From non-league player to Premier League star – the 10 greatest fairytale stories

Ian Wright
(Image credit: Getty)

Michail Antonio will never escape his past. Whatever achievements he racks up – the latest being West Ham’s all-time top Premier League goalscorer – it will rarely be more than a moment before we’re reminded that “he started off at non-league Tooting & Mitcham United, you know.”

Leaping from non-league to Premier League is a laudable achievement, one which speaks not just of ability but also determination: we all love a rags-to-riches story, and the hero’s journey is perhaps humankind’s oldest narrative. 

So here, let’s indulge ourselves in celebration of the finest such fairytales – but let’s also lay out our criteria. First, we’re not counting anyone merely loaned to a non-league club: being temporarily billeted is not the same as being contractually employed. That rules out Peter Crouch, Troy Deeney, Callum Wilson, Danny Ings, Ashley Barnes and perhaps even some non-strikers too. 

Secondly, we’re excluding anyone who was signed into the 92 while still in their teens, whether they were hoisted directly to the top flight (Joe Hart, Chris Smalling) or went via the Football League  (Antonio, Yannick Bolasie, Jarrod Bowen, Che Adams, Nick Pope, Tyrone Mings, Ashley Williams, Steve Finnan and Craig Dawson, among others). Well done to each and every one, but we’re focusing here on those still playing non-league in their twenties, and still daring to dream. 

Oh and yes, it’s Premier League era only – partly as it’s a useful line in the sand, partly as that’s when the divide started to grow, and partly because THAT'S THE HEADLINE.

10. Andre Gray

Funny to think that Andre Gray was released by Shrewsbury – and this after his hometown club Wolves had already rejected him from their academy. As he turned 19, Gray joined sixth-tier part-timers Hinckley United.

His 37 goals in 85 games alerted Luton, then seeking promotion back to the Football League; 57 in 111 for the Hatters earned him a move to Brentford, then Burnley, where 23 in 41 promptly fired player and club into the Premier League. With the Clarets and subsequently Watford, he has now made north of 100 top-flight appearances – none of them for Shrewsbury. 

9. Ian Woan


(Image credit: PA)

Some players dip briefly into non-league. It’s fair to say Woan wallowed. Having spent his early teens on the books of both Manchester United and Manchester City, the Wirral-born winger went home to Heswall United before playing for Caernarfon Town, Newtown and Runcorn. Then, at the age of 23, came a call from Brian Clough. 

Catapulted from Canal Street to the City Ground, Woan spent a decade on Forest’s left flank, including eight seasons in the top flight. Although never the swiftest, he was a superb crosser and set-piece taker – which makes him a useful mentor for Dwight McNeil in his role as Burnley’s assistant manager. 

8. Glenn Murray

Glenn Murray

(Image credit: PA)

Cumbria is a place of frequent beauty but infrequently successful footballers. With a humble nod to the memory of Liverpool winger Peter Thompson – and with all due respect to Steve Harkness and Dean Henderson – the county’s greatest bequest to the Premier League has been Glenn Murray. 

Maryport-born Murray did the county rounds, playing for Workington Reds and Barrow before heading to then-Conference Carlisle, whom he helped to two successive promotions, but it was at Rochdale that he found his scoring boots. Said soles then took him to Brighton, Palace, Bournemouth and Brighton again, with his south-coast tally eventually reaching 37 goals in 148 Premier League games. 

7. Vinnie Jones

Vinnie Jones

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Some players are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Others grab greatness by the testicles and bend the world to their will. One such was Vinnie Jones, a former hod-carrier turned international midfielder of no fixed ability. In fairness, Jones – who has played up his self-styled image as much as anyone, successfully hoiking it as far as Hollywood – was capable of the odd decent pass as well as the far more frequent scything tackle. 

He was also serially hired. At the age of 21 he moved from part-time Wealdstone to top-flight Wimbledon without missing a beat, later representing Leeds, Sheffield United, Chelsea and Wimbledon again for 250 top-tier games, the majority in this newfangled Premier League that presumably didn’t want his sort at all. Just the way he liked it. 

6. Charlie Austin

It’s perhaps for the best that Charlie Austin is now word-associated with the sort of raised-eyebrows, volubly honest post-match interview rant against VAR that has been successfully media-trained out of almost every other professional. Must make a nice change from him reading “former bricklayer” in every second mention. 

Having bagged for Kintbury Rangers, Hungerford Town and Poole Town, the Berkshire bustler would have been elevated out of non-league earlier had Bournemouth not been under embargo. Instead he hopped upwards via Swindon and Burnley, scoring 34 in 111 Premier League games for QPR, Southampton and West Brom. 

5. Jimmy Bullard

Jimmy Bullard

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Fabio Capello was not a manager given to japes, so we can safely assume he did not thrice call up James Richard Bullard for his personality and demeanour. The fact that Bullard played with a smile on his face at the dawn of the social media age – along with his post-retirement rentability – perhaps now hides the fact that he was actually quite good at football, as Don Fabio agreed. 

West Ham thought so too, paying Gravesend & Northfleet £30,000 for the 20-year-old in 1999. Although he didn’t make the grade at his boyhood idols, he fought back to the top via Peterborough and Wigan, helping the Latics vault two divisions to the Premier – where he also represented Fulham and Hull, totalling 14 goals in 90 games despite persistent injury problems. 

4. Kevin Phillips

Kevin Phillips

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It’s not just the omnipresent moustache that makes Kevin Phillips feel like the product of a bygone age. Rejected by Southampton as too short for a forward, he battled back via semi-pro side Baldock Town, who also played him in defence until an up-front injury crisis revealed an old-fashioned goal machine. 

Watford took a chance and so did he, scoring 24 in 59 league games; second-tier Sunderland signed him and watched him bang in a ludicrous 52 in 69 games. In his first Premier season he scored just the 30 in 36, going on to amass 93 in 263 top-flight games for Southampton, Villa, Birmingham and Palace. 

3. Les Ferdinand

Les Ferdinand

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He may officially not be Sir Les but he is an MBE – not something anyone would have predicted when he played for Southall, even if the Ealing club also produced Alan Devonshire, Gordon Hill and Eric Young. Despite an FA Vase final he moved on to Hayes, where 19 goals in 33 games persuaded local top-flighters QPR to spend £50,000. 

After loan spells at Brentford and, less predictably, Besiktas, Ferdinand started scoring top-division goals, for a decade and a half. Newcastle, Spurs, West Ham, Leicester and Bolton all benefited as the qualified helicopter pilot racked up 149 goals in 349 top-flight games, not to mention 17 England caps and the 1996 PFA Player of the Year gong.

2. Jamie Vardy

Jamie Vardy

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There are some players about whom it’s said you’d love them on your side even if you hate them as an opponent. Jamie Vardy’s rooted story and effervescent performances might just about elevate him above the hatred, unless he’s just (chat s**t get) banged one in against your team. 

The story was so often told during Leicester’s 2016 campaign title that it almost writes itself, but just in case you’ve been stuck in a cave for a decade: four years before title glory, Vardy was still in non-league with Fleetwood – and that was a step up from Halifax and Stocksbridge Park Steels, where he’d retrenched after release by his beloved Sheffield Wednesday. Even at Leicester, he almost quit to become an Ibiza holiday rep – but stuck it out to score 119 goals in 247 Premier League games (and rising), not to mention sporting immortality. 

1. Ian Wright

Ian Wright

(Image credit: Getty)

It takes a special story to top Vardy’s, but Wrighty has a special story. After a troubled childhood with an abusive stepfather, he was rejected in trials at Southend and Brighton and, at 19, jailed for a fortnight for driving offences. Knuckling down, he played semi-pro for Greenwich Borough, earning £30 a week and a trial at Crystal Palace, who signed him just before his 22nd birthday.

After 118 goals in 277 games helped Palace into the top flight, Wright was bought by Arsenal and in a seven-year spell became the club’s all-time top goalscorer with 185 in 288 games, along with a Premier League title, two FA Cups, a League Cup and a European Cup Winners Cup, plus the majority of his 33 England caps. In total he scored 165 goals in 315 top-flight games. Not bad for the boy that nobody wanted – and a lesson in hope for all non-league players.

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Gary Parkinson is a freelance writer, editor, trainer, muso, singer, actor and coach. He spent 14 years at FourFourTwo as the Global Digital Editor and continues to regularly contribute to the magazine and website, including major features on Euro 96, Subbuteo, Robert Maxwell and the inside story of Liverpool's 1990 title win. He is also a Bolton Wanderers fan.