By Dan Chapman
Full Contact yesterday completed the transfer of non-league player Freddie Ladapo from Margate to Premier League Crystal Palace – a jump from the sixth tier to the top-flight for the 23 year old striker.
In a week where Jamie Vardy again scored for England, a player who did not join the Football League until he was 25, are we now seeing the beginnings of a new era? Are these moves ‘one-offs’ (as one Football League manager said to me, before I reminded him of seven one-offs that we have personally been involved in during the last 12 months alone!) or do they represent a shift in the recruitment focus that professional clubs are now taking? Perhaps most crucially of all, why are there so many talented players struggling to make ends meet in the non-league game and how many more are out there?
There are so many questions and so many people will provide many different answers. Some will seize the opportunity to lament the state of the Premier and Football League academies, to lambast the EPPP system, all to remind us that the professional clubs are not producing “real” footballers – only non-league can somehow create that perfect mix of desire, ethic and talent appropriate for effect at first-team level. Some will remind us that the move towards statistics and IT-led recruitment is the root of all evil, for those (undoubtedly impressive) resources are not seen filming games and devouring player data on a cold Monday night in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League. Some will be keen to point out that too few managers are prepared to ‘take a gamble’ on a non-league player, or perhaps not able to receive the backing from their club to do so, and instead prefer to sign ‘established’ players that they know.
Whilst the dust settles on yet another non-league to the professional game transfer for Full Contact, I am inevitably led to query myself what is happening? Are English clubs missing a trick or are they in fact acting with an impressive, stealth-like focus in identifying those rare gems, those exceptions to the norm, and bringing them into the professional game from a pool otherwise full of mediocrity and amateurs?
I can say for sure it is not the latter. Over the last year or two we have recruited many talents in non-league using our own recruitment, scouting methods and resources (which of course ought to pale into insignificance compared to the resources of professional clubs but surprisingly few clubs allocate sufficient resource to scouting or, if they do, fail to appropriately act upon the information they garner). Those players include Kelle Roos (who moved from Nuneaton to Derby), Jordan Garrick (Ossett Albion to Swansea), Che Adams (Ilkeston to Sheffield United), Rai Simons (Ilkeston to Chesterfield), Jonny Giles (university football to Oxford United), Richard Brindley (Chelmsford to Chesterfield), Adi Yussuf (Oxford City to Mansfield), Harry White (Gloucester City to Barnsley), Rhys Dolan (Ilkeston to Barnsley), Ashley Hunter and Akil Wright (Ilkeston to Fleetwood), Freddie Ladapo (Margate to Crystal Palace), Dan Udoh (Ilkeston to Crewe) and the list goes on…..
The players are out there. They are hungry, determined and – crucially – playing senior football week in, week out. It may be the sixth or seventh flight, or in some cases even lower, but it matters not : what matters is the ability to spot what might be. The potential. Life is not a level playing-field. Just as every child does not have the same opportunities to gain an education that might readily prepare them for academic progression to University, nor does every young boy have the opportunity to join a professional club’s Academy – no matter how talented he may be. It may be that these players in non-league are there for reasons of happenstance, not by virtue of an ability to be higher. Or it may be they are there because at 16 (as was the case with Jamie Vardy and our own Che Adams) somebody decided they were not good enough or, often, not big enough. Decisions are made at 16 or even younger to release players for all manner of reasons and I sometimes question the thoroughness and objectivity of the decision-making process. In other cases, people just get it wrong. Life is full of judgment calls to make and we so often get them wrong. Some players did deserve to be released, too, lest not forget. Many young players mature – physically, mentally and in terms of their attitude – later than others and often the environment of non-league men’s football is just the place for that maturity to be accelerated.
What I do know is this: if I am asked whether there is another Vardy or Freddie Ladapo out there, the answer is a resounding yes. A quick look at Full Contact’s latest roster of non-league players will highlight who we believe will be next and indeed we shall not rest until those players are made to transition to our professional pages. Whether the scouts will soon be flocking to watch the likes of Boston United’s Dayle Southwell or Bamber Bridge’s Regan Linney, or the keepers at Salford and Ilkeston respectively (Jay Lynch and Jamie Hannis) or to Barwell for Brady Hickey or the many others we act for I can not say : but they should be.
For now, let’s not worry about the questions or the answers but embrace the fact that our game has such depth and quality that a player can transfer from the sixth flight to the Premier League. Where else in the world does that happen I wonder?
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The spearhead and Senior Partner of Full Contact, Dan is an experienced solicitor and advocate, with a specialist background in employment law and sports.
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