From Isthmian League to Football League

A few weeks ago, that Accidental Groundhopper, Michael Hudson pondered over which Northern League players could make an impact higher up the pyramid. Now, for the second in our series, Barry from the superb site, The Cold End  assesses the Isthmian League’s finest, deploying its current moniker The Ryman League throughout.Manchester United’s Chris Smalling has a massive football future in front of him after picking up a Premier League Championship medal for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side this season. Rewind back just a few years to March 2008 and who would of thought that Smalling, who made his last appearance for then Ryman Premier Division Maidstone United in front of just 345 people at East Thurrock United’s Rookery Hill ground, would have risen via Fulham and Craven Cottage to be starting in Champions League games for one of the biggest clubs in the country? The centre-back is the best example of many players who have moved up from the Ryman League into the Football League over the past few years.

Take Cody McDonald who played regularly from the age of 16 years old for Witham Town (when they were a Ryman club) and has since moved via two other non-league clubs (Maldon Town and Dartford) to Norwich City. He has won many an admirer on loan this season at League Two Gillingham where he had scored 20+ goals and scooped a player, players’ player and sponsors’ player of the year awards for the Gills as well as being named ESPN PFA Fans’ player of the year for the whole of the division. The Gills fans found some witty inspiration in composing the following song (to the tune of The Monkeys “Hey Hey he’s our Cody, he plays in blue and black, he comes from Norwich City and we ain’t giving him back”. The question of will he stay at the now Premier League Canaries for next season will be answered in the summer months with many other clubs showing an interest.

Smalling and McDonald are proof that there are some diamonds to be found among the non-league grounds of England and beyond. Some who didn’t make the grade when a youngster that just need a little polish and others maybe younger that if just given that chance at a higher level would quite easily make the grade as a full time professional.

A fantastic example of a player who has learnt his trade in the Ryman League after being rejected by a Premier League club when a trainee is Jermaine Beckford. He was on Chelsea’s books as a youngster but dropped into Non-League football with Wealdstone where 54 goals in 84 appearances caught the attention of many a football league club, with Beckford eventually joining Leeds United. Beckford spent four years at Elland Road before moving onto Everton at the beginning of this season. He has been a regular player for David Moyes this season and his wonder goal against his former club on the final day of the season showed his career has come full-circle. Beckford may well of drifted out of the game had Wealdstone not given him the chance to play regular football.

In a time of financial uncertainty for many football league clubs it may be prudent for them to go bargain hunting in the lower depths of the pyramid or go bargain hunting for some likely lads. A calculated gamble on a non-league player you can pick up for next to nothing (Leeds United signed Beckford for £45,000 in March 2006) seems far better than an expensive former Premier League player on his way down the leagues who some fans may suggest may not have the enthusiasm or hunger required to be a success at a lower level.

Other lesser and more well known recent examples of player’s moving from the Ryman League ranks are Premier League bound Queens Park Rangers signing Harrow Borough’s young striker Troy Hewitt, midfielder Nathan Smith (Yeovil Town) who played for Waltham Forest and Potters Bar Town prior to moving to Somerset and has clocked up 41 first team appearances this season, Mustapha Dumbuya (Doncaster Rovers) who played for Wingate and Finchley and Potters Bar Town prior to going to the Keepmoat Stadium and Wesley Thomas (now of Cheltenham Town) – one of the many players picked out of non-league by Dagenham and Redbridge manager John Still. The former Waltham Forest, Thurrock and Fisher Athletic forward has scored 18 goals for The Robins this season.

In addition, Leon Legge of Brentford transferred from Tonbridge Angels; and then there is Michail Antonio who went from Tooting and Mitcham United to Reading and then onto a successful loan spell at Southampton. The winger has featured on the bench for Reading on a number of occasions this season and another play off man, Nottingham Forest’s Garath McCleary played for Slough Town and Bromley prior to moving to The City Ground. Only in the last few days Charlton Athletic have announced the signing of Bury Town goalkeeper Nick Pope - the youngster only played seven times for the Rams this season but has shown enough promise for the South London side to sign him.

The story of Hewitt’s rise to the Loftus Road ranks is one of Roy of the Rovers comparisons. Hewitt had been playing for two of the most famous names from the Amateur Football’s past in Ryman League Ilford and Essex Senior League Clapton prior to joining David Howell’s side at Earlsmead. The East London based teams played in front of average league crowds of 64 and 35 this season. In Newham based Clapton’s case, on no less than eight occasions this season, there have been more players on the pitch than paying spectators present. Hewitt who was studying at University for a degree in Marketing now finds himself in the same squad as Adel Taarabt and managed by one of the most well known bosses in the league. With the raft of striking options likely to be at the disposal of Neil Warnock and The R’s move into English football’s top tier, I wouldn’t mind betting on seeing Hewitt loaned out to a lower league side for the 2011/12 season to gain some experience of league football. He follows in the footsteps of pacey winger Albert Adomah who left Harrow Borough for Barnet in 2008 and now is a regular in the Bristol City line up after his £150,000 transfer from Underhill in 2010.

There are many others on a long list of Football League players who have turned out in the non-league game prior to making their big break.

So here is a list of players that I think could be given a chance at a higher level who currently ply their trade in the Ryman League. I will purposely not write about the players at the club I support (Enfield Town FC) to avoid favouritism but will point out some of the players I think that if given a break will go on to make very good football league players:

Leon Smith (Wingate and Finchley)’s goals helped the North London side to a highly successful season winning the Championship Manager Cup (Ryman League Cup), the London Senior Cup and promotion from Division One (North) via a play-off victory over Brentwood Town. Smith is 26 years old and spent his early career in the Amateur game prior to his move to Wingate and Finchley and has been attracting football league scouts with his quick turn of pace and obvious eye for goal.

Nyren Clunis (Dulwich Hamlet) is 19 years old and looks set to become yet another player to make the move to a higher grade form what appears to be a never ending conveyer belt of talent from Champion Hill. Another famous name for the Halcyon days of Amateur football, the club have a tremendous youth set up and have been highly successful in the FA Youth cup of late with two players in Quade Taylor (to Crystal Palace) and Paul McCallum (to West Ham United) moving up the leagues this season alone. McCallum is 6ft 3” already and only 18 years of age, he has a big future in the game and West Ham United have signed a very good promising player. Clunis made his debut in November 2009 and scored the only goal of the game to give his side a 0-1 victory over a Fleet Town side then managed by ex-Spurs player and AFC Telford United boss Andy Sinton. This season playing on the right hand side of midfield he has top-scored with 14 goals with his pacey wing play. His progress is being monitored by a number of football league sides.

Another Hamlet starlet is Ethan Pinnock who at only 17 years old has featured for the first team this season, playing on the left side of either defence or midfield he is another valuable asset for the South London club. Both Clunis and Pinnock along with Kalvin Morath-Gibbs (20 years old) and Gerry Gonnella (20) started in Dulwich’s 3-4 very unlucky defeat (they were 1-3 up with 8 mins to go) to Leatherhead in the Ryman Division One (South) play off final a few weeks ago.

Kurtney Brooks (Wealdstone) is a 19 year old midfielder who came through the youth set up at Watford. He made a league cup appearance for the Hornets in 2009 but was released in the summer of 2010 where he joined Gordon Bartlett’s side. Bartlett was the boss who took a gamble of Jermaine Beckford so had form for picking the right player. Also capped by Wales at Under 19 level he had made 45 appearances for The Stones this season and it looks only a matter of time before he moves up to league football again. Alex Dyer is another former football league player on the books at Grosvenor Vale. He spent three seasons with Northampton Town where had made over 30 appearances in the first team before being released. He has been regular in the midfield alongside Brooks this season and is another player to keep an eye on.

James Crane is only in his early twenties and is already captaining Bognor Regis Town who missed out on the Division One (South) title by one goal. He can also play as a striker and even only a young age has been on the books of Reading, Heart of Midlothian and Cypriot sides Famagusta and AEK Larnaca. The Rocks are another side with several talented players on their books. Known as Jason ‘he’s on fire’ Prior due to his goal-scoring record he hit the net a grand total of 44 times in 54 league and cup games this season. This is a remarkable achievement at any level of the game be it in the football league or on the Hackney Marshes. He signed for the club who play at Nyewood Lane (their fans like to call it “The Nye Camp”) from Wessex League side Moneyfields in the summer of 2010. On his way to his top scoring this season he scored an amazing 7 goals in 2 days as shown on this Bognor Fan’s you tube dedication to him.

Sam Higgins moved up from the Ryman Division One (North) to Blue Square South Chelmsford City at the start of last season and went to score 16 times in 27 games for The Clarets. He returned to his former club, East Thurrock United, in February and scored 7 times in 11 games helping them to the title. In 09/10 season he hit the back of the net 36 times in 36 games. He certainly knows where the goal is. He started his career as a youth player at Millwall and had a trail match at Southend United in February. Still only in his early twenties he looks to have a good future in the game maybe at a higher level. At present he enjoys playing for The Rocks boss John Coventry.

Another ex Millwall youth player Lyle Taylor scored 34 goals for Concord Rangers in the 09/10 season alerting AFC Bournemouth who signed him on a professional contract for the 10/11 season. He made a total of 3 starts and 9 substitute appearances for the Cherries and was loaned out to Blue Square South side’s Lewes and Woking.

I can only recommend a visit to your local non-league club. You’ll receive a very warm welcome and you never know you could be the one to spot the next Chris Smalling or Cody McDonald in action. The above list is only a small selection of talented players currently on the books of Ryman League clubs.

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3 Comments on "From Isthmian League to Football League"

  1. We should try and invite a few of these players to become Non League Day ambassadors on 3 September. We have so far contacted Jermaine Beckford and DJ Campbell but have yet to hear back. If anyone can help or has any contacts please let us know.

  2. I most certainly agree that there are plenty of very talented players plying their trade away from Sky's gaze. You suggest that some of them could represent great bargains for top-flight teams looking to improve their squads without breaking the bank, which I also think is true.

    However, would you say that the loss of revenue occasioned even by slipping a few places down the premier league, let alone into the Championship, means that clubs are reluctant to gamble on Britain-based players without much top level experience and instead go for players who have received that experience overseas?

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