In a world where footballing expenditures have gone mad and where global scouting schemes are aplenty, the art of sourcing fresh and raw talent from non-league football remains alive.
Just ask Jamie Vardy, Chris Smalling, Troy Deeney, Michail Antonio, Yannick Bolasie and Joe Hart.
These are all footballers who have taken a walk down the well-trodden path that links non-league football with the very summit of the domestic game – the Premier League – in recent times, emerging as hidden gems from a realm of budding semi-pros further down the footballing ladder.
Whilst the vast majority of those plying their trade in non-league will never see the lights of a Football League stadium, one player who has made such a leap is Barnsley’s Ethan Pinnock.
The 24-year-old central defender could be the latest exciting instalment in a revered line of non-league exports, earning his big breakthrough over the summer when he moved from newly-promoted League Two outfit Forest Green Rovers to the Championship side for an undisclosed fee.
Speaking to The Boot Room about his switch to the Tykes, Pinnock explained that the opportunity to continue his development as a centre-half made the decision a no-brainer.
“Barnsley is well-known for giving younger players a chance so I thought it would be a good place for me to come, play and develop.
“The fact that the coaches [Head Coach Paul Heckingbottom and First Team Coach Jamie Clapham] are both defenders too, I felt they would be able to give me the help I need to develop further.”
Whilst his rapid elevation from the seventh tier of English football to the second tier came around in little over two years, Pinnock’s story is a humble one that begins as a non-league teenager.
He made his way through the youth ranks at Dulwich Hamlet – who were then an Isthmian League Division One South side – before his initial breakthrough into the first-team came at just 16-years-old, and from that moment on he never really looked back.
Over a six-year period Pinnock went on to make over 150 appearances for Dulwich, helping them with their charge to promotion to the Isthmian League Premier Division in 2012-13 as champions.
It wasn’t long before he garnered the attention of a higher-ranked team in the shape of the National League’s Forest Green Rovers, who snapped Pinnock up on a two-year deal in June 2016.
It was an opening that was as merited as it was impossible to turn down, and the 24-year-old admitted that he still keeps one eye on the progress of his childhood side Dulwich.
“I spent the best part of six or seven years there. It’s the local Club for me, they gave me the chance from a really young age to play senior football and the fans there have always been brilliant to me.
“They’ve got a great fanbase, a great set-up there and it’s been a big part of my footballing career and it’ll always have a place in my heart.”
Following his move it was to be a hugely successful first – and only – season down at The New Lawn, playing his part in Forest Green’s play-off final triumph over Tranmere Rovers to secure a place in the Football League for the first time in the Club’s history, leaving the National League after 19 years.
Despite the over-riding success of his debut year at Forest Green the allure of Championship football proved to be too tempting for Pinnock, who reflected on his decision to move to Yorkshire during last summer’s transfer window.
“I just felt like I had had a really good season at Forest Green with the promotion. Football’s a short career and I wanted to try and play at the highest level possible and try and test myself to the fullest.
“You never know if that chance will come around again and I felt it was a chance I needed to take.”
After years of regular football at both Dulwich Hamlet and Forest Green Rovers it was a brand-new challenge that presented itself to Pinnock upon arrival at Barnsley though. With Pinnock, Liam Lindsay and Adam Jackson competing for just two spots at the heart of the Barnsley back-line there was no guarantee of first-team action – and his chances weren’t helped by an injury-hit few months.
Amidst the frustrations of being side-lined at the very start of his Barnsley career, Pinnock said that he just had to keep his head down, keep working in training and wait for the chances to come.
“It’s been a bit of a slow-burner [since moving]. I was out of the team at the start because the people ahead of me were playing well and I also pulled my quad which was another set-back.
“In football you never know what’s going to happen from one week to the next.
“Even if you’re not automatically in the team you know that at some point you’re going to be called upon because we have a full squad of players, so it’s just about keeping yourself in shape and ready to take that chance when it does come. Fortunately, I was given the chance to get in the team and I feel like I’ve taken that chance and now I’ve really got going.”
And the centre-half certainly did take his chance when it presented itself to him in the middle of December, starting for just the second time in the Championship in a 0-0 stalemate away at Brentford.
Since then he’s been an immovable object in the Barnsley back-line, making seven straight appearances in the league and FA Cup as the Tykes look to steer themselves away from trouble.
During this time Barnsley have kept four clean sheets – including an impressively determined rear-guard effort away at runaway leaders Wolves a fortnight ago – and it’s a much-needed upturn of form that’s been helped by Pinnock’s burgeoning partnership with Lindsay in the centre of defence.
It’s not just at the back where the 24-year-old has had an impact either, scoring twice in just 48 hours over the New Year to earn a point against Reading and a rare victory late on at Sunderland.
His emergence in the first-team has been a timely one at Barnsley and it’s little surprise that he earnt the accolade of the Club’s Player of the Month for December – but Pinnock played it down.
“It meant a lot to me because that was my first month getting in the side and playing regularly, and I’m thankful for everyone who voted for me. But whilst the individual accolades are nice, the main thing is for the team to get going and start getting some more wins.”
Whilst it has been an up-and down six months for Pinnock on a personal level it has been an equally testing period for the Club as they sit precariously placed in 19th, just two points above the relegation spots with 18 matches still to play before the end of the season.
The Tykes have won just six of their 28 fixtures to date – going ten games without one between November and January – but just the one defeat in their last five has lifted spirits around Oakwell somewhat.
Pinnock acknowledges that performance levels haven’t quite been up to scratch at times but he remains confident that his new side can turn things around and retain their Championship status for another season.
“There’s been a few games this season where we’ve probably deserved more out of it and maybe if some of us players had some more experience things may have gone our way. It’s definitely a factor but with a little bit more luck a few results this season could have gone in our favour. But as the team develops our performances will keep getting better and we should see more positive results.”
And it’s this word development that has followed Pinnock around for his entire career.
For a player that has shown promise since an early age at Dulwich, every year – and every move up the varying divisions – has merely been another stepping stone as he seeks to establish himself as a defender at the highest level possible.
It’s hard to believe that just two years ago Pinnock was playing in the seventh tier on the English footballing ladder, especially when he’s taken to the notoriously physical and challenging Championship like a duck to water. But despite his impressive start to life at Barnsley he enforced the fact that he’s not the finished article just yet, citing his willingness for personal improvement.
“There’s always things to improve on but I think there were things picked out from the second I moved that we have worked on in training day-in, day-out, and it’s already improved me as a player.
“I aim to bring the qualities I’ve possessed in previous seasons. I feel comfortable on the ball – I try to relax when I’m out there. As a centre-back you can see more of the game than the players ahead of you so it’s key to give them bits of information as it helps everyone around you as well as yourself.”
When mentioning his ‘previous seasons’ spent playing football Pinnock’s love affair with his former side Dulwich becomes even clearer, and it’s evident that his time there got him off on the right foot.
There may be a visible gulf in quality between the football of the Isthmian League and the Championship but he claims that it was at Dulwich where the foundations of his entire career were laid, and the six-years spent in the first-team have helped him prepare for tougher tests.
“When I was at Dulwich, the way that Gavin [Rose] the manager and his assistants run the team isn’t like an average non-league team. They tried to do everything professionally and I think that helped prepare me to play at a higher level.
“They had the structure, organisation and commitment. It’s not been an easy transition but you train more regularly at Barnsley, and the information that they give you can be digested a lot quicker and worked on a lot more. I feel like a combination of those have helped.”
There’s no denying that Pinnock’s career trajectory has only been moving one way since being a 16-year-old in London with dreams and aspirations, and should he continue impressing he could yet make it to the summit of domestic football.
In an interview shortly after his move to Barnsley was announced last summer, Pinnock’s boss at Forest Green, Mark Cooper, claimed that the defender is ‘destined for the Premier League’ one day – and it’s easy to see why.
His tall and slender frame lends him perfectly well in the air – both defensively and offensively – and he’s built up a gritty, determined defensive stance on the pitch courtesy of his days battling it out on some difficult non-league surfaces.
Yet any talks of Premier League football – and his former manager’s comments – have been downplayed by an ever-humble Pinnock, who insisted that his current focus is on Barnsley and Barnsley alone.
“It’s flattering to hear comments like that but my aim for now is to focus on Barnsley and focus on establishing myself in the Championship, making sure that I play regularly week-in, week-out there before thinking about anything else.
“I just hope to be starting in as many games as possible and keep up this level of performances to try and help the team. As a team, we’re looking to accumulate as many points as possible before the end of the season so we’re safe.”
With Pinnock, his ethos is clear – think of the here and now, not the future.
The task at hand at Oakwell isn’t an easy one, but with just one defeat in their previous five league matches – coming at the weekend away at high-flying Aston Villa – the Tykes have built some momentum and confidence for the first time this year, and they’ll desperately want this to continue.
With fixtures against fellow relegation rivals Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City and Burton Albion to come in the next month it could be a crucial period that goes a long way in determining where they end up – a good run could alleviate fears of relegation, whilst a bad one could deepen them.
Should Pinnock continue in his fine vein of form then there’s a good chance that Barnsley’s young team can haul themselves away from trouble and look to build for a potential crack at the play-offs in 2018/2019 campaign – but they won’t get ahead of themselves.
On a more individual level, as much as Pinnock chooses to block out any talk of a future Premier League move it won’t be long before top-flight interest starts to grow if he continues to impress in this manner.
Nobody can second guess the future but who knows – in a few years’ time, it could be Ethan Pinnock’s name that is being spoken in the same sentences as Vardy, Smalling, Deeney, Antonio, Bolasie and Hart, potentially being the next poster-boy for non-league footballers.