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Oliver McManus writes about the 5 best players currently playing non-league football in England.
Non-league to Premier League, it’s not the most commonly trod path but it’s sure as hell the purest and most rewarding.
So, following on from Andre Gray and, dare I mention, Jamie Vardy, I decided to take a look at 5 players who could be set to break into the big time.
At 27, Ricky Miller is the oldest player to make this shortlist. Now, some would say he’s too old but, trust me, his talent speaks for itself.
18 months ago, his life and career were thrown into turmoil as he was sacked by Luton Town, following allegations of racial abuse and assault.
Dover Athletic decided to take a chance on him and they have been rewarded in abundance; 47 goals in 71 league appearances is about as prolific as it gets and he’s really been finding the back of the net with lightening sharp consistency this year – 29 in 31.
This sublime striker comes with a caveat, however. The number 9 has racked up 10 yellow cards and one sending off this season, meaning he’s missed key games in Dover’s push for promotion.
A classic poacher, he’s most comfortable in the 18 yard box but he’s by no means a one trick pony – capable of scoring with both feet, the 6ft 3 man also has a potent header.
Little wonder then that local papers are already dubbing Miller as “the greatest Dover Athletic player ever”.
Whilst life at the Crabble is treating him well, at 27 he’ll be wanting to push on sooner rather than later; it’s a well known fact that League One clubs are considering a £1million plus bid for him in the summer.
I literally cannot stop raving about Alex Woodyard – ever since I saw him play for Dartford against Ebbsfleet in the FA Cup, 3 or 4 years ago, I have been convinced that he is destined for the top of the game.
Having come through the Southend youth academy , he made a couple of first team appearances but spent most of his time out on loan, before making the full-time switch to non-league in 2013, with Dartford.
Since then, he’s moved club every season (despite each club’s best efforts to retain him!). Having plied his trade for Dartford, Concord and Braintree, over 100 appearances later he finds himself at the summit of the National League with Lincoln.
Incredibly adept on the ball, Woodyard is selfless in attack and seeks to provide stimulus rather than end product.
It is his work and leadership off the ball, however, that leads to him getting plaudits a plenty; Captain of the England C team, the number 30 is understated yet passionate and is tactically astute.
I, oftentimes, like to call Woodyard the “non-league Scott Parker”. By that, I mean he can go unnoticed because he’s not a flair player – he’s gritty, he gets stuck into the game. Tackles, interceptions, physicality, it’s not the pretty side of the game but it’s oftentimes the most pivotal.
His loyalty is unquestionable, having solidified a relationship with the Cowley brothers – firstly at Braintree and now at The IPods lmps – this more than shows on the pitch.
Lincoln look set to win promotion to League Two at the end of this season but, having had a trial at Leyton Orient last season and plenty of League One / Championship clubs keeping an eye out for him, Alex Woodyard may go a step further.
Already playing for his 10th club and still at the tender age of 22, James Alabi’s career hasn’t always gone to plan but, thankfully, he’s reaping the rewards now.
Having come through the Stoke City academy, Alabi went out on loan 6 times (twice to Scunthorpe) before being released in the Summer of 2015.
Since then, he’s stuttered along, spending a year in the wilderness before the good people at Chester signed him up in order to bolster their survival strikeforce.
Whilst Chester’s fortunes seem to be stable, Alabi has been their one shining light – 15 goals in 36 appearances is a testament to the talent that once saw him tipped for the top.
Deceptively quick, the 6ft 1” man is more than capable with the ball at his feet, which he proved beyond doubt when he scored 4 goals in 45 minutes for Chester as they beat Aldershot 8-2. Yes, I did say 4.
The former Celtic U20 loanee, loves to make penetrating runs to get in behind the opposition’s defence and when he gets a chance, more than often, he’ll slot the ball away with his magical right foot.
What he needs now is stability and the chance to really push on from an impressive season.
With Chester in 12th , thanks largely to the contributions of Alabi, he looks to have found that stability. Another prolific season in the National League should see him able to make the move to somewhere bigger – maybe even back to Stoke?
Very much the man of the moment, after his 89th minute header made Lincoln City the first non-league club to reach the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, for some 103 years.
Make no mistake, though, that’s not the only reason why he’s in this Top 5, not in the slightest. Raggett has been on the radar since he signed his first professional contract at 17, whilst at Dover Athletic.
At 6ft, some could say he’s a bit on the small side for a central defender – not that he pays any attention to such critics. Without a doubt, the best defender in the National League this season, Raggett’s move to Lincoln City has been inspired.
Capped by the England C team in 2015 and with 100 National League appearances to his name, it’s hard to believe this rather handsome young man is only 23.
Having said that, it’s even harder to believe that only now has he been thrust into the limelight; consistency is a quality much desired at the moment and it is one which Raggett holds in abundance.
Committed at the back, he’s an aerial presence in his own box and uses his physicality in order to keep it tight for his team. Not only is he capable in his own box, he’s equally adept in the opposition’s – as we’ve already heard – but 6 goals in 31 games this season makes him one of the highest scoring defenders in the country.
The only downside is his, occasional, indiscipline. Well, occasional may be understating it a tad – he’s received 22 yellow cards in his 111 professional games.
But passion is what you want in a team and Lincoln are putting that passion to good use – they ought to be careful though, they’re in risk of losing their top guns. Alex Woodyard may be on his way out and I would bet my house on Raggett getting his big move too.
4 years ago, Hawkins was playing for Northwood in the 8th tier of English football.
3 years ago, Hawkins was playing for Harrow Borough in the 7th tier of English football.
Now, Hawkins is playing for Dagenham and Redbridge in the top division of non-league football and lighting up the division as he does so.
At 22 years of age, Hawkins’ journey to where he is now has been a testing one – undoubtedly, there will have been times where he considered quitting.
34 goals in 90 matches led Hemel Hempstead to give him a chance, where his inexperience, just 21 years old at the time, made no difference to his goal-scoring habits. 81 games and 24 goals later, he was handed a contract by, then League Two strugglers, Dagenham and Redbridge.
Signed on a 2 and a half year contract, Hawkins struggled to hit his stride initially but since the start of this season, he has been unable to stop.
An exciting young player, Hawkins is uncharacteristically gifted with his feet for such a lanky player – he scored his first professional hat trick in August of last year.
Linked with moves to Ipswich, as of late, Hawkins has failed to let the hype get to his head as he remains as humble and down to earth as ever.
Valued at around £250,000, Hawkins is vastly pursued not just for his goals but equally his team play – with 9 assists this season, he creates opportunities as well as finishes them.
Thanks to his background, if Hawkins makes it to the top he will truly be seen as the next incarnation in the “Vardy” story.