Playing in the Premier League is a dream for every rabid football fan as a youth, but the reality is that even making it at non-league level is a difficult enough task.
England’s semi-professional game is a vast and difficult land to get into and stay afloat in. So to stand out as one of the top stars in non-league is an entire challenge in itself.
To then somehow get that outstanding talent noticed by a top side and turn it into a professional career is extremely difficult. But not impossible.
While it doesn’t happen often, the beautiful game has seen a number of zero to hero stories over the years and does continue to do so, even with how extensive professional academies are these days.
The fairytale dream of being plucked out of non-league and somehow making it to the most popular domestic league in world football is exactly that for most. So those that have made it stick and forged out Premier League careers despite having non-league beginnings are truly unique players.
It’s reflected in their game, too. Those players that have made it to the top through what is perhaps the most difficult road to go down are often relentless workers and will leave it all on the pitch whenever they play, which is no coincidence.
So, in honour of the elite group that have paved the way for a dream to exist as reality, we at GIVEMESPORT have listed 11 of the best players to go from non-league to Premier League.
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11. Ashley Williams
Not only did he become a capable Premier League defender during his best years, Williams also amassed 86 caps for Wales during his career and captained the side at Euro 2016.
It was humble beginnings for the central defender, though, whose career started with a two-year stint at Hednesford Town having been released by Wolves at 16. He would go on to inspire Swansea to reach the Premier League, and lifted the 2013 League Cup with them, before playing for Everton and Stoke.
10. Jimmy Bullard
Remembered fondly by many as a Premier League joker and for his endearing personality, Bullard’s entry into football was far from light and breezy.
He bounced around the non-league level for a number of years before getting his break at Wigan. He started out with Corinthian, and would play for Dartford and Gravesend & Northfleet before forcing a way into the professional game. He never looked back after that.
9. Yannick Bolasie
We can’t even begin to imagine how regularly Bolasie was kicked to death playing semi-pro football in his earlier years, considering his book of tricks.
Long before he was breaking ankles and putting together montage worthy performances in the Premier League with Crystal Palace, though, he was starting out with Hillingdon Borough in the Southern Football League, before heading for a brief stint in the Maltese Premier League after that.
8. Glenn Murray
Murray has seen it all in English football and scored goals at just about every level, but had to earn his stripes the hard way at semi-pro level and even in the United States second tier in the early 2000s.
Starting out with Workington Reds, he spent a year in North Carolina with Wilmington Hammerheads before returning to England with Barrow, and then finding his feet in the Conference National with Carlisle United. It was there where he helped fire them into the Football League, and began to climb the pyramid himself.
7. Joe Hart
Playing for local club Shrewsbury throughout his youth, Hart’s emergence into the first team coincided with the club’s drop into the non-league. It took him a while to earn the role of first choice, but he managed to nail it down upon their return to League Two.
Hart didn’t have to spend long at semi-pro level, but it was certainly long enough to learn from his surroundings. And considering how low down he did have to start, it makes his achievements as a multiple-time Premier League winner, four-time Golden Glove winner and an England regular all the more special.
6. Michail Antonio
Not only has he managed to transition from a right back to a prolific Premier League forward, Antonio has done so while also having to work his way up from non-league level. He’s truly shattered every obstacle in his way throughout his career.
Before the glitz and glamour of being the number one striker in a resurgent West Ham side, though, Antonio was plying his trade at Tooting & Mitcham, having played there from 12 years old. Upon breaking into their first team, it didn’t take long for Reading to spot him and snap him up.
5. Jarrod Bowen
There is a very genuine possibility that Bowen is on the plane for England as a part of the squad that will head to the 2022 World Cup in December. That would be a truly iconic turn of events considering he had zero experience of the academy or professional game in his youth.
Bowen, who ripped up the 2021/22 Premier League season with West Ham, grew up playing for local semi-pro side Hereford United. He made his first-team debut for the club aged 17, and following their winding up in 2014, was picked up by then Premier League outfit Hull City. That’s quite the jump.
4. Chris Smalling
From playing semi-pro football alongside studying for your A-Levels, to being recruited by Sir Alex Ferguson and winning the Premier League with Manchester United, and then helping Roma to their first major European honour.
Smalling has taken some flak in previous years, but when you look at the bigger picture, his career path is the stuff of dreams. A mightily capable defender, he was released by Millwall as a teen and, quite simply, was not meant to get this far. But he overcame the struggle, and is now a household name in football. Class.
3. Les Ferdinand
Not getting a sniff of professional football before the age of 20, semi-pro was all Ferdinand had known as he plied his trade for Viking Sports and later Southall. He even played in the 1986 FA Vase Final, losing 3-0.
His goal scoring feats got him noticed by QPR in 1987, and from there, he took the opportunity with both hands. Ferdinand has 149 Premier League goals and is the division’s 11th highest scorer of all time, while also representing England at Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup.
2. Jamie Vardy
Perhaps one of football’s greatest stories, the man that shouldn’t have lifted the Premier League title in a team that shouldn’t have won the league. Vardy is a true footballing hero.
Vardy earned £30 a week playing for Stocksbridge Steels at the start of his career having been released by Sheffield Wednesday at 16. Before making it to the Premier League aged 25, he had played at steps 8, 7, 6, 5 and 2 of the English football pyramid. He’s since become a Premier League and FA Cup winner, played for England, and become a part of the Premier League 100 club. A remarkable career.
1. Ian Wright
Astoundingly, Wright played amateur, Sunday League football until the age of 21 at Ten em Bee, before moving to Greenwich Borough for £30 a week in 1985.
Before he had even turned 22, Wright had caught the eye of Crystal Palace at Greenwich, and gambled on taking a trial with the club to kickstart a professional career. It paid off, and he signed a pro contract that year. 287 goals from 581 league games later, along with becoming an Arsenal legend and a Premier League and FA Cup winner, ‘Wrighty’s’ story is seriously inspiring.