There was a time when the path from non-league football to the Premier League was a route often taken by players.

In the past the likes of Chris Waddle, Ian Wright, Stuart Pearce and many others cut their teeth in the lower divisions of the football pyramid.

There, away from the country’s major academies, they honed their crafts and eventually they would be sought after by the very clubs who had previously overlooked them.

However, in today’s modern era of unprecedented wealth, such a path is far less trodden by those looking to make it as a professional footballer.

There are of course the odd exceptions and one only needs to look at the likes of Jamie Vardy, Michail Antonio and Yannick Bolasie.

Andre Gray is another shining example too. Less than six years ago he was playing in the Conference North with Hinckley. Now he is Watford’s club record signing after they parted with £18million to prise him away from Burnley.


Andre Gray: Non-league to Premier League by FootballWhispers

“You’d never dream of that happening,” Gray says, as he reflects on his journey to where he is now.

“Obviously at the time, when I was at Hinckley, it was one step at a time.

“Try and get into the Conference, try and get into League Two, League One. I just tried to take it into my stride really. I set a goal of trying to get into the league above and then the one after.”

In his days at Hinckley, Gray was earning a mere £200 a week after being released by both Wolverhampton Wanderers and Shrewsbury Town in his youth.

Such a fall out of league football can easily impact a player, especially in the early part of their career.

Gray admits that was the case with him and he confesses during his first year in the Conference North he did not do himself justice.

However, after a slow debut season, the striker knuckled down and before long he had joined Luton Town in the Conference after impressing against them in an FA Trophy match.

Two years after that £30,000 move – which incidentally allowed Hinckley to pay the squad some outstanding wages (including Gray’s) – the striker joined Championship club Brentford.

And now, remarkably, Gray is set for his second season in a row of Premier League football.

So is the path from non-league to the top still viable in a transfer market that is set to break records for the level of spending?

“It 100 per cent can be done,” says Gray.

“I have always advised the young boys that I have spoke to at other clubs to go and play in non-league and learn your trade in men’s football, because I don’t think they learn as much in the under-23 games on the training pitch.

“Sometimes you just need that real game experience. Even just the mentality of winning every week in competitive football, that’s what has driven me to be here now.”

As Gray points out, there are a number of benefits a player can learn from developing his skills in non-league football.

The top class facilities on offer at Premier League academies are undeniably great, but do they really prepare youngsters for the harsh realities of the professional game?

Down in non-league, Gray admits the lessons come thick and fast. This is not an under-23 game where, with all due respect, failure to get three points isn’t the end of the world.

This is real life, where every match and victory is crucial to a club’s survival.

It is brutal and honest, but also an experience Gray would definitely recommend to any youngster looking to go out on loan.

“It is men’s football at the end of the day,” he says.

“I am sure everyone has been to pre-season games where the Premier League teams are playing non-league teams, you can’t really notice too much of a difference.

“They can compete and it is not as easy as it sounds. You feel like you are going down four or five leagues, but at the end of the day if you’re good enough, you’ll go there and prove it – and you’ll be back before you know it.”

That is perhaps the greatest fear for the young players of today. If they drop down to non-league, will they ever make it back?

However as the likes of Gray and Vardy have shown, taking a step back can in fact provide you with the springboard to go forward.

It is a common belief with strikers that they can score goals at any level. A goalscorer is a goalscorer.

For Gray, this is something that he held onto as he looked to make a name for himself in non-league and it is a message he passes on to youngsters now.

Prove yourself and the big teams will come calling.

“If you can’t go on loan to a League One club, Championship club or a League Two club – then go to the Conference and prove yourself,” he says.

“Obviously as a striker, if you go to the Conference and score 20, 30 goals you will be back in League One or the Championship before you know it. So, the way I see it, you’ve got to prove it first. I had to.

“I came from Shrewsbury, went down to Conference North and I had to prove myself. I had to prove I could do it there before I stepped up.”

Stuck at the bottom of the football ladder, Gray admits there were moments when he feared he wouldn’t make it back up until he finally focused his mind.

“At first I didn’t take football too seriously and then I realised what I wanted to do,” he says.

“I ended up going down to gym on the days off and things like that, trying to be a step ahead of everyone.

“I was seeing players get moves – a good friend went from Ilkeston to Luton and that made me see what was possible.”

Indeed, it was the sight of others rising up the ranks that made Gray realise his dream wasn’t over.

And, without doubt, the striker’s tale will be inspiring the next generation of non-league hopefuls.

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