With England’s elite currently on hiatus for the international break, this Saturday marks the annual Non-League day, designed to provide more support and exposure to lower league clubs and grassroots football.

Non-league may seem like a lightyear away from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League but, every once in a while, it can serve as a breeding ground for some future top-flight stars to hone their craft and get their break at the top.

Everyone knows about Jamie Vardy’s four-year-rise from Conference striker with Fleetwood Town to Premier League winner and record-breaker with Leicester City. By virtue of his former occupation as a bricklayer, the career path Charlie Austin, from Poole Town to Southampton, is another many casual football fans will be familiar with.

But what about the Premier League stars that have been in England’s top flight so long that you might have forgotten they ever played in non-league football? Or those that you just simply didn’t know about in the first place? Read on for 13 players you might not know enjoyed a stint outside the English Football League.

While you’re here, if you’d like to take part in 2018’s Non League day, you can find a local match using the Match Finder tool on nonleagueday.co.uk.

1. Michail Antonio – West Ham United

(Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Tooting and Mitcham United
Years in non-league: 2002 – 2009
Premier League games played: 83
Years spent in Premier League: 2015 – present

After making his breakthrough with London side Tooting and Mitcham United, aged 17, Michail Antonio appeared on the radar of Championship side Reading. Slowly but surely, Antonio developed his game and after 19 goals in a 54 game spell at Nottingham Forest, completed his rise to the Premier League by signing for West Ham United in 2015 for around £7m. Antonio has even been called up for various England squads since then, although he is yet to be capped.

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2. Chris Smalling – Manchester United 

(Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Maidstone United
Years in non-league: 2007 – 2008
Premier League games played: 201
Years spent in Premier League: 2008 – present

Chris Smalling often comes in for stick from sections of the Manchester United support, as well as from that of the opposition. However, making nearly 200 Premier League appearances to date is a fantastic achievement for a player who began life in non-league football. Smalling’s performances for Maidstone United quickly attracted the attention of Premier League side Fulham and after two years at Craven Cottage, he found himself rocking up at Old Trafford to play under Sir Alex Ferguson. Smalling has won two Premier League titles with the Red Devils, picking up 31 caps for England in the process.

3. Troy Deeney – Watford

(Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Halesowen Town (loan)
Years in non-league: 2006-07
Premier League games played: 108
Years spent in Premier League: 2015 – present

Troy Deeney may not be the most glamorous of strikers, nor is he the most prolific, but you would be hard-pressed to find a Premier League defender who has enjoyed marking the 30-year-old. While playing youth football for Chelmsley Town aged 15, the story goes, Troy Deeney was spotted by Walsall’s then Head of Youth, Mick Halsall. Halsall only turned up to the particular game because his son was playing but, despite playing drunk, Deeney scored seven goals in an 11-4 win and was immediately offered a trial with the League Two club – Deeney only showed up to the trial after being forced out of bed and having his taxi paid for by his Chelmsley coach.

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Deeney’s trial was successful and the striker was immediately loaned out to Southern League Premier Division side Halesowen Town, scoring eight goals in 10 games. Watford swooped in for Deeney in 2010 and, since then, he has gone on to become one of the Hornets’ key talisman, scoring 114 goals for the club in all competitions.

4. Glenn Murray – Brighton and Hove Albion

(Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Barrow, Carlisle United
Years in non-league: 2004 – 2005
Premier League games played: 92
Years spent in Premier League: 2013 – 2016, 2017 – present 

Since earning promotion to the Premier League with Brighton in 2017, 35-year-old Glenn Murray has been a real surprise package, scoring 16 top-flight goals in total. Murray had already scored 11 times in 52 Premier League games during spells with Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, but his enduring effectiveness belies his age of 35. And what makes this equally alarming is the fact Murray turned out in the Conference North for Barrow in the 2004/05 season, scoring six goals in six league games, before he managed just two league goals in 19 games in the Conference National for Carlisle United.

Murray has since told the BBC that his time in the Conference was the time he knew he had ‘made it’ and the stirred a hunger inside him that is the reason he is in a Premier League player today.

5. Yannick Bolasie – Everton (on loan at Aston Villa)

(Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Premier League)

Non-league clubs played for: Hillingdon Borough, Rushden and Diamonds (loan)
Years in non-league: 2006 – 07, 2008 – 09
Premier League games played: 119
Years spent in Premier League: 2013 – 2018

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OK, so Yannick Bolasie isn’t technically a Premier League player right now, having been loaned from Everton to Aston Villa. However, he is still contracted to a Premier League club and has made over a century of appearances at that level for Crystal Palace and the Toffees.

Workplaces weren’t always so glamorous for Bolasie, though. He began his career at Southern Division One South & West side Hillingdon Borough, while Bolasie also had a 10-game loan spell at Conference Premier side Rushden and Diamonds before eventually working his way up the ladder to become one of Crystal Palace’s most entertaining players as they achieved Premier League promotion in 2013.

6. Callum Wilson – Bournemouth

(Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Kettering Town (loan), Tamworth (loan)
Years in non-league: 2010 – 2012
Premier League games played: 67
Years spent in Premier League: 2015 – present

Despite his injury problems, Callum Wilson has been a consistent Premier League goalscorer for Bournemouth and was recently been mooted as a contender for Gareth Southgate’s England squad by another entrant in this list. That in mind, it might come as a surprise to some that Wilson only managed two goals in a combined 20 games during in loan spells with Conference Premier sides Kettering Town – the only team former England star Paul Gascoigne has ever managed – and Tamworth between 2010 and 2012.

7. Joe Hart – Burnley

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Shrewsbury Town
Years in non-league: 2003 – 2004
Premier League games played: 329
Years spent in Premier League: 2006 – 2016, 2017 – present

With two Premier League titles under his belt, a joint-record four Premier League Golden Glove awards to his name, 75 caps for England and 64 appearances in European football, there isn’t much that Joe Hart hasn’t done during his footballing career. And with his two appearances in the 2003/04 season, Conference football with Shrewsbury Town is another thing to the current Burnley shot-stopper’s can scratch off his to-do list. Within three years of graduating from the Shrews’ youth system, Hart joined the Manchester City revolution for around £600,000.

8. Danny Ings – Southampton

(Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Dorchester Town (loan)
Years in non-league: 2010
Premier League games played: 55
Years spent in Premier League: 2014 – present

Injury has been very cruel to Danny Ings, severely hampering his time at Liverpool. However, he is finally enjoying consistent playing time with Southampton this season and looks like he is getting his career back on track. This is the second loan spell of Ings’ career, with the first coming in 2010 when the striker scored four goals in nine Conference South games with Dorchester Town.

9. Jason Puncheon – Crystal Palace

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Fisher Athletic (loan), Lewes (loan)
Years in non-league: 2006
Premier League games played: 193
Years spent in Premier League: 2010 – present

Jason Puncheon’s football career took the long way around. The 32-year-old has had to battle all the way up the Football League pyramid, including turning out in the Isthmian League for Fisher Athletic and the Conference South for Lewes, making one loan appearance for each in 2006.

10. Carl Jenkinson – Arsenal

(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Welling United (loan), Eastbourne Borough (loan)
Years in non-league: 2010
Premier League games played: 90
Years spent in Premier League: 2011 – present

After moving to Arsenal from Charlton Athletic for around £1m in 2011, Carl Jenkinson found himself making his Premier League debut against Liverpool in August of that year. That is quite a remarkable feat when you consider that just one season previous, Jenkinson was turning out in the Conference Premier on loan at Eastbourne Borough. And, just a year after that, the full-back even picked up his first – and, to date, only – England cap against Sweden.

11. Ashley Barnes – Burnley

(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Oxford United (loan), Salisbury City (loan), Eastbourne Borough (loan)
Years in non-league: 2007 – 2009
Premier League games played: 106
Years spent in Premier League: 2014 – 2015, 2016 – present

Ashley Barnes has been one of Burnley’s unsung heroes over the past couple of years, leading the line with unquestionable commitment as the Clarets went beyond expectations last season by qualifying for the Europa League via a seventh-place finish, winning out over the likes of Everton and Leicester City.

Barnes may well have learned some important lessons in hard work and grafting for his teammates during his three loan spells in the Conference Premier between 2007 and 2009 – with Oxford United, Salisbury City and Eastbourne Borough respectively – making a combined 16 appearances in the process.

12. Andre Gray – Watford

(Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: AFC Telford (loan), Hinckley United, Luton Town
Years in non-league: 2009 – 2014
Premier League games played: 71
Years spent in Premier League: 2016 – present

Andre Gray is now a fully fledged Premier League striker, forming a very strong partnership with Troy Deeney at Watford. Once upon a time, however, Gray was one of the most feared strikers in non-league football, scoring a combined 82 goals during spells with AFC Telford and Hinckley United in the Conference North, and Luton Town in the Conference Premier.

13. Ashley Williams – Everton (on loan at Stoke City)

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Non-league clubs played for: Hednesford Town
Years in non-league: 2001 – 2004
Premier League games played: 241
Years spent in Premier League: 2011 – 2018

Ashley Williams has captained Wales to the Euro 2016 semi-final, won promotion to the Premier League with Swansea City and even lifted the League Cup with the club in 2013 – the Swans’ first-ever major honour. However, it all began with Southern League Premier Division side Hednesford Town, for whom Williams played 46 league games between 2001 and 2004.

Williams has struggled for form since joining Everton in 2016, though, and now finds himself on loan at Stoke City.


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