Before the start of this season, if you didn’t follow the English Football League, you probably hadn’t heard of Jamie Vardy. After his instrumental role in Leicester City’s extraordinary come back against Manchester United, you’ll know who he is now, and no doubt his rapid rise to the top. Three years ago, at the age of 24, he was playing for Halifax Town in the Northern Premier League, six divisions below the Premier League. A move to Fleetwood Town in the Conference followed before a record £1m move to Leicester City of The Championship. The fee was questioned at the time by many and used as a symbol of a vastly over-inflated transfer market where a Conference striker is bought for £1m. In retrospect, considering Vardy’s 16 goals last season that contributed to The Foxes promotion to the Premier League, as well was his performance against United on the weekend, £1m looks an absolute bargain!
Whilst bullying the likes of Rafael and Chris Smalling may not quite be the challenge presented by United defenders of days gone by, he’s performance certainly capped a remarkable rise to the top. That said, Vardy’s certainly not the first player to start his career from humble beginnings. Several players have worked in the construction industry before turning professional and the following three players definitely took an unorthodox route to the top:
After a hard days graft on a building site laying bricks, you get home, have your tea and get to the match on a Tuesday night. Half way through your first pint at the bar, your club’s manager storms along the corridor, rushing over to you waving a shirt in his hand. He needs an extra player and tells you to get a kit on. If you’d heard that this was the story of how Dean Windass turned pro (it’s not!), you could probably believe it. If ever there was a player who looked like he’d been dragged from the bar, pint and cigarette in hand, to play on the pitch, it’s Windass. Whilst his rise to the top wasn’t quite as dramatic as the fictional story above, Windass did have to fight from the bottom of the football pyramid. He was released by Hull City as a teenager, and following several unsuccessful trials with other clubs around the country, he started playing part-time for non-league North Ferriby United. During the day, he worked as a hod carrier and packed peas. It wasn’t until the age of 22 that Windass signed a professional contract, re-joining Hull and his former manager who had originally released him from the club. Windass’ rise to the top culminated in his famous hat-trick for Bradford in their 4-4 draw with Derby County in 2000. The point earned kept Bradford in with a chance of Premier League survival, which they achieved on the last game of the season.
Whilst Windass rarely had the look of a professional athlete, the same could be said for Neville Southall who had the look of a Sunday League goalkeeper. He certainly didn’t play like one and, from a non-league background, played out a career which earned him a place in the Everton Hall of Fame as a club legend. Southall left school at 16 with no qualifications and worked as a bin man, hod carrier and waiter whilst playing in local non-leagues across North Wales. Aged 22, Southall took a pay cut by leaving his job as a hod carrier to sign a professional contract with Bury. A year later, he signed for Everton and would become an Everton and Premier League legend, remembered for great performances, like his dual with Coventry keeper Steve Ogrizovic in the greatest 0-0 draw in Premier League history, or his infamous protest against having a transfer request rejected (allegedly) by sitting down against the goal post during a half time of the match between Leeds United in 1990-91 when his teammates were in the changing room.
As Dawson has represented both England U-21 and Team GB in the 2012 London Olympics, it seems odd including him in the bracket of an unearthed gem. However, whilst Dawson has been playing with West Bromwich Albion since the age of 20, his arrival at the club was unorthodox. Aged 17, Dawson was working in his local pub as a glass collector. He wasn’t even playing in the non-leagues; he’d left his childhood team at 16 and his only playing time was in the form of Saturday League football with his mates. Bernard Manning Jr, the son of the famous comedian and owner of Radcliffe Borough of the Northern Premier League knew all about Dawson’s talent having seen him play with his son’s team. He persuaded Dawson to sign for his club and the player shone for Radcliffe in a two-year spell before being spotted by Rochdale. After one season at Rochdale, he was signed by West Bromwich Albion and became a Premier League and England U-21 player and Olympian.
So, to all those Sunday league players out there, never give up the dream!
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