What has the Northern League ever done for us?

#12 Leeds United

Bobby Davison: From Northern League to major league.

From non-league to the England set-up – it sounds like Boy’s Own stuff, but that has been the path trodden by former Derby County, Leeds United and Sheffield United striker Bobby Davison.

Davison started his playing career as a teenager with something of a resemblance to Paul McCartney, turning out for Northern League side Seaham Red Star. Three decades on he is assistant to coach Noel Blake with England’s under-19s.

Not that it’s been an entirely smooth ride for 51-year-old Davison.

Although he was one of just three players to have progressed from Seaham Red Star to the English top-flight (the others being former Manchester City and Nottingham Forest striker Nigel Gleghorn and current Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper), Davison might still look back on his career and think what might have been.

Promoted to the First Division at Derby in 1987, he was sold just two months later, dropping down a division to go to Leeds. He then earned promotion to the First Division with Leeds in 1989, but fell out of favour under Howard Wilkinson and made just seven league appearances in two years.

Sold to Leicester, he helped them to the Division One play-off final in 1993, only to find himself again denied a shot at top-flight football as he ended on the losing side. Only in the twilight of his career, as a 34-year-old at Sheffield United, did he spend a full season in the Premier League as back-up to the strike pairing of Jostein Flo and Nathan Blake. Even then, Davison’s Sheffield United suffered a heart-breaking last-day relegation.

Not that this unfortunate record should take any of the gloss off Davison’s career. With 106 goals in 246 appearances he is tenth on the list of Derby County’s all-time top goalscorers – and also managed an impressive 126 consecutive appearances for the Rams between 1983 and 1985.

He was a cult favourite with Kop at Leeds, at least as much for his work-rate as for his contribution in goals – he managed 31 goals in 91 league appearances at Elland Road, and only the arrival of the prolific Lee Chapman saw him displaced.

It was typical of Davison’s approach, no-frills but effective, that when signing for Leeds in 1987 he reportedly walked into manager Billy Bremner’s office and said: “I’m sure you are not going to cheat me, so give me whatever the rest of the boys are getting and I’ll sign.” Fans of both clubs still speak of Davison in glowing terms.

After retirement in 1996 Davison began studying for his coaching badges, eventually leading to a short stint at Guiseley in 2000. For Davison, who had to divide his time at Seaham Red Star with working as a shipyard welder in South Shields, it was something of a blast from the past to work with part-time players.

“That’s totally different to working at professional clubs,” he admitted to the Yorkshire Evening Post in an interview last year. “These guys are working eight to 10-hour shifts and then coming to training and play matches, so it’s different. It was a good grounding.”

After a further spell as second in command to Colin Todd at Bradford City, in 2008 he took what appeared to be the opportunity of a lifetime, the managerial job at Hungarian giants Ferencvaros. They were promoted in his first season, but, much like in his playing career, life in the top flight proved somewhat more of a challenge. A now-famous incident in which Ferencvaros fans shouted at Davison to “go home” (and other less printable phrases besides) during a live television interview proved the final straw, and he departed Hungary in October 2009.

Now he is back in Yorkshire, looking after Leeds United’s various age-level youth teams. He is held up as a shining example by the FA to prospective football coaches, having attained the UEFA Pro License qualification. And in addition, he now acts as Noel Blake’s assistant at England under-19 level, looking after exciting prospects Conor Wickham, Jonjo Shelvey and Josh McEachran.

It’s been a long way since Davison trod the boards in the Northern League – but he is living proof that a fairytale rise to stardom is not just for the comic books.

Leeds fan, football writer, Russophile, travel journalist and all round top bloke, you can read more of James Appell’s work at the fantastic Cynical Challenge or join more than 3,000 others in following him on twitter.

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