Charlie Austin and Yannick Bolasie’s recent form for QPR and Crystal Palace respectively, has given a positive image boost to non-league football. They are part of a current generation of players who have, to paraphrase Canadian rapper Drake: “started from the bottom now they’re here.” Others preceded them, and here is an ode to non-league beginnings, as this is the best starting XI I could find of players who have completed the rise up the football pyramid.
Dave Beasant, Edgware Town
Dave Beasant is synonymous with the “Crazy Gang” – the Wimbledon FC team, who won the FA Cup in 1988, and an infamous colleague of his will feature in this side. After this cup success, Beasant gained two England caps and joined Chelsea and later Newcastle, Southampton and Nottingham Forest as he failed to quite replicate his Wombles form. His journey began in earnest at Edgware Town in north London, and ended with 132 Premier League appearances and an FA Cup winner’s medal under his belt. A solid ‘keeper and that penalty save against Liverpool gets him in this eleven.
Jason Dodd, Bath City
Not the most glamorous of selections, but Jason Dodd was a solid, dependable full back from a bygone era before full backs were used as second wingers. Forever idolised by Saints fans for that “goal” versus Portsmouth straight from a corner (it was accredited as an own goal by Sebastian Schemmel, but is widely considered to have been Dodd’s) in the 2003/04 season, Dodd notched 329 Premier League appearances for Southampton, who signed him from his hometown club Bath City in 1989 for a £15,000 fee.
Chris Smalling, Maidstone United
Chris Smalling is the only contemporary Premier League player to make this team. Not universally loved or appreciated perhaps as much as he should be, Smalling is a very capable centre half and like most of this team was internationally recognised, with so far 16 caps to his name. Still only 25 Smalling has amassed over 100 Premier League appearances in a transitional Manchester United backline. Smalling is already a double league winning player, and can be assured of more medals before the twilight of his career. From Maidstone United in the Isthmian League in 2007/08 Smalling very nearly joined Middlesbrough, but feared homesickness. He joined Fulham instead before moving to footballing giants Manchester United two years later. Smalling provides experience of playing against the best, and that assures his inclusion.
Graham Roberts, Dorchester Town & Weymouth
Who? Those not familiar with Spurs and/or 1980s football may not be familiar with Southampton born Graham Roberts. Not strictly a Premier League player, Roberts did play in its predecessor the First Division, and won 6 England caps. After being released from both Southampton and Portsmouth as a youth, Roberts made his debut in first team football for Dorchester Town. He moved to fellow Dorset side Weymouth next before Londoners Spurs came calling. Roberts played over 200 times for Spurs, winning the FA Cup in 1981 and 1982. Stints at Glasgow Rangers and then Second Division Chelsea followed before Roberts retired at West Bromwich Albion. He would later manage the Pakistan and Nepal national teams.
Stuart Pearce (Captain), Wealdstone
No rags to riches, non-league to Premier League fairy tale is complete without Stuart “Psycho” Pearce. Pearce spent a long five years at Wealdstone before his tough tackling antics were seen on a larger stage. Bobby Gould signed Pearce for Coventry City before he made his name at Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. 78 England caps later and one of the iconic images of Stuart Pearce is his reaction to scoring a penalty versus Spain in the Euro ’96 penalty shootout, considering his previous penalty in an England shirt. Six years earlier, Pearce like another player in this featured eleven, missed a penalty versus West Germany in a World Cup semi-final, meaning England did not make the final. That said, considering the England debacle at the 2014 World Cup, a semi-final exit doesn’t seem unappealing today! Pearce unquestionably gave his all in every performance for his country, and his hard but fair tackles are sorely missed in the modern game.
Chris Waddle, Tow Law Town
A World Cup veteran of 1986, and infamously England’s fourth place finish at 1990. Waddle started his footballing journey at Tow Law Town in County Durham, before a move to Newcastle United was a catalyst to a quite incredible career. Waddle is remembered for his penalty miss in 1990 versus West Germany, a game forever associated with Paul Gascoigne’s tears, but that is not held against him in this line-up (although his mullet is not excused), as his silky dribbling and fine wing play made him one of English football’s stars and he was often linked to moves abroad. Waddle did eventually leave Spurs for continental Europe as he showcased his talent at Marseilles and later, erm, Falkirk. What is also just as endearing as Waddle’s rise is the manner in which he finished his footballing career. Far from later generations of Beckham and Owen retiring at the top, Christopher Roland Waddle took a whistle-stop tour of Torquay United, Worksop Town and Hallam before hanging up his well-travelled boots in 2013, a full 35 years after first appearing for Tow Law Town.
Vinnie Jones, Wealdstone
Another Wealdstone graduate, in a few years they may actually have more Premier League footballers than fans. Vinnie Jones is arguably most well-known for his one dimensional acting roles than his slightly less one dimensional role as a defensive midfielder. Jones spearheaded the “Crazy Gang” off the pitch, and contributed to their on the field successes with his tough tackling, and psychological torment of the opposition. Despite leaving Dons in 1989 to play for Leeds, Sheffield United and Chelsea, Jones returned to his spiritual home in 1992 where he would stay until 1998, before Hollywood came calling. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch were perhaps his greatest successes on the big screen. Jones was the typical hard man every team needs, and he’ll form an impenetrable wall in midfield for this eleven.
Alan Pardew, Whyteleafe, Epsom & Ewell, Corinthian-Casuals, Dulwich Hamlet & Yeovil Town
Alan Pardew was quite the journeyman in the semi-professional game, before Crystal Palace plucked him from obscurity, and it was as Eagle he made his name on the pitch. Just edging out Jimmy Bullard of Gravesend and Northfleet in this line up because of his role he played in helping Palace to the First Division in 1989. His performances did not go unnoticed and Pardew moved London bases to join Charlton in 1991. The next season he was top scorer for The Addicks with ten goals. “Pards” should offer a goal threat and creativity, providing a good balance with Jones in the middle of the park.
John Barnes, Sudbury Court
Jamaican born, England international John Barnes is notable for one of two things. Firstly his sumptuous run and finish versus Brazil in 1984, and secondly, his rapping segment of New Order’s 1990 hit World in Motion; one easy on the eye, the other easy on the ear. Barnes is another double title winning and double FA Cup winning player, and accumulated 79 England caps between 1983 and 1995. But it was in the Middlesex County League that Barnes first took to the pitch, playing for Sudbury Court FC. Here Barnes was noticed by Watford, and impressed on trial in a reserve game. Sudbury exchanged their player for the cost of the playing kit. In Barnes’ first season The Hornets won promotion to the First Division and Barnes would play 18 consecutive seasons in England’s top flight before retiring at Glasgow Celtic. It was in the red of Liverpool and yellow of Watford that he was most prolific although he did also have spells at Newcastle United and Charlton Athletic. Consistently one of the best wingers in English football over the 1980s and 1990s John Barnes’ place in this starting eleven is welcomed – especially if we only have to pay for his kit.
Ian Wright, Greenwich Borough
Ian Wright is one of the first names that springs to mind when one thinks of non-league players to have “made it”. Steve Coppell signed Wright for Crystal Palace from Greenwich Borough when The Eagles were in the Second Division and his impact was immediate. In four seasons in the Second tier with Palace, Wright found the net no less than 67 times in all competitions. It was very hard to ignore such talent and Arsenal were the ones lucky enough to get their claws into Wright in 1991 for a then club record fee of £2.5 million. On his league debut Wright stunned Southampton with a hat-trick and the precedence was well and truly set. Over 300 goals in less than 600 appearances, a Premier League title, two FA Cups and a League Cup as well as 33 England caps: on statistics alone Wright picks himself. Inducted into the England football hall of fame in 2005, Wright will provide a pacey outlet alongside a big man up top.
Les Ferdinand, Hayes F.C
Big Les Ferdinand won 17 England caps and notched a round 150 Premier League goals. QPR paid £30,000 to Hayes FC for the services of Ferdinand, and this would prove to be a shrewd investment as he went on to score regularly for The R’s in England’s top flight – bagging as many as 24 in 1994/95. Here an honourable mention goes to Stan Collymore of Stafford Rangers, but Les Ferdinand wins the shirt in this team because of his superior goal scoring record and number of international caps. Ferdinand is currently the eighth highest scorer in Premier League history, not bad for a man who started playing for Hayes in the Isthmian League in the 1980s where he netted 19 in 33 games. A true out and out goal machine, Les Ferdinand leads the line with Ian Wright.