Vardy, Austin and co: The rise from 'Non-league to England'
The most memorable example of recent times would probably be Rickie Lambert, but with Charlie Austin and Jamie Vardy, previously of Poole Town and Halifax Town respectively, being called up to the England squad, yet again we find ourselves with examples of players who have gone from bricklayers or electricians to international forwards in less than a decade.
As is common knowledge, the vast majority of professional footballers start their careers before they are even old enough to watch a 12A film unaccompanied. The academy systems of the UK are practically littered with potential high-end players in order to give the club in question the best chance of a fantastic run of results, or a tidy profit, in the future.
In this highly competitive system, it is commonplace for ex-Premier League players to drop down a division or two in order to ply their trade on a weekly basis – Jermaine Beckford, Chris Kirkland and Robbie Savage serving as the first three names that come to mind. But whilst in the past it has been normal for big names to drop down, until recently it was a surprising move, at least, for the unknowns to rise to the top.
Austin and Vardy even have slightly more claim to the credit than Lambert; the latter spending the entirety of his career within the Football League. Austin was working as a bricklayer before being scouted, trialled and signed by League One outfit, Swindon Town. Vardy, who was released at 16 by Sheffield Wednesday, struggled for a few years to secure a Football League contract and was eventually left with the option of signing for non-league side Halifax. Both would then make the jump to Championship level football with Burnley and Leicester City, before entering the Premier League a few seasons later.
You can even see this trend lower down the footballing pyramid but, given the difference in coverage that the Football League recieves in relation to the Premier League, this understandably goes slightly un-noticed. I can take my local team, Swindon Town, as an example. Two of our signings in the last 18 months have come from the non-league, in the same fashion as Charlie Austin did half a decade ago.
Ben Gladwin joined us from Marlow last season after being released by Reading as a youngster. In our Play-Off semi-final last Monday against Sheffield United, he scored two goals in the opening ten minutes, the first being touted as a contender for goal of the season. The other, Jermaine Hylton, started both legs and won us a penalty at Bramall Lane, as well as scoring his first professional goal for the club this year, following a switch from Redditch United.
I digress slightly from Austin and Vardy, but these two examples at just a single club show that the level of players ‘bungee-jumping’ back up the system from early setbacks or no opportunities at all is rising.
One player you could be forgiven for branding as a ‘fluke’ in the system. Even two, perhaps. But three players in such a short space to time is an indicator that, if nothing else, clubs in the top flight are not only looking to each other or abroad for their next crop of talent. Increasingly, the second tier and below is proving just as popular a choice. Who could forget Nick Powell’s jump from Crewe Alexandra to a full house at Old Trafford?
It’s completely reasonable to argue that, had a crop of English forwards including Harry Kane and Saido Berahino not been selected instead for U-21 duty, Austin and Vardy might have been denied the opportunity to win their first caps for the national side. But, with 21 Premier League goals between them this season, they’ve certainly proved that they have the capability to play with the nation’s finest.
If nothing else, the stories of Austin, Vardy and Lambert serve to show that, regardless or whether you play football in the academy of a Premier League side or for your local non-league club, both have every chance in this climate of making the cut.
Whats the old saying – “the cream rises to the top”?