then in the Championship, swooped for him. Taylor failed to make the cut at Manchester City as a teenager, but he has excelled at Swansea, and played every minute of Wales’s run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson had a loan spell at Tamworth in the 2011-12 that was sadly brought to a premature end after he suffered a fractured foot in his third game; he’s now a regular starter for the Cherries in the Premier League. Wilson’s former Bournemouth teammate Lee Tomlin plied his trade in non-league football, for the now-defunct Rushden & Diamonds, until the age of 26, eventually making it to the top flight via Peterborough United and Middlesbrough.
Watford target man Troy Deeney and Southampton forward Charlie Austin were both on the verge of becoming full-time bricklayers before their goalscoring exploits saw league sides move for their signatures, and now they are both regulars in the Premier League. England defender Chris Smalling spent a year at Maidstone United before arriving at Manchester United via Fulham, while Gary Hooper’s goals for Grays Athletic between 2004 and 2006 saw him eventually earn a move to the Premier League with Norwich City in 2013.
Goalkeeper Joe Hart spent four seasons at Shrewsbury Town, the second of which was in the National League, before being snaffled up by Manchester City. He’s since gone on to win the Premier League and League Cup twice and the FA Cup once, and establish himself as England’s number one.
The proof is there; being kicked out of a Premier League academy doesn’t mean the dream is over, and age is nothing but a number. If players perform well, they’re always in with a shot of making it to the top and playing against some of biggest names in the game in one of the best leagues in the world - and that’s exactly what makes football so wonderful.