I got made redundant by Bentley on the Tuesday, which was crazy because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Arsenal’s new signing Cohen Bramall earlier this month. “My agent Lee Payne rings me on the Wednesday saying you’ve got a trial at Arsenal. I was like: ‘What?’ I was gobsmacked.”
Last week, the 20-year-old former sprinter made his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt since his shock £40,000 move from Northern Premier League Premier Division side Hednesford Town, playing 83 minutes in a 3-1 victory over Southampton in the under-23 league. Following in the footsteps of England internationals Malcolm Macdonald, John Barnes, Ian Wright, Jamie Vardy and many others, Bramall’s journey to one of the biggest clubs in the land via 200-mile trips to training on the back of his father’s motorbike, rejection by local side Crewe and an audacious rabona assist that was featured on Soccer AM, is the stuff of schoolboy dreams.
But with Brentford’s Scott Hogan – who once spent half a season at Vardy’s former club Stocksbridge Park Steels – looking likely to become the latest to make the giant leap from non-league to Premier League, what was once a trickle of players has become a steady stream in recent years.
“There’s massive talent out there,” says Paul Fairclough, the former Stevenage and Barnet manager who has been in charge of the England C team since 2003. “The success of Jamie Vardy has really highlighted it with him breaking through and winning the title with Leicester. That has glamorised the whole thing. Premier League clubs are thinking they will look silly if they miss a kid that is on their doorstep. I think we’ll find more clubs who are ready to take a punt, which is great for non-league football because the money then starts to trickle down again.”
Drawing under-23 players from the National League downwards, England C was formed in 1979 and competes in the biennial International Challenge Trophy against teams from 11 countries. Fairclough estimates he has seen more than 250 players go on to clubs in the Football League, with Burnley’s Andre Gray and George Boyd and Hull’s Sam Clucas among those currently active in the top flight.
“My job is slightly different these days,” he says. “Cohen Bramall would not get into the England C team because he’s still in the development phase of his career. We had him pencilled in to have a look at before Arsenal came in.
“I can never field the same team twice,” adds Fairclough. “There is a continual drip throughout the season – for instance, Jamal Lowe, who scored the winner in our last match against Estonia, has now gone to Portsmouth. With Che Adams [now at Birmingham after joining Sheffield United from Northern Premier League side Ilkeston] I remember naming him in the squad and within 24 hours I started getting phone calls even though he hadn’t even put an England shirt on yet. He had gone by the time the match came around.
“We’ve had scouts queuing up outside the changing room after international games. We’ve had to chase agents out of our hotel. They know that everyone is looking for the next big thing and players will get seduced when they are very young. When an agent tells me he only has the players’ best interests at heart I know they are telling fibs because there is no need to say that.”
One of the primary aims of the controversial Elite Player Performance Plan introduced in 2012 by the Football Association was to increase the number and quality of young players who went on to gain professional contracts. In reality, however, a new hierarchy of academies has emerged, which invariably allows the top clubs to stockpile talent as some of their smaller counterparts have been forced to close their youth setups due to financial constraints. Yet while the establishment of the Premier League 2 this season hopes to provide a clear pathway to the first team, Barry Fry, who is now Peterborough United’s director of football having helped launch the league careers of countless players during his long career as a manager, believes it is not having the desired effect.
“We’ve had a lot of players from Premier League clubs come to us and they think its going to be a doddle. But they get a rude awakening,” he says. “They’re not used to the physical side of the game because in under-23 games, nobody ever tackles, so it’s not really a proper match. It makes it harder for them when they drop into League One or Two, so a lot of them get in the team to begin with but then end up being left out because they are not man enough to handle it. Non-league players have been used to playing men’s football, so it toughens them up – they’ve been loving the real world, as I call it.”
In September 2006, the Irish entrepreneur Darragh MacAnthony became the youngest chairman in the Football League when he took over Peterborough at the age of just 30. Together with Fry and the then manager, Keith Alexander, he instigated a policy of purchasing young, hungry players from the lower reaches of the pyramid and polishing them into the finished product before selling them on at a huge profit. Three of their first recruits – Boyd, Craig Mackail-Smith and Aaron Mclean – who were snapped up from Stevenage, Dagenham & Redbridge and Grays Athletic respectively – were eventually sold to clubs in higher divisions for multimillion-pound fees. The system has continued to pay dividends, with Dwight Gayle, Lee Tomlin and Ryan Bennett among the more recent examples. Last month, Peterborough bought the former Fulham trainee Junior Morias from St Albans City for an undisclosed fee and he made his debut against Scunthorpe United on 2 January as the cycle continues.
“The model clearly works,” says Fry. “What I like about it is that non-league players aren’t bothered about the money, they just want a chance to play. But I’ve done this all my life. When I was at Barnet I bought Lee Payne from Hitchin and sold him to Newcastle. They’re worth giving a chance.”
“I do 60-70,000 miles a year up and down the country watching all sorts of football but you only need to find one player for it to be worth it,” he adds. “You learn to trust other people’s opinion, like with Paul, who I’ve known for years and now with his role with the England C team. I ask him about their characters and what they’re like off the pitch, so we try to do our homework. He’s very honest: if there’s something wrong with someone then he’ll tell you as well, warts and all.
“There’s two players at this time playing non-league football that we like their ability and we think they’ve got tremendous potential. We have spoken to the clubs about them without making a bid but they are loath to let them go because they are chasing for honours. We respect that so we’ll revisit it in the summer. They know if they wanted to do a deal then we are at the end of a telephone but we’re realistic to know that they want.”
The bonds cemented in non-league football have a tendency to last as well. This week, Yannick Bolasie pledged his moral support to former club Hillingdon Borough when they were struggling to field a side for Saturday’s fixture against Baldock Town. The Everton forward, who moved to Goodison Park last summer for an initial £25m, began his career in the Southern League before moving up the pyramid via a spell in Malta. “I wanted to sign him for £20 a week, but others didn’t agree,” remembered chairwoman Dee Dhand. “I ended up giving him a burger for every goal. He once scored eight, so he shared them with his team-mates.”
The successes of Vardy, Gray and Charlie Austin, the Southampton striker plucked from obscurity by Swindon after spells at Kintbury Rovers in the 12th tier, Hungerford Town and Poole Town, show the investment of time and resources often pays off. But while making the jump straight to the Premier League like Bramall remains rare, clubs in the Football League are increasingly following Peterborough’s example.
“If you look at Barnsley’s current team, two of the back four [Marc Roberts and Angus MacDonald] came through non-league and now they are doing really well in the Championship,” says Fairclough, who believes the Forest Green and former Dulwich Hamlet defender Ethan Pinnock and the AFC Fylde forward James Hardy – formerly of Manchester City – are the next non-league stars to watch. “This time last year, Angus MacDonald was scratching around for a living at Torquay and now he’s playing one level behind the top flight.
“The common thread with the England C team is that they’ve all been rejected somewhere along the way and it brings them together. I admire non-league players because the majority have been through some distraught times. Some go by the wayside but others stand up and say: ‘No, I’m still going to try’ and they’re brave young lads for doing that. That’s such a powerful force if you can tap into it.”
If all goes to plan, there are huge benefits for both player and club. Should, as expected, Hogan complete his move to West Ham for a fee that could eventually reach £15m, his former club Rochdale will be due more than £4m because of a 30% sell-on clause in his contract when the 24-year-old moved to Brentford in 2014. Similarly, Dagenham have banked more than £1.5m from Gayle’s moves to Peterborough, Crystal Palace and Newcastle, where – like former Tonbridge Angels player Malcolm Macdonald, signed by Bobby Robson at Fulham – he has established himself as a fans’ favourite.
“I first saw him score two goals for Bishop’s Stortford on a cold Tuesday night,” remembers Fry. “When I found out he was on loan from Dagenham, I rang [manager] John Still straight away and told him I wanted to buy him. He said: ‘I can’t because I bought him from Stansted for nothing and gave him £200 a week but the committee said they didn’t have the money to pay it. So I loaned him out straight away to cover his wage’.
“We bought him for a lot of money and then sold him to Palace for a total of £7.5m, plus another half a million when he went to Newcastle. When they were thinking of buying him in the summer, someone called me up and I told them he’ll be another Malcolm Macdonald for them and score 35 goals this season. They laughed at me, but he’s already got 20!”
The Guardian Sport