BIG INTERVIEW: Non-league grounding the right route to the top for players say Bamber Bridge and Lancaster City bosses
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Jamie Vardy has done it, so too Danny Ings, while Michail Antonio is another who has also got in on the act.
That is to score goals at the highest level having begun their footballing careers by experiencing the less salubrious surroundings of non-league football.
Premier League champion and FA Cup winner Vardy began his career at Stocksbridge Park Steels and FC Halifax Town in the Northern Premier League before earning a move to Fleetwood Town and a subsequent transfer to Leicester City.
Ings featured for Dorchester Town as a teenager before going on to represent Bournemouth, Burnley, Liverpool, Southampton and Aston Villa.
Antonio began his youth career at Tooting & Mitcham United before going on to represent clubs such as Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and West Ham United.
Both Ings and Vardy have represented England, while Antonio was called up to the national squad before switching allegiance to Jamaica. The trio are part of a long list of professional players who all have a non-league background.
Now Bamber Bridge’s Ewan Bange and Lancaster City’s Sam Fishburn are hoping to perhaps follow in their foosteps and prove just how important a non-league grounding can be to a player’s development.
Nineteen-year-old Bange arrived at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium at the start of the season on loan from Blackpool and has since gone on to hit seven
goals in eight appearances, helping Brig soar into a NPL Premier Division play-off spot. Fishburn – who is yet to reach his 18th birthday –has struck six times in as many games, with a hat-trick to boot, since being borrowed by the Dolly Blues from Carlisle United last month.
Both players seemingly have a bright future ahead of them and who knows where they could end up? But what is for certain is their spell in the nitty-gritty, hard-knocks men’s semi-professional football at a young age can only bode well for their futures.
For clubs like Bamber Bridge and Lancaster City, the chance of picking up unpolished gems and thrusting them into their first team is their lifeblood.
Not only does it afford players the opportunity of much-needed experience, it helps the clubs prosper at their respective level. In the past, players such as Josh Earl and Jack Armer have turned out for the Dolly Blues and have gone on to appear in the first team at Preston North End and Carlisle United respectively.
Bamber Bridge boss Jamie Milligan – a former pro with Everton, Blackpool and Fleetwood Town – is keen to cultivate links with local professional clubs.
Along with Bange, Brig have also brought in players such as Dylan Boyle (19), on loan from Fleetwood Town, and Blackpool’s 18-year-old midfielder Rob Apter.
And just to illustrate how much a player can be in the shop window, midfielder Jamie Thomas – a former Burnley Under-23s ace and Bolton scholar – was signed by Preston after impressing in a Brig shirt.
As someone who runs his own football academy alongside ex-England international Trevor Sinclair, Milligan encourages many of his pupils and graduates to experience non-league football.
“There is nothing better for these young kids to go into a changing room full of men,” said Milligan.
“To go out on the pitch and fight for three points against lads who, for some, non-league football is their livelihood.
“ You don’t get better experience than what Ewan, Dylan and Rob are getting at the minute.
“I can never understand it when I hear tales of some young lads who won’t go out on loan to whatever level or whether they think the level is too low for them.
“I just don’t get it because a lot of them are just going to be stuck there playing Under-23s or Under-21s football, which for me, it’s not real football.
“You can find that when these players stay at clubs playing Under-23s football when they do finally leave because they are not making it there, it’s too much of a shock for them when they drop down the leagues or go into non-league.
“For me the boys who have come to us at Brig, it sets them in good stead for the future.
“The academy that myself and Trevor run, probably more than half of the lads are all playing non-league football.”
Lancaster City boss Mark Fell has a similar view point to Milligan.
He has been in regular communication with Carlisle United’s assistant manager Gavin Skelton regarding Fishburn’s progress. And this week he has been in negotations with Premier League Leeds United over the possibility of signing one of their academy players.
“These young lads are hungry,” said Fell.
“Sam Fishburn has been absolutely brilliant for us and you only have to look at clubs like Bamber Bridge this season.
“They have brought in three or four young lads from Blackpool and Fleetwood and they have done ever so well.”
“I think more and more loan deals like these are going to be more prevalent.”