Charlie Austin, Jamie Vardy and the Rise of the Non-Leaguers

Despite a handful of notable examples, non-league to top flight isn't a path that has been well travelled and was even closing, with elite clubs putting so much into ever more professional youth academies.

Queens Park Rangers' Charlie Austin and Leicester City's Jamie Vardy both stole the headlines when Roy Hodgson named his England squad for upcoming games against Ireland and Slovenia next month.

Both players have enjoyed a surprisingly good domestic season and both work tremendously hard every time they step out onto the field. But perhaps the most significant similarity between the two is that they have risen out of non-league football to get to this point in their respective careers.

Austin scored 18 Premier League goals for QPR in 2014/15 - his first season in the top flight. But it has been a long journey for the Berkshire-born striker who was released by Reading for being too small at the age of 15 - ironically, 10 years later he fills a powerful 6ft 2inch frame.

The star, who could be sold for upwards of £15m in the coming months, started out playing for sides in the Hellenic Football League - the 9th and 10th tiers of the English pyramid. From there he ended up at Poole Town in the Wessex Football League, while he also doubled as a bricklayer. At that time, working on a building site was his main source of income, with the £100 he earned playing football every week a mere bonus.

But in his first season at Poole, Austin's career took off. He scored 46 goals in 46 games in his first season for the club and then 18 in 11 at the start of the next, before finally getting his chance in the professional ranks with Swindon Town in 2009.

From there it has been a steady progression up the ladder to where he is now - a Premier League player at the age of 25. Despite admitting he had no obvious dreams of ever making it as a professional during his time at Poole, Austin was lucky enough to be with a Football League club at the age of 20.

Vardy's journey, while not being quite as spectacular, has been even longer. Now 28, the forward was still playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels in the seventh tier of English football at the age of 24. Much like Austin was formerly a bricklayer, in those early days, Leicester's hot-shot was making a living in a factory manufacturing carbon-fibre.

It was only after Halifax took a gamble on him that he was spotted by Fleetwood Town in the Conference Premier in 2011. There, Vardy's 31 goals in 36 games propelled the seaside club into the Football League and he was promptly snapped up by Leicester for £1m, then in the Championship.

After a debut season in the Premier League at the age of 28, during which his incessant running made him unplayable at times, Vardy too is being linked with a possible £15m summer move.

Of course, the fairytale of non-league players reaching the big time isn't new in English football. Stuart Pearce famously played almost 200 games for Wealdstone FC before getting his break in the professional ranks. The man nicknamed 'Psycho' later went on to play hundreds of games in the top flight, as well as 78 times at senior international level.

Ian Wright's journey was similar. The striker who would go on to become Arsenal's all-time leading goalscorer didn't sign his first professional contract until he was nearly 22, having fallen through the cracks in his teen years. Kevin Phillips is another example of a player who came out of non-league football before going on to win the Premier League Golden Boot and play for England.

However, despite a handful of notable examples, non-league to top flight isn't a path that has been well travelled and was even closing, with elite clubs putting so much into ever more professional youth academies.

From the mid 1990s until recently, if a player hadn't been picked by a professional club by the age of 18, certainly by 20, it was already seen as too late to make it to the top. However, Austin and Vardy have given renewed hope for non-league players where it had previously faded. Their meteoric rise should also serve to open the eyes of the bigger clubs to the fact that rough diamonds do exist at the lower levels.

What of the next non-league star to potentially make it in the Premier League? Sunderland snapped up Duncan Watmore from Altrincham in 2013 after the teenager scored 14 times in 39 appearances at Conference North level.

One of those goals was a stunning solo effort that Lionel Messi himself would have been proud of and anyone who witnessed the winger that season knew he was destined for bigger things. Balancing a university degree with a fledgling football career, he's now waiting for his big chance.

Charlie Austin and Jamie Vardy have re-opened a door from the semi-professional ranks that had virtually been shut. Their stories show that non-leaguers just like them are clearly worth a closer look.

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