Ten years ago, a teenaged Yannick Bolasie was using his pace and agility to dodge the divots, dips and dumpy defenders of seventh-tier football.
Playing for Hillingdon Borough in west London didn’t offer much promise. He’d look up to Kerrea Gilbert and Phil Ifil, lads two years older and representing the academies of Arsenal and Tottenham, and, despite hailing from Bolasie’s Willesden neighbourhood, they were an inconceivable distance away.
Bolasie was considering a career in carpentry.
Now, on Sunday, Bolasie will line up for Everton’s visit from West Ham United as the most expensive player on the pitch. After add-ons, the fee paid to Crystal Palace last summer could surpass the club-record £28 million Everton laid down for Romelu Lukaku – not bad for a player who, through the contact of his cousin and ex-Portsmouth forward Lomano Tresor LuaLua, plumped for a move to Malta for first-team football.
(Courtesy: Times of Malta)
Players in England haven’t been particularly known for their willingness to ply their trade overseas, so for an 18-year-old it was a rare and respectable switch.
“Pouring money into youth contracts means the incentives going abroad are less,” James Lawrence, a former Arsenal youngster now of Slovakian champion AS Trencin, told theScore. “Why would a player go abroad and earn half of what he can earn at home, even if he would be playing at a higher level?
“I think that’s the mentality of the English youth players at the moment. They’re very focused on the amount of money they can make if they stay, rather the potential of how they can grow as a player abroad.”
Bolasie’s ascent since, through stints at Plymouth Argyle, Barnet, Bristol City and Palace, has been meteoric. But, somewhat incredibly, another wing wanderer in the weekend bout began his strides on the seventh rung of English football’s ladder, too; and just south of the River Thames at Tooting & Mitcham United.
(Courtesy: Wandsworth Guardian)
“I never had to dive in or anything, it was usually pretty quiet,” Michail Antonio recalled to The Sun’s Paul Jiggins of his old part-time job as a lifeguard at Southampton Community College. “But there was one time when a kid was drowning I had to pull him to the side using one of those pole things.”
It’s not outlandish to claim that, after Dimitri Payet, Antonio has been West Ham’s standout player of the past season or so. His versatility has provided a precious, unpredictable piece in Slaven Bilic’s weaponry, and his powerful runs and aerial ability were rewarded with an England call-up in September.
Rather than being plucked from schoolyards at ages as low as six, Bolasie and Antonio instead followed the route of countless kids across the country – jumpers for goalposts, keepy-uppies in the back garden – but through hard work and a stubborn belief in their abilities, encroached on Premier League football.
“Michail is an example of someone who comes later on in life. He is a role model,” Tooting & Mitcham chairman Steve Adkins told the Wimbledon Guardian after Antonio’s England selection.
“It says, ‘Look, you can come through.’ It shows there is another pathway.”
And they aren’t alone. A throng headlined by Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy has taken the top flight by storm:
|Player||Non-league club(s)||Current club|
|Harry Arter||Staines Town; Welling United||Bournemouth|
|Charlie Austin||Kintbury Rangers; Hungerford Town; Thatcham Town; Poole Town||Southampton|
|Sam Clucas||Nettleham; Hereford United||Hull City|
|Peter Crouch||Dulwich Hamlet||Stoke City|
|Craig Dawson||Radcliffe Borough||West Bromwich Albion|
|Troy Deeney||Halesowen Town||Watford|
|Ben Foster||Warwick; Tiverton Town; Stafford Rangers; Kidderminster Harriers||West Bromwich Albion|
|Joe Hart||Shrewsbury Town||Manchester City (on loan at Torino)|
|Danny Ings||Dorchester Town||Liverpool|
|Chris Smalling||Maidstone United||Manchester United|
|Neil Taylor||Wrexham||Swansea City|
|Ashley Williams||Hednesford Town||Everton|
|Callum Wilson||Kettering Town; Tamworth||Bournemouth|
There are countless other players from humble beginnings desperate to reach the top of the pyramid. Jordan Hugill, Preston North End’s brawny frontman, began his strides with local teams in his native northeast, and his lofty ambitions appear conceivable after a run of fine form for the Lilywhites.
“When I was playing non-league I always had the attitude that I was going to play professional football and nothing was going to stop me,” he told theScore.
“I want to play for my country. I want to play in the Premier League. I’ve got all sorts of aspirations.”
What Hugill and his peers have in common is, for lack of a better term, hunger. While, as Lawrence stated, young players from the top clubs have their heads turned by the riches available, the fifth tier and below has players with a resolve developed from a blend of self-belief and working unsatisfactory jobs to make ends meet.
“I was working behind the bar about five years ago and I certainly don’t want to be back there. I’d do anything I can to not be there.”
Hugill added: “It’s great to see these players given the second chance and doing what they can with it.”
Those who don’t admit defeat and surrender to “learning a trade and doing football on the side,” as Hugill describes, will have their eyes on Merseyside this weekend. Bolasie and Antonio are examples of what the non-leaguers can achieve, and their contingent is only growing.