Non-League Footballers Who Made It to the Premier League

Jamie VardyUnless you've been living on Mars over the past few months you'll be familiar with the story of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy. From earning £30 a week with Stockbridge Park in English Football's eighth tier to raking in excess of £80,000 a week with new Premier League champions Leicester, his story is indeed a remarkable one. Snapped up by Halifax after three seasons and 66 goals for Stockbridge, Vardy was purchased for £150,000 by Fleetwood Town after just one season in West Yorkshire. After scoring an astonishing 31 goals in 36 games for Fleetwood in 2011-2012, Leicester were persuaded to fork out £1m for Vardy's services - a record fee for a non-league player.

Although Vardy's rise through the divisions is unquestionably an amazing one, it's not as uncommon as you might think. Over the years many players have made the transition from stacking shelves and working on building sites to banging in goals at the highest level sometimes even competing for trophies - and many have done so at a relatively late age. So to celebrate Vardy's incredible season with Leicester City we've put together a collection of some of the most extraordinary rags-to-riches stories in football history. From Maidstone to Manchester and Nuneaton Borough to Middlesbrough, these footballers managed to carve out a career as a professional footballer through hard work, determination and a little bit of luck.

 

Les Ferdinand

Les FerdinandAt the age of 21, "Sir" Les Ferdinand was steam-cleaning taxis and playing football part-time at non-league Hayes before QPR snapped him up for a mere £15,000 in 1987. Despite arriving late into the professional game, Ferdinand went on to become one of the most prolific strikers in the game.

It wasn't until 1992-1993 that he established himself as a top striker, scoring 20 goals in 37 games as QPR finished 5th in the Premier League. He followed that up with 16 goals in 36 games the following season, and in 1994-1995 bagged 24 Premier League goals before a big-money move to Newcastle Utd.

With the money Hayes received as part of Ferdinand's £6million move from Loftus Road to St James' Park, the club were able to build a brand new hospitality suite, which they named after their former player in his honour.

 

Malcolm Christie

Malcolm ChristieMalcolm Christie was playing for Nuneaton Borough by night and stacking supermarket shelves by day when he was signed as an 18-year-old by Derby County, then of the Premier League, in 1998. The step up from playing in the Southern Premier League to the Premier League didn't seem to faze young Christie too much, and by 2000 he had forced his way into the Derby first team.

Christie signed for Middlesbrough in February of 2003 after five years with the Rams. Sadly, a seemingly never-ending run of injuries (including a bad spinal injury) forced the striker to retire from the game altogether in January 2009, aged just 32.

He now works as a salesman for Aston Martin.

 

Grant Holt

Grant HoltGrant Holt was playing non-league football for Barrow at 22 and was plying his trade in League Two for Shrewsbury as late as 28. Even so, through sheer determination and application, the former tyre-fitter eventually managed to blast his way into the Premier League with Norwich in 2011-12, scoring 45 league goals in successive seasons and even managing to bag 15 goals in his first season in the top flight.

After leaving Norwich for Wigan Athletic in 2013 it all fell a bit flat for Holt, and following a disappointing loan spell at Aston Villa Holt is now playing for Rochdale in League One.

 

Troy Deeney

Troy DeeneyTroy Deeney was on Aston Villa's books as a youngster, but after failing to make the grade at Villa Park Deeney was considering packing it all in to become a builder.

He kept up his building apprenticeship while playing non-league football for Chelmsley Town before being plucked from obscurity by League One side Walsall. After three seasons with the Saddlers, Deeney joined Championship side Watford for £250,000. During the 2014-2015 season, Deeney's goals helped Watford win promotion to the Premier League.

 

Jimmy Bullard

Jimmy BullardHaving earned his crust with a "proper job" as a painter and decorator for several years, Bullard decided to make a go of it as a professional footballer at the age of 20 when he was given a pay-as-you-play deal by non-league side Gravesend & Northfleet FC, now known as Ebbsfleet United.

Bullard signed for West Ham in 1998 but, after failing to make the grade at his boyhood club, he eventually ended up at Wigan Athletic (after a short but successful stint with Peterborough) in January of 2003. Two seasons later he was playing in the Premier League, completing the journey from non-league to Premier League.

 

Rickie Lambert

Rickie LambertAt the age of 25 Lambert was playing in League Two with Rochdale, but even that was something of a fairytale; after leaving Blackpool as a 19-year-old in 2000 Lambert found himself working in a beetroot factory in order to make ends meet.

After bottling beetroot for four months, Lambert was signed by League Two side Macclesfield Town. After successful spells with Stockport County, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers, Lambert joined League One side Southampton in 2009-2010 at the age of 28. By 32, he was playing regularly in the Premier League with Southampton and had even featured for England at a World Cup.

 

Charlie Austin

Charlie AustinAustin was playing football for Poole Town in the Wessex League Premier Division as recently as 2009, topping up his wages by working as a bricklayer with his dad's building firm.

After a prolific season with Poole Town, in which he scored 48 goals in 42 games and claimed numerous man-of-the-match awards, Austin was snapped up by Swindon for an undisclosed fee. By the end of his debut season he has scored 20 goals in just 32 starts, and, despite suffering a dislocated shoulder at the start of the following season, still managed to bang in 17 goals in 27 appearances.

His prolific form prompted Burnley to sign the hitman for an undisclosed fee. After becoming the quickest-ever player to reach 20 goals in a season for Burnley, QPR signed Austin - again for an undisclosed fee - and he was soon terrorising Premier League defences.

 

Kevin Phillips

Kevin PhillipsHaving suffered a major setback when he was released by Southampton as a kid, budding full-back Phillips signed for non-league Baldock Town on semi-pro terms in the summer of 1991.

They say that fate finds a way, and that's certainly the case with Phillips. An injury crisis forced Baldock to deploy Phillips as a striker, where he proceeded to score a sackful of goals in the Southern League.

According to legend, Phillips was stacking shelves in a supermarket when Watford came in for him in December of 1994. The Hornets splashed out a whopping £10,000 to land the diminutive hitman, and Phillips eventually went on to become one of the Premier League's most lethal finishers with Sunderland.

 

Gareth McAuley

Gareth McAuleyGareth McCauley represented Northern Ireland at Euro 2016, but it wasn't always that way for the Antrim-born centre-half. In fact, McAuley didn't play a Premier League game until he was 31, and didn't even turn professional until he was 24.

McAuley spent much of his early career playing amateur football in his native Northern Ireland before making the step-up to League Two with Lincoln City in 2004.

Two years later he joined Championship side Leicester City on a freebie, impressing sufficiently to earn a move to Ipswich Town when the Foxes were relegated in 2008.

McAuley joined West Brom of the Premier League in the summer of 2011, quickly establishing himself as one of the club's most reliable defenders and a genuine fan's favourite thanks to his no-nonsense approach to the game.

Filed under Football