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Thursday, 08 March 2012

Premier League: Ferdinand, Holt, Martyn or Pearce - Who has been the greatest star from non-league football?


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The Premier League has seen so many stars arrive on these shores over the past two decades. Players who have won multiple trophies in leagues across Europe and made our league one of the best in the world. The clubs themselves have also helped by producing their own talent through their academies, but, in true Roy of the Rovers style, some players hit the top from less than fashionable positions.

For all their coaches, scouts and academies, sometimes quality players can escape the net, but, as the Premier League celebrates its 20th year, Steve Coulter wants to know; Who has been the greatest Premier League player to have started his career in non-league football? He has narrowed his search down to four players, but it's an open question so we'd love to hear from you.

To refresh your memories here's Steve with his highlights of their careers.

LES FERDINAND

Sir Les began his football education at non-league Southall and played for the London club in the 1986 FA Vase Final. A season later he crossed the capital to join Hayes.

Ferdinand became an instant success and began to attract attention. He scored 19 goals in 39 appearances for the non-leaguers. This was despite been sent off twice! His big break came in March 1987 when he joined Queens Park Rangers for £30,000.

The powerful striker prospered at Loftus Road, scoring more than 80 goals during his eight years with the Super Hoops. Eventually Rangers were forced to cash in on their prized asset. Manchester United and Arsenal were linked with the hit man, but in 1995 Ferdinand headed north to join Newcastle United.

Kevin Keegan got his man for £6 million. Hayes were big winners when the marksman was sold. A sell on clause had been agreed when Ferdinand joined Rangers. As a consequence Hayes would receive 10 per cent of the strikers next move. Hayes pocketed a tidy £600,000 when Les joined the Toon.

Newcastle United were pretty happy too, Ferdinand spearheaded the Geordies' challenge for the 1995/96 Premier League Title. Ferdinand scored 29 goals in his first season on Tyneside. The title seemed in the bag at the turn of the year but a dramatic collapse let in Manchester United.

Ferdinand returned to his London roots two years later. The lure of joining boyhood favourites Tottenham Hotspur proved irresistible. His time at White Hart Lane was plagued by injury, but he did collect silverware when Spurs won the 1999 League Cup.

It was fitting that Ferdinand finally entered the winner's enclosure. The complete all round striker, Les was peerless in the air. Capped 17 times by England, Ferdinand wound down his career with spells at Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers.

GRANT HOLT

The Grant Holt story is the stuff of fairytales. Born in Carlisle, the 30 year old striker joined his hometown club as a fresh faced teenager. After failing to make the grade at Brunton Park, Holt joined neighbours Workington Town. He continued to ply his trade in the lower reaches. Spells at Halifax Town and Rochdale saw Holt establish himself.

The Cumbrian flirted with the big time when he signed for Nottingham Forest in 2006. The former European Champions had recently been relegated to the third tier of English football. Holt became a firm favourite at the City Ground. The archetypal British centre forward helped himself to 17 goals in his debut season.  Not for the last time, Forest were denied in the play-offs and Holt was deemed surplus to requirements.

Shrewsbury Town was the unlikely launch pad for his career. The burly front man proved a big hit in Shropshire, scoring 20 goals in just 43 appearances for the Shrews.

In 2009 Holt was on the move again, with Norwich City being his next port of call.  Like Forest, the once proud Canaries had fallen on hard times. Although initially signed by Bryan Gunn the striker will forever be associated with Paul Lambert. The Glaswegian gaffer arrived at Carrow Road in 2009. Within two years he had steered Norwich from the depths of League One to the riches of the Premier League and Holt played a remarkable role in the Norfolk resurgence. He scored 53 goals in the consecutive promotion seasons.

His stock has risen further this campaign. Holt has netted ten times already. Glasgow Rangers were rumoured to be interested in obtaining Grant’s services in January. His exploits have seen him emerge as a contender for England’s Euro 2012 squad.

Holt’s game has improved beyond recognition. The recent goal against Manchester United was spell blinding. An immaculate chest trap was followed by a quicksilver swivel and volley. Few would bet against Grant Holt making an impact at the highest level.

NIGEL MARTYN

Like Grant Holt, Nigel Martyn was brought up in a football outpost. Cornish-born Martyn began life as a midfielder before relocating between the sticks.

His early career was spent playing non-league football in Cornwall. He impressed during a stint at St Blazey. His journey to stardom began in bizarre circumstances. The Bristol Rovers tea lady spotted Martyn playing while on holiday in Cornwall. She immediately recommended the goalkeeper to the Pirates.

Martyn soon made the step up to Rovers first team. In 1989 he became Britain’s most expensive goalkeeper. Crystal Palace signed the Cornishman for £1 million. Martyn helped Palace reach the 1990 FA Cup Final and later helped Steve Coppell’s men finish third in the top flight. Sadly the promising side broke up and Palace were relegated in in the mid-90s.

Martyn was still held in high regard and moved to Leeds United in 1996. He spent six years at Elland Road and made a lasting impression in the white rose county. Nigel was voted the club's greatest ever keeper in a poll of supporters. This was some achievement considering eight of the side played in the Don Revie era. 

His time in Yorkshire ended on a sour note. The stopper fell out with Terry Venables. Martyn moved to Everton in 2002 and continued to turn in top notch performances.

Nigel Martyn won 23 caps for England and would have won many more but for the presence of David Seaman and Tim Flowers.

STUART PEARCE

The only England manager who could moonlight as an electrician, Stuart Pearce always had a second career to fall back on. Psycho worked as a sparky in the early Eighties. At weekends he turned out for Wealdstone in the Southern League. Pearce soon came to the attention of Coventry City, with the Sky Blues signing the full back in 1982.

His move to the Midlands was a triumph for persistence. Pearce had earlier been rejected by Queens Park Rangers and Hull City. He took to league football like a duck to water. I can remembering him starring in a Coventry win over Liverpool.

He moved to Nottingham Forest in 1985 and enjoyed a decade of success at the City Ground. Pearce was a tremendous player. Meaty tackles helped shore up the Forest rearguard. He never shirked a challenge. This robust approach earned him the psycho nickname. He was no slouch going forward either, scoring 63 goals for the Tricky Trees. Many of those goals came from set pieces. His cannonball shot made him a constant danger from free-kicks. He went on to give sterling service to Newcastle United, West Ham and Manchester City.

At his peak Stuart Pearce was one of the finest left backs in the world and represented his country 78 times.

So there you have it. Who is the greatest player to have worked his way up through the ranks? Les Ferdinand, Grant Holt, Nigel Martyn, Stuart Pearce or maybe there's someone Steve has overlooked who you think is worthy of the crown. Whatever your view we'd love to hear from you.

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