The footballing non-leagues are often thought of as the glass ceiling for players who weren’t quite sharp enough to break into the sport’s upper echelons. But there are a handful of players who ascended through the ranks, enjoyed successful careers but continued to play or manage long past their supposed “sell by” date in these divisions, proving that age really is just another useless statistic. We did the research and came up with 11 of the most surprising and most famous non league footballers.
In no particular order…
A name that will certainly ring a few bells around the heads of Manchester United fans, Luke Chadwick made 25 league appearances for the Red Devils before heading to the Football League in search of more first team opportunities, which he found in various clubs including MK Dons and Norwich City. Chadwick re-joined boyhood club Cambridge United to help them back to the football league and after a season in league two, went back to the non-leagues with Soham Town Rangers. Now that is a storied career.
A holder of a Champion’s League winner’s medal despite not playing for a single second of European action as a result of sitting on Manchester United’s bench during the now famous ’99 final, Jonathan Greening led a successful career. He amassed 387 senior appearances for clubs including Middlesbrough, West Brom and most notably Fulham, helping them to the 2010 Europa League final.
After returning to York City for a single season, Greening went on to play for non-league side Tadcaster Albion, showing that at 38 there is still sporting life well beyond the professional ranks.
In his professional career, it wouldn’t have been hyperbolic to describe Lee Hughes as ‘prolific’. Hughes scored over 300 goals up and down the leagues for several different clubs, including West Brom, Oldham Athletic, Coventry City and Notts County. However, Hughes has proved that there is in fact life after professional football with a so far successful career in the non-leagues. Spending two seasons as a player at Worcester City, he’s proving that he’s still got the sharp edge he had as a pro, scoring 28 goals in 48 games since he signed.
Yep, unbelievably even Paul Merson has appeared in the non-leagues, albeit in short spells. The former Arsenal ace enjoyed a successful Premier League career before joining Conference side Tamworth in 2006. He clearly relished the chance to tear up the non-leagues as he even came back for brief spells with Whitton Athletic and Welshpool Town. There’s life in this old gunner yet.
Yep, he might be more famous these days for bathing in bugs on I’m a Celeb than for his sometimes-masterful passing (and very questionable celebrations) in the Premier League but even Jimmy Bullard has dipped his toes in the non-leagues’ less sparkling waters. In 2016 Bullard was appointed as manager of Leatherhead FC and enjoyed a successful record, proving that footballing smarts never truly leave you, no matter how many bushtucker trials you’re subjected to.
What potential Danny Webber might’ve had. He began his career as a trainee at none other than Manchester United, progressing through what was then an acclaimed youth system at an impressive rate. He eventually graduated to the senior team but failed to make an impression, which resulted in a series of loan spells and long stays at Watford and Sheffield United. Webber spent the last two years of his playing career at Salford City (managed by the next entrants in our list…) before retiring to focus on his work for a football agency. We’ll never know what might’ve happened had he realised those early glimpses of greatness.
All of The Class of ‘92
By far the most high-profile entrants on this list, when The Class of ’92 (Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt) jointly acquired Salford City in 2014 they took the world of non-league by storm and shone a spotlight on these lower divisions. They’ve plucked Salford from obscurity and today are just two promotions away from playing in League Two.