By Chris Brookes
A move into the EFL for a non-league player is a moment to savour. A landmark reward for potential and/or accomplishment, though it often isn't the dreamland ticket it appears to be when the 'new signing' announcement is made and the good will and optimism is overflowing from those involved.
The pressure and scrutiny on managers that has traditionally been relentless has only been ramped up further in this social media age of ever-increasing ridiculousness. Understandably, it doesn’t tend to go hand in hand with providing ample opportunity to adapt and adjust for players making the jump up divisions. The low-cost element of plucking a talent from non-league may also be reason why clubs seem to more readily discard those players further down the line, rather than continuing to invest in that player and person they supposedly had complete belief in when signing them.
The new Premier League season will get underway this weekend with shining examples of what is possible for those down the divisions to go on and achieve, not least Brentford defender and one-time Dulwich Hamlet man Ethan Pinnock. It follows a summer that saw an England tournament squad with non-league ties aplenty, but how many potential Tyrone Mings-style rises are cut down without fair chance to ever come together?
Higher-level clubs looking to non-league is nothing new of course, and you can go back through the decades for countless examples, both famous and otherwise. I have no doubt that the continually-decreasing gap in professionalism between the lower reaches of the EFL and the upper echelons of non-league is the driver behind what seems to be more and more of these transfers. With the National League now thought of by many as effectively a ‘League Three’ (only without the radical restructuring connotations of that one...), it is little surprise that clubs are even more willing to take the chance. No question as well that Jamie Vardy’s name is lingering somewhere in the thoughts of every team that sets their sights on a goalscorer outside the top four divisions.
Speaking of frontmen allowed to slip through the net for Sheffield Wednesday, I'm an Owls supporter who remembers us signing a 21-year-old Grant Holt from Barrow. The club would very shortly be relegated to the third tier, in a spiral of financial gloom and disillusion with those behind the scenes, and circa 20,000 expectant fans at each home game. Hardly the most ideal scene to be stepping into for a raw striker looking to prove himself, but by January of the following season, Holt was gone altogether, and at the time, you would have been hard pushed to find a Wednesdayite disputing the decision. Via Rochdale, Nottingham Forest and Shrewsbury Town, though, he was in the Premier League seven years later (two divisions higher than Wednesday), and the season after, the leading English goalscorer in the top flight after Wayne Rooney. Plenty of those who are getting moves to League clubs today, however, don't have the chance of another EFL side to join before they are cut loose completely, and forced to reassemble not just their hopes of a career but their mental wellbeing in numerous cases.
I understand the other side of it all. The point of signing any player unproven in a division is to see if they can cut it, and by very definition, a gamble isn't guaranteed to pay out. When you see players getting these moves to League clubs, though, and their new managers talking up their ability, only to then see them released within a year or so, you can't help but wonder if they might have been given up on much too soon. Football is bursting at the seams with its Sliding Doors moments, and it is of course up to players to grasp their opportunity, but sometimes that chance isn't even really given. Sometimes it isn't all on the player, with managers reluctant to persevere with unproven talent when their job is on the line, or the one who signed you leaving to be replaced by a new man at the helm not even willing to give you a shot.
Look out for an interview shortly on here with a player who has just returned to non-league following a taste of the EFL that has left him needing to reset and rebuild himself. You'll continue to read on this site in the months to come about other prospects getting that big move they were hoping for. There'll be deals of that very kind in the works at this moment, in fact, and it never stops warming the heart when it happens. I'd just love to see a bit more willingness from some of those clubs to stick by the player and person they made an investment in. You believed enough in their capabilities to sign them, and were ready in many cases to get that player to uproot to another part of the country, away from family and friends, and possibly a club they loved playing for. Maybe it's time to stop viewing those same players as the easiest ones to throw away at the first opportunity.