Tag Archives: Dwight Gayle

8 Premier League/Championship players who’ve played non-league

Clubs spend millions on their academies these days as they seek to produce their own talent.

But, as striker Jamie Vardy proved last season with Leicester City, players with non-league backgrounds can still make it to the top of the game.

Here are eight other players who also once plied their trade at levels below the football league.


Michail Antonio (West Ham)

Michail Antonio

West Ham’s powerful winger played plenty of non-league football as a youngster, signing for Tooting & Mitcham at the age of 17.

He scored 33 goals in 45 games for the south London side who play in the Isthmian League Division One South. So Antonio, 26, is now operating at a level eight tiers higher.

Before joining the Hammers in 2015, he also had spells at Reading, Southampton, Colchester, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest. He’s currently West Ham’s top goal scorer.


Neil Taylor (Aston Villa)

 Neil TaylorNew Aston Villa and former Swansea left back Neil Taylor, 28, started his footballing career with non-league Wrexham.

He spent three seasons at the Racecourse Ground, playing 75 games in League Two and at National Conference level.

Taylor then left football’s lower tiers behind to sign for Swansea City in 2010 in a deal worth £220,000, spending seven years at the Liberty Stadium.

Taylor also featured for Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic football team and played a major role as Wales reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals.


Callum Wilson (Bournemouth)

 Callum WilsonBournemouth’s goal-scoring machine Callum Wilson didn’t start his career in non-league football but has had a taste of it whilst being on loan from Coventry City at Kettering Town and Tamworth.

For Kettering, Wilson scored just one goal in 17 games, and only played three times for Tamworth thanks to a fractured foot.

Despite being plagued by injuries, Wilson, 24, has scored 31 goals in 71 appearances for Bournemouth.

He also played a vital role in the Cherries promotion to the Premier League.

Ben Foster (West Brom)

 Ben FosterFormer England international and current West Bromwich goalkeeper Ben Foster, 33, played on loan at several non-league clubs  early on in his lengthy career.

Originally signed by Stoke, the Potters loaned him to Tiverton Town, Stafford Rangers, Wrexham and Kidderminster Harriers before selling him to Manchester United in 2005.

He only made 12 appearances for United in five seasons, but enjoyed two successful seasons on loan at Watford, before signing for Birmingham and then the Baggies. Foster has played eight times for his country.


Yannick Bolasie (Everton) 

Yannick Bolasie

Everton’s tricky, powerful winger Yannick Bolasie once played in English football’s 11th tier for Hillingdon Borough.

He then played for Maltese side Floriana before three seasons at Plymouth Argyle, followed by two loan spells at Barnet. A productive spell at Bristol City earned him a move to Crystal Palace in 2012.

In five seasons at Selhurst Park, his price tag rocketed thanks to some great performances. He even has a skill move featured on the Fifa 2017 game called the ‘Bolasie Flick’ after performing it against Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen.



Dwight Gayle (Newcastle)

 Dwight GayleNewcastle’s top scorer also leads the Championship with 2o league goals, but has also featured in the lower tiers of English football.

Gayle earned recognition by scoring 40 goals in 42 games for Stansted in the Essex Senior League, leading to a move to Dagenham & Redbridge.

He was then loaned back to non-league Bishop’s Stortford and his excellent performances earned him a step up to Championship level with Peterborough.

Gayle then signed for Premier League side Crystal Palace for £4.5m and bagged 22 goals in 65 games but the Magpies swooped for him last summer.


Ashley Williams (Everton)

 Ashley WilliamsThe Wales captain spent two seasons playing non-league football for Hednesford Town after being released from West Bromwich as a teenager.

A five-year spell at Stockport County put his career back on track, and an initial loan to Swansea City was made permanent in 2008.

Williams played over 300 times for the Swans as they climbed the leagues, established themselves as a Premier League club and won the League Cup in 2013.

He helped Wales the Euro 2016 semi-finals last summer before earning a big-money move to Everton.


Lee Tomlin (Bristol City)

 Lee TomlinBristol City’s tricky attacking midfielder has played in all top four tiers of English football.

On the books of Leicester City as a youngster, he played four seasons in the Conference with Rushden & Diamonds, including a loan spell at lowly Brackley FC.

After four years with Peterborough, Tomlin spent a season at Middlebrough before being signed by Premier League newcomers Bournemouth for £3.5m.

However, he made only six appearances for the Cherries before being loaned to Bristol City, who made him a permanent signing last summer.

Tomlin won’t be the last player to pay his dues in the non-league game before going on to achieve every footballer’s  dream of playing at the highest levels.


Luck, dreams and tales of ‘if only…’

The 1998 movie Sliding Doors tells the story of a woman whose life hinges on whether she manages to catch her train or not.

If she does, she catches her partner cheating, breaks up with him and goes on to live a happy life. If she misses it, he gets away with his affair and she grows increasingly paranoid and unhappy.

Semi-professional footballer Khalil Zakkour of Ryman Premier League side Wingate and Finchley, is someone whose own life possibly hinged on a ‘sliding door’ moment – but in his case it was not a missed train, but a missed opportunity.

“When I was 16, I had a trial at Southampton where I lined up next to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and scored two goals in my first and only game for them,” he explained.

“I was invited back to play two more games and be part of the squad photo as the manager was quite keen on me – he even told me that if I impressed in those two matches, I would’ve been offered a scholarship.

“But unfortunately at the time no-one was available to take me down there from London, so I had miss those games.”


Had he made it down to the south coast, Zakkour, now 23, might have ended up renewing his acquaintance with fellow trialist Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Instead, whilst the England international’s season highlight is Arsenal’s big local derby with Tottenham, Zakkour’s is Wingate’s rivalry with Enfield Town.

So can something simple as not getting a lift or a train turn really change the course of someone’s life?

“There’s a steely determination about Zakkour. It is something that all footballers who wish to play at a high level must have”

The accepted logic is that if you’re good enough, you’ll make it. Zakkour’s story shows how sometimes, things are bit less straightforward than that.

He’d had an early opportunity, at Reading (after trials at Arsenal and Watford), but again something came along to dash his dreams.

“I enjoyed my time at there. It was a huge confidence boost getting in there at 14 years old after getting turned down by two clubs.

“But Reading actually came to an end because of my school at the time. They refused to give me day release every Wednesday to attend training. It was really frustrating and a bit of a setback.

“I felt like luck just wasn’t on my side, but I went back into Sunday league and within a year I was scouted and had that trial at Southampton.”


There’s a steely determination about Zakkour. It is something that all footballers who wish to play at a high level must have, such are the inevitable disappointments you are bound to face along the way.

“It’s not easy to get noticed at semi-pro level, but nonetheless it’s still a pathway if you work hard and make yourself stand out”

The recent euphoria surrounding Jamie Vardy, a player who so nearly gave up football yet came through the semi-pro pathway to top the Premier League  scoring charts, must surely give players like Zakkour confidence to ‘make it’ by following the same route?

“Yeah, of course, most higher league semi-pro players play the level they do because of the chances of them being able to push on into league football. Obviously Jamie Vardy went that step further and ended up in the Prem. Living the dream!”

Unfortunately, Vardy is a rare occurrence. But such is his success that perhaps clubs will start to look more that the semi-professional ladder?

Zakkour said: “It’s definitely not easy to get noticed at semi-pro level, but nonetheless it’s still a pathway if you work hard and make yourself stand out.

“For instance, Dwight Gayle played semi-pro football and scored 60-odd goals. Now he’s at Crystal Palace.”

Gayle joined Palace from Peterborough after spells at Stansted, Dagenham & Redbridge and Bishop’s Stortford, but how big is the gulf in standards between the pro and non-league games?


Zakkour believes that while there is an obvious difference in quality, a lot of this is down to the sheer amount of training that professionals get.

“I don’t think there’s a massive gap, there definitely is one, but it’s created by the fact that professional players are full-time.

“A lot of people still have that dream of being spotted in the back of their mind”

“They’re more likely to be fitter and should 110% be sharper technically with much quicker decision-making, considering their training.”

He also stresses the importance of having the right attitude, plus the mental strength. “A lot of the time it’s down to commitment and dedication.

“But we all get to an age where we have to start thinking about our future. For me, it was either go to university and get a degree or continue to pursue a career in football through the semi-pro route.

“A lot of people just want to carry on playing but at a decent level and, of course, still have that dream of being spotted in the back of their mind, so they choose semi-pro football.”

Cut-throat game

Of course, it’s easier to ‘still have that dream’ when you have few commitments or ties. But Zakkour is now juggling football with being a parent, working as a teaching assistant and doing some coaching.

“Might his luck turn one day? ‘You just never know, I suppose, nothing’s certain’

It would be understandable if he packed it all in and accepted a professional career wasn’t meant to be.

However, when asked if he was offered one more chance to make it as a pro his answer is straight and simple. “Outcome outweighs the risk.”

Admirable that, despite the setbacks, despite the commitments, his dedication and belief hasn’t waned.

What is apparent when talking to the marauding full-back is that he feels – like so many others are bound to – that with a bit more luck he’d be sharing changing rooms with the likes Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Might his luck turn one day? “You just never know, I suppose, nothing’s certain,” he added.

“I know boys that I played with at academy level who I thought would’ve definitely gone pro but haven’t. Just how it goes, I suppose. It’s a cut-throat game.”