On 18 May 2012, Leicester City forked out a cool £1m to bring Jamie Vardy all the way from the Conference to the Championship, breaking a non-League transfer record in the process.
Eight years, 126 goals, one Premier League title and one…….. Rebekah Vardy later, we can all agree that it was money exceptionally well spent.
Vardy is not the first player to be plucked from non-League obscurity to go onto great things though, so where does he rank among his fellow National League zero to hero stories?
9 – Andre Gray
Having been released by Shrewsbury, Gray was picked up by Hinckley United in English football’s seventh tier, before moving to Conference side Luton in 2012.
His 30-goal haul helped the Hatters to the Conference title during the 2013/14 season, persuading Championship outfit Brentford to take the gamble on bringing him to Griffin Park.
By 2016, he was playing Premier League football for Burnley, having fired the Clarets to promotion with 25 goals in the Championship.
To date, he has over 20 goals in England’s top flight.
8 – Charlie Austin
Austin spent his teenage years working his way up through the football pyramid; first at Kintbury Rangers, then Hungerford Town, Thatcham Town and finally Poole Town, where he balanced playing with his career as a bricklayer.
His astonishing goal scoring record at Poole – 46 goals in 46 appearances during the 2008/09 season – tempted League One side Swindon Town to offer him a trial.
Austin has been similarly prolific at every level since, and just five years on from playing semi-professional football with Poole, he earned his first shot at the Premier League with QPR in 2014.
Now a Premier League mainstay, Austin received an England call-up in 2015 for his exploits with QPR, but didn’t feature for the Three Lions.
7 – Michail Antonio
Antonio made his senior football bow at the age of 17 for Tooting and Mitcham, having joined the eighth tier side at the age of 12.
Reading signed him at the age of 18, and by the age of 25, Antonio was in the Premier League with West Ham via spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest.
The king of versatility has looked right at home in the top flight since, scooping West Ham’s Player of the Year award during the 2016/17 season and has made well over 100 top flight appearances.
Antonio has also received two England call-ups, but is yet to make his international debut.
6 – Tyrone Mings
Mings was plying his trade with Chippenham Town and working as a mortgage advisor when Championship outfit Ipswich paid £10,000 to bring him to Portman Road.
After playing understudy to Aaron Cresswell for a season and a half, Mings came into his own when his former teammate moved to West Ham and was rewarded with an £8m move to Premier League side Bournemouth following a single season of first team Championship football.
Injuries plagued his time with the Cherries, but since Dean Smith brought him to Aston Villa and converted him into a centre half, Mings has flourished, earning his first England caps in November 2019 and a reputation as one of the country’s top centre backs with an eye-watering market value.
5 – Steve Finnan
Finnan has the arguably best claim to fame in the whole of football: he is the only player to have played in the World Cup, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup, Intertoto Cup and the top five tiers of English football. And with no Intertoto Cup anymore, that niche record should remain Finnan’s forever.
The fullback holds this proud record thanks to the two years he spent with Welling City at the start of his career, before Birmingham forked out £100,000 to secure his signature.
Within seven years of making his final appearance for Welling, Finnan was playing in the top flight with Fulham, before spending five years at Liverpool, winning the FA Cup and Champions League in the process.
The right back was also capped 52 times for the Republic or Ireland, representing his country at the 2002 World Cup.
4 – Chris Smalling
Smalling was plying his trade for Maidstone United and planning to go to university that autumn when Premier League side Fulham signed him in 2008.
His meteoric rise continued when just 18 months later Manchester United paid just over £7m to bring him to Old Trafford.
Smalling has gone on to win the Premier League twice, the FA Cup, the Europa League, and represent his country at two major tournaments.
Prior to the break, the former Maidstone centre half could be found in Serie A, enjoying something of a career renaissance with Roma.
3 – Les Ferdinand
Ferdinand began his career with non-League side AEL, before moving to Southall and then Hayes, where he was scouted by top-flight side QPR.
The Rs paid £50,000 to bring Ferdinand to Loftus Road, where he would stay for eight hugely successful seasons, before moving to Newcastle and then Tottenham.
Ferdinand won PFA Player of the Year during his debut season at St James’ Park, and his 149 top flight goals make him the eighth highest scorer in Premier League history. The forward also made 17 appearances for England, and went to two major tournaments with the Three Lions.
2- Jamie Vardy
Vardy had spells at Stocksbridge Park Steels and Halifax Town before signing for Fleetwood, where his 31 league goals during the 2011/12 season famously helped seal his big money move to Leicester City.
Within two years he had helped guide the club to promotion to the top flight, and a further two years later Andrea Bocelli was singing at the King Power as the Foxes were crowned Premier League champions. Such a rapid rise to stardom had not been seen since Santiago Munez won the Champions League with Real Madrid.
Vardy’s 24 goals helped Leicester to the title, and he went to the European Championships with England that summer. The arrival of Brendan Rodgers at Leicester has reignited the 33-year-old’s spark, with Vardy a good bet for the 2019/20 Golden Boot.
1- Ian Wright
After an assortment of trials and rejections, Crystal Palace signed Wright from Greenwich Borough at the age of 21.
His goals helped fire Palace to promotion, before famously scoring twice in the remarkable 1990 FA Cup final. At the age of 28, Wright finally earned his big move to Arsenal.
The striker won the Premier League and FA Cup with the Gunners, and hit 113 Premier League goals in the process. He is the club’s all time second top scorer, his strike rate bettered only by Thierry Henry.
Wright also represented England 33 times, scoring nine goals.