Every few weeks it seems that another youngster is being linked with a move to a top Premier League club after being identified in the media as ‘the next big thing’. In most cases these youngsters have played a handful of first team games, such as Theo Walcott at Southampton before his move to Arsenal. However some youngsters are scouted in junior and youth teams and can be moved on for upwards of £1,000,000 before making a first team squad. Jermaine Pennant was 15 when he signed for Arsenal from Notts County for £2m and more recently Raheem Sterling moved to Liverpool from QPR in a deal that could exceed £5m. Sterling was 15 years and 3 months old at the time.
Without getting overly nostalgic, there was a time not too long ago when an England squad featured three players who were playing non-league football on their 21st birthdays. Stuart Pearce, Ian Wright and Les Ferdinand all began their careers playing non-league football. Current Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew was a painter and decorator in the south-east and was playing non-league football at 25 before signing for Crystal Palace. Within three years of turning professional Pardew was playing in an FA Cup Final with Palace.
Whilst the trend of players rising up through the ranks appears to be a thing of the past, perhaps due to growth in the academy systems and the desire of clubs to sign up multitudes of youngsters in the hope of snaring the next big thing, some players are still bucking the trend and making the step up.
Steve Harper is currently Newcastle United’s number one goalkeeper and has been with the club since the early nineties, having signed from Northern League stalwarts Seaham Red Star. Steve signed for Red Star initially as an outfield player but the story goes that he was thrown in goal when the first choice keeper was injured and the rest is history. Granted Steve didn’t serve a long apprenticeship in the Northern League but at 17 he was still considering what educational options to pursue, as opposed to Walcott who was sat on the bench at the World Cup.
More in hope in expectation an email was sent to the Newcastle United Press Office asking if Steve could answer a few questions for a piece on the forthcoming Northern League Day on April 9th. Within 24 hours Steve had agreed to the request and some questions were winging their way to him through cyberspace.
Steve recalls that he was invited for a trial with Newcastle United after impressing in his handful of games for Seaham Red Star and played in a junior match against local rivals Middlesbrough. Steve impressed enough to be asked to stay on for a few more games and was delighted when Newcastle offered him a contract.
Steve was asked whether he feels players can still make the step up from the likes of the Northern League to the professional ranks nowadays or whether it is a case of those not picked up at an early age won’t make it. Steve rightly pointed to Chris Smalling of Manchester United who was playing non-league three years ago for Maidstone and is now an England Under 21 international and tipped for full honours. Closer to home Steve mentioned Michael Richardson who signed for Newcastle United at the start of this season from Walker Central. Michael is very highly thought of at Newcastle and has made the first team squad on a number of occasions, yet was working as an apprentice electrician 12 months ago. Steve feels that even though some players may not have made the grade due to injury or other distractions, it still boils down to the fact that if someone is good enough and wants it enough then they can still come up through the levels of non-league football.
Steve is a shining example of someone not being picked up from a young age yet still making it as a professional. Steve has gone from playing in front of a few hundred for Seaham Red Star to appearing in an FA Cup Final and being part of a Newcastle team that beat the mighty Juventus in the Champions League.
Whilst professional football has changed beyond recognition since Steve signed for Newcastle, the Northern League has remained a constant breeding ground for local talent. Stories such as Steve’s show that the Northern League is relevant as much today as ever, not only as a way to allow supporters to identify with clubs and players, but also to allow footballers the chance to showcase their talents and hopefully emulate the likes of Steve Harper.
Many thanks to James Williams, Newcastle United fan and occasional football blogger. To read more of James’ work, follow him on Twitter.