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NLP Column w/e 12th August 2017

GOALS. That’s where the glory is. Wearing the number nine on your back, banging them in and being hailed as the hero.

As kids, most of us dream of scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final. For Non-League fans it might be the winner in the Red Insure Cup, who knows. But it’s always the defining strike.

But there’s also those who dream of stopping the goals. Non-League has its fair share of talent in that department too. Here is a look at just a few defenders who have gone on to bigger things.

Chris Smalling – Maidstone United

Perhaps one of the most famous, given he’s gone onto play for Manchester United and England. Smalling was fresh out of Millwall when he arrived at the Stones’ youth set-up.

He made his debut in the Kent Senior Cup and eventually made his Ryman League debut in December 2007 against Harlow Town.

In total he made 11 appearances for the Kent club, and scored one goal against East Thurrock United, before Fulham came calling.

Ten years later he has 31 caps for his country, has played in a World Cup, won two Premier League titles – and been sent off in an FA Cup final.

Ashley Williams – Everton

Williams made a big impact at Hednesford Town. But his mum Lyn wanted more recognition and phoned The NLP offices demanding stories to showcase her son’s undoubted talent.

Williams always believed he would make it in the professional game if he was given a chance. When Oldham were interested but would only pay £5,000 of the £20,000 asking price, he weighed up the idea of asking banks for a loan.

Out-of-contact four months later, his college tutor and coach at Cannock Chase Technical College Andy Blakeley persuaded Williams, with four months left on his contract, that would be unwise.

Sure enough he got a move to Stockport County and later helped Swansea win promotion to the Premier League.

Last summer he was Wales’ captain as they starred at Euro 2016 and sealed a £12million move to Everton.

Alfie Mawson – Swansea City

OK, so perhaps not strictly a Non-League player, Mawson did have loan spells in the Conference South with Maidenhead United and the Conference Premier with Luton Town – cut short by injury – and Welling United.

Five years on and after impressing at Barnsley, he’s a regular in the Premier League with Swansea and was a mainstay in the England U21 back four that reached the semi-final in the recent Euro 2017 U21 tournament. Keep an eye out.

Marc Roberts – Birmingham City

Barnsley have found Non-League football to be a seriously profitable place. Last season three of the Championship side’s back four had played at this level. Andy Yiadom, who is being tipped for a Premier League move and has been capped by Ghana, former Salisbury City and Torquay man Angus MacDonald and Marc Roberts.

Roberts isn’t like many footballers who have dropped out of academies. He’s gone up the hard way. Starting out at Wakefield, Worksop Town and Buxton, where he was spotted by FC Halifax Town boss Neil Aspin.

One of his Shay team-mates contacted me to predict Roberts will play in the Premier League. Big, powerful, a monster throw, the degree-educated centre back moved to Birmingham this summer after excelling for the Tykes. MacDonald has since been appointed skipper.

Aden Flint – Bristol City

Flint could be at Birmingham City too by the time you read this, but ten years ago he was playing in the Central Midlands League for Pinxton.

A proper out-and-out defender, Flint won the Conference North with Alfreton – with Burton Albion’s Kyle McFadzean as his centre-back partner – and was capped by England C before Swindon Town took the plunge. Within two years he’d signed for Bristol City where he’s been a popular figure. Not least because he scored a hat-trick against Walsall a couple of years ago in a season where he found the net 15 times!

A look to the future…

So who’s next? Two to watch out for this season are Ethan Pinnock and Sean Raggett. Pinnock is another gem off Dulwich Hamlet’s famous production line. Last season he stepped-up to the National League with Forest Green Rovers and was outstanding. So much so, that Barnsley – them again – forked out for him this summer.

Raggett has been one of the most talked-about Non-League talents in recent years. A colossal centre back, Raggett moved from Dover Athletic to Lincoln City before last season.

And the England C international was immense all years at the Imps won the title. He even scored the goal against Burnley that put Lincoln through to the FA Cup quarter-finals.

Imps boss Danny Cowley thinks he can go right to the top.


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