Stepping up: negotiating a multi-division jump
Wandering around Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok in a jet-lagged haze last November, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a club shop selling merchandise for an English football team. Nothing too surprising in that, you might think – after all, the Premier League is hugely popular in South East Asia, and we had been welcomed to Thailand by Singha Beer in association with Chelsea and on our drive into the city centre were confronted with tower-block-high adverts featuring Wayne Rooney’s pasty bonce. But this shop was dedicated not to one of our top division’s megarich superpowers but to Championship outfit Leicester City.
On further investigation and reflection, though, perhaps it’s not so odd – after all, the East Midlands club’s owners are Thai-based travel retail company King Power. Deep-pocketed and ambitious, they clearly harbour hopes of transforming the Foxes into a serious Premier League force and a global brand to rival Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool. As you might expect with those lofty aims in view, they’ve been reasonably generous in backing managers Sven-Goran Eriksson and now Nigel Pearson in the transfer market. However, aside perhaps from former Fulham and Liverpool man Paul Konchesky, the owners haven’t succumbed to the perennial (and usually foolhardy) temptation of signing past-it big names from the Premier League on overinflated salaries in their bid to achieve promotion. On the contrary, in fact. And in this respect one summer signing stood out in particular.
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Discarded by his boyhood favourites Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, Jamie Vardy must have been smarting more than most of those who find themselves consigned to the football scrapheap. But rather than diminishing his passion for the game, that rejection actually spurred him on. After six years with Stocksbridge Park Steels and a solitary campaign for Halifax Town in which they won the Northern Premier Division by a staggering 19-point margin, he earned a move to Conference club Fleetwood Town. 34 goals, one NLFA Player of the Year award, a rejected £700,000 bid from local rivals Blackpool and a glowing endorsement from our very own Scarf later, this summer he made his biggest leap yet, joining Leicester for a non-league record fee in excess of £1m.
Vardy’s departure from Highbury Stadium had become inevitable, but, with his goals having propelled Fleetwood into the Football League, he left for the East Midlands with the best wishes of the Cod Army ringing in his ears. Some fans were also fulsome in their praise for his new employers. As one supporter remarked: “Full credit to Leicester City, whilst other Championship and Premiership clubs dithered over paying a million pounds for a Non-League player, Leicester had the bottle to go for it.” That this transfer policy should have been adopted by Leicester, the wealthiest and most nakedly ambitious club in the division whose sights could easily have been distracted by gaudier baubles, was striking.
Of course, if Vardy had been bought merely as fodder for the Foxes’ reserve team, it would have been less remarkable – just another example of one of the big boys asset-stripping a lower-league club and stockpiling players they don’t need and have little intention of using. Furthermore, the financial resources at Leicester’s disposal meant the deal represented less of a gamble for them than it would have done for, say, Barnsley – if he flopped, the cost could be written off without too much anguish.
However, what makes Vardy’s story – so far, at least – genuinely refreshing is that Pearson had sufficient faith in him to put him straight into the first team. The striker repaid that faith with a debut goal against Torquay in the League Cup, and has since scored twice more, including a Championship winner at home to Burnley. Only illness brought his run in the first team to an end and, now fully recovered, he was back in the starting line-up for the weekend fixture with Crystal Palace.
Vardy has spoken about the fact that he has to prove himself worthy of wearing the shirt – “If you know you’ve got that much competition then you’re just going to have to work that extra bit harder so you can catch the gaffer’s eye” – but, characteristically, he sees competition for places as beneficial on a personal level as well as for the club. Most critical, he says, is the “inner confidence” that has served him so well thus far in his career, helping him to bounce back from that initial rejection. The misty-eyed romantic in me is hoping that that faith in his own abilities continues to propel him to further success.
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As one Leicester supporter commented of Vardy, “There needs to be a little bit of magic still in football“. Indeed there does. His rise has been both rapid and vertiginous, all the more remarkable for being an apparent rarity, an exception that proves a depressing rule.
It’s now hard to imagine, for instance, the possibility of two players graduating from non-league football and going on to form England’s left flank in a World Cup semi-final – but our two Italia ’90 spot-kick spurners Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle did just that, having first turned out for Wealdstone and Tow Law Town respectively. It seems equally implausible that Gunners goal machine Ian Wright was playing for Dulwich Hamlet until being picked up by Crystal Palace at the relatively ripe age of nearly 22, or that “Sir” Les Ferdinand, the fifth highest goalscorer in Premier League history, was on the books of Southall and then Hayes before QPR came calling.
So why, you might ask, are careers which trace such a sharp ascent more unusual these days? Why has the “magic” largely disappeared? When I was discussing the issue with fellow Two Unfortunates scribe Lloyd, he put forward three very valid reasons:
1. Foreign imports. There’s a danger of sounding xenophobic or protectionist about this, but there’s no doubt that the influx of players from abroad into the top divisions has hampered the mobility of homegrown talent, even if it has generally helped to raise standards across the board. You can’t really blame clubs, though, when the foreign transfer market offers significantly better value for money and access to players who already have high-level national and international experience. When you consider that Jordan Henderson cost £2.5m more than the combined total Newcastle paid for Cheick Tiote, Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye, it’s little wonder that managers and scouts are less inclined to dwell on the domestic market. Which brings me neatly on to…
2. Huge investment by the top clubs in youth development policies and global scouting networks. These days, the chances of players like Wright and Ferdinand somehow slipping through the net unspotted by beady-eyed scouts rather than being snapped up in their early teens and hothoused in an academy set-up would be very slim.
3. Fitness, coaching and facilities. Top-flight players are fitter than ever before, finely honed athletes under the guidance of a whole host of rigorous trainers, nutritionists and sports psychologists. There may not necessarily be a correspondingly large gulf in class between the divisions, but there is certainly a significant gulf in fitness. This was something that struck Scarf when his Stockport side fell out of the Football League, while fellow Two Unfortunates contributor John, commenting on that post, flagged up the poor quality of non-league pitches as another factor. Pure ability is no longer enough to shine through, which makes it tougher for talented lower-league players and part-timers to make their mark at a higher level – which in turn makes it tougher for them to earn that opportunity in the first place, clubs perhaps understandably less willing to take the risk of giving them a chance.
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So, is it really all doom and gloom? Are the days of players stepping up divisions like they’re nimbly ascending a staircase a thing of the past? Not exactly. Stratospheric rises like Vardy’s might be few and far between, but if you look closely there’s still plenty of evidence to suggest that upward mobility is possible. Indeed, the whole transfer strategy of certain high-level clubs appears to be focused on recruiting from beneath.
Take Norwich, for example, who seem to be steadily assembling Leeds’ Championship midfield of a couple of seasons ago: Bradley Johnson, Jonny Howson, Robert Snodgrass. Both Bennetts – defender Ryan and midfielder Elliott – were picked up from Championship clubs. Johnson, Russell Martin and Anthony Pilkington are among several Canaries first-teamers to have played non-league football. And then there’s that strikeforce: Simeon Jackson (formerly of Rushden & Diamonds and Gillingham), Steve Morison (formerly of Stevenage and Millwall) and archetypal lower-league journeyman Grant Holt (of whom more later).
So, why pursue this policy? Firstly and perhaps most obviously, these lower-league players are generally cheaper (and often younger) than your average Premier League fringe first-teamer. But it’s no doubt also prompted by the fact that Norwich have made a startling leap up the divisions themselves. They’re well aware of the pool of talent that exists in the Championship and below, out of range of Sky’s Super Sunday cameras, and have sought to exploit that knowledge and expertise. Like Vardy, those players they’ve signed aren’t content to swan around waiting for pay day – they’re full of hunger and desire, appreciative of the opportunity to play at the top level rather than complacently taking it for granted, determined to prove themselves the equals of the Premier League’s big-name back-page darlings.
And, at least last season, the Canaries’ plan worked to a tee – they were far more than the sum of their parts. Even this season, when they’ve found the going somewhat tougher under Chris Hughton, they’ve managed to embarrass Arsenal’s footballing maestros and follow it up by giving former manager Paul Lambert a gentle reminder of what he is struggling to achieve in the supposedly grander setting of Villa Park.
Following Norwich’s lead are Reading, who this summer steeled themselves for their return to the Premier League by buying three players from the division they’ve just left: Adrian Mariappa, Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary. Of those, McCleary has the most interesting backstory. After spells with Oxford City and Slough, he broke his leg while on Bromley’s books and, aged just 19, was ready to throw in the towel. But then along came the offer of a trial at Nottingham Forest which he seized with both hands. Four and a half years later he left as Forest’s Player of the Year, and upon arrival at the Madejski wasted no time in underlining his motivation: “There are so many players I really want to go up against and test my ability against them“. A succession of impressive cameos followed, and then a first goal in Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Fulham. “I’m just so glad that people persuaded me not to give up and I continued to follow my dream.”
McCleary’s new employers weren’t averse to showing faith in lower-league talent when in the Championship either, having signed diminutive fox-in-the-box goalpoacher and former Monday Profile star Adam Le Fondre from Rotherham in the summer of 2011. Another second-tier team with an eye for forwards from several levels below are Peterborough, whose acquisitions of both Stevenage alumnus George Boyd and wild-maned Craig Mackail-Smith (formerly of St Albans, Arlesey Town and Dagenham & Redbridge) paid off handsomely. The latter subsequently made a multi-million-pound move to Brighton and earned an international call-up for Scotland, while the former – the man Stevenage fans only half-jokingly dubbed the White Pele – continues to perform well for a Posh side punching above their weight.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the Championship table, Cardiff’s triumphs this season have been at least partly orchestrated by Joe Mason and Craig Noone, two former Plymouth players whose stars were in the ascendancy even as the Pilgrims themselves were plummeting down towards the Football League basement. Fellow Home Park old boy Jamie Mackie has found himself a bit-part player at QPR, an energetic and enthusiastic team player undeservedly excluded from the first team in favour of bigger names on bigger salaries. Perhaps with the expensively assembled Hoops lying bottom of the Premier League, Mark Hughes might acknowledge his misjudgement.
Cardiff’s current closest Championship challengers are Vardy’s Leicester, and in a strange twist of fate the ex-Fleetwood man has effectively ousted another player to have risen through the ranks. Like Stuart Pearce, Jermaine Beckford started out at Wealdstone before joining Leeds. The hotly-tipped striker may not have made the grade at Everton, and blew hot and cold at the Walkers Stadium, but now, having been displaced by Vardy, appears to be rediscovering his form in tandem with fellow loanee and former Toffees teammate James Vaughan at Huddersfield.
The fact that Everton were prepared to take a punt on Beckford indicates that it’s not always just the smaller clubs who see the value in buying from below. Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and the now-departed Tim Cahill all cut their teeth in the Championship before being brought to Goodison Park. Indeed, as was pointed out on this very site last year, even winning a Premier League champions medal with Man Utd isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility for any non-league player who dares to dream – Chris Smalling achieved that particular feat just three years after leaving Isthmian League side Maidstone Utd.
Smalling has gone on to enjoy Champions League football, as has Gary Hooper, a former Grays and Southend striker who went from playing in front of 5,000 supporters at Glanford Park to playing in front of 50,000 supporters at Parkhead. He’s made the transition look so effortless that he’s now apparently catching the eye of England manager Roy Hodgson as well as Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers. Were he to make the journey from Scunthorpe to Scouseland (albeit via a Scottish detour), he’d be following in the illustrious footsteps of both two-time European Footballer of the Year Kevin Keegan and Ray Clemence, voted the best goalkeeper ever in a Total Football poll. As a 24-year-old with time on his side, who’s to say he couldn’t go on to write his own name into Anfield folklore?
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Gary Hooper has been afforded the opportunity to develop and blossom at each new level at which he’s played. A similar good fortune seems to have befallen Gael Bigirimana. His story is pure gold for the media: a Burundi-born lad who, at the age of ten, was sent out to buy a pint of milk by his mum and, in broken English, managed to talk himself into getting a trial at Coventry. His old Sky Blues mentor Ray Gooding has painted a portrait of a humble and unfailingly polite player, but one who also has enough of Vardy’s “inner confidence” to have asked to be moved up into higher-level groups on the grounds that he was better than those he was training with.
Like most of my fellow Newcastle fans, I saw Bigirimana’s signing as very much one for the future. And yet due to a combination of factors – injury and now suspension to Cheick Tiote, the indifferent form of fellow summer recruit Vurnon Anita, the additional Europa League fixtures – he’s played far more football than we (or he) might have expected. Given that he’s a 19-year-old who made just 26 appearances for a side relegated from the Championship and who now finds himself playing semi-regular Premier League and European football, you’d imagine the learning curve to be steep – but he’s doing a remarkable job of suggesting otherwise.
For some youngsters, however, jumping to a higher-level club can come too early and at a considerable cost. For every Theo Walcott or Raheem Sterling – the latter brought to Anfield from then-Championship side QPR as a 15-year-old prospect and now fast becoming one of the Premier League’s hottest properties – there’s a John Bostock, Crystal Palace’s youngest ever player who, after only a handful of first-team appearances, joined Spurs for £700,000 and promptly disappeared from view, resurfacing only briefly during a succession of largely forgettable lower-league loan spells. Or Leeds duo Tom Taiwo and Michael Woods, who cost Chelsea £5m – a fee described by Ken Bates as “robbery” – but who gave no return whatsoever on that outlay.
The reason that some players who take the leap fall flat is almost certainly the weight of expectation that a hefty price tag carries. Fabian Delph is yet another much-hyped recent graduate of the Elland Road academy, who has failed to make a significant breakthrough at Aston Villa since joining for a reported £6m in 2009. It must have been slightly galling to find himself back at Leeds on loan earlier this year. Meanwhile, Southampton should be commended for giving Jay Rodriguez, one of the Championship’s sharpest marksman, a Premier League platform on which to perform, but thus far the £7m ex-Burnley striker has struggled to convince he can cut it at the highest level (though admittedly not helped by Nigel Adkins’ chop-‘n’-change policy up front).
With the advent of the Elite Player Performance Programme, the likelihood is that big clubs will be incentivised into playing the role of the Child Catcher even more frequently by the prospect of paying lower rates of compensation to those clubs from whom they’ve pilfered. One of those most likely to suffer as a result of the EPPP are Crewe, and the latest player off the renowned Gresty Road production line is Nick Powell, whom Lanterne Rouge identified as a star of the future back in April. The much sought-after midfielder’s eventual destination was Old Trafford, where he has at least already scored a Premier League goal but where he’s finding himself restricted to precious little first-team game time. Love him or loathe him, you have to acknowledge that the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson has worked wonders for countless young players over the years – but, even still, you do wonder whether Powell’s future might not have been better served by staying with the club with whom he won promotion through the play-offs in May. The same goes for the Railwaymen’s skipper Ashley Westwood, who also opted to take the offer of a step up – in his case with Villa. Delph’s example doesn’t seem to have proven a cautionary tale just yet, it seems.
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Back, briefly, to Jamie Vardy. Unlike Powell, Westwood, Bigirimana and others mentioned above, his move into the upper echelons of English football at the age of 25 has come relatively late in his career – that, in part, is what qualifies it as “a little bit of magic“. With several years of non-league football under his belt, he can claim to have properly paid his dues at lower levels. If youth is wasted on the young, then perhaps so is top-flight football – after all, how can you appreciate it if you’ve never experienced much else? Let’s wrap up with the tales of four players for whom fairytales have (finally) come true.
Like Vardy, Jimmy Bullard had a false start, dumped by his boyhood favourites (in this case West Ham) after being picked up from Gravesend & Northfleet. But undeterred he fought his way back up the ladder via Peterborough and Wigan, winding up in the Premier League with the Latics in 2005. It was at Fulham that his form earned him an England call-up at the ripe old age of 29. That was to be the pinnacle of his career, unfortunately, as injuries and indiscipline blighted his subsequent spells at Hull and Ipswich before he finally decided to call it a day earlier this season. But, given his humble beginnings, Bullard is content with how things panned out: “I set a benchmark to play in the top flight and I managed to do that for a number of years. The next step was to play for my country, which I never did, but I got very close. I’ll take that.”
Then there’s a striker already mentioned briefly above, Grant Holt. The Cumbrian has had almost as many clubs as he’s had hot dinners, and he certainly looks as though he’s had plenty of those. His career began in the non-league before failure at Sheffield Wednesday and modest success at Rochdale and Forest. A surprise move down to Shrewsbury in 2008 with a subsequent transfer to Norwich a year later resulted in Holt achieving the remarkable feat of playing in League 2, League 1, the Championship and finally the Premier League in successive campaigns, winning the Canaries’ Player of the Season award in all three of his years at Carrow Road. Now 31, he remains determined to prove people wrong and has claimed that his early experience with Halifax and Barrow was critical in making him the player he is today: “Having had a normal job, not earning much, puts you in good stead. I had years of fitting my football around my work shifts.”
And as if one journeyman goalscorer striking Premier League gold late in his career isn’t enough, here’s another: Rickie Lambert. Like many of the players featured in this post, the affable Scouser served his footballing apprenticeship in the North West, turning out for Macclesfield, Stockport and Rochdale before venturing down the M6 and M5 to Bristol Rovers. When Southampton signed him, they were languishing in League 1, but courtesy in large part of his prolific strike rate they followed in Norwich’s footsteps and achieved back-to-back promotions. Lambert made his belated Premier League debut at the age of 30 and, like Holt, has swiftly set about giving supposedly unruffleable defenders a torrid time. He broke his duck against Man Utd before scoring a brace as the Saints recorded a thumping win over Villa, their first victory back in the top tier. The man once employed to screw the lids onto jars of beetroot has clearly come a long way: “It has been a long road, I’d be lying if I said I was thinking then that I’d play in the Prem“.
And finally a less heralded but in many ways no less remarkable example. Rhys Griffiths’s reward for becoming the second highest ever scorer in the history of the Welsh Premier League was a summer move to Plymouth. He’s had to give up his job as a firefighter to take the opportunity, the Pilgrims being his first professional club at the age of 32. It’s never too late, it seems. Keep the faith, keep believing in yourself, keep persevering and it might just happen.