7 Non-League talents who could make it big in 2017

There is little doubt that non-league football is on the up. The rise of Jamie Vardy last season and the fairytale FA Cup stories of Sutton United and Lincoln City this year have rejuvenated England’s semi-professional leagues.

Non-league clubs are looking up and the communities that support them, often voluntarily and from the goodness of their own hearts, are being renewed and bolstered.

Fans turning away from what is increasingly perceived as the more transactional, cold world of top-level modern football, where fans are seen as customers and little more. Instead they are switching to non-league football, where you can stand on the terrace next to your mates, drink a beer and enjoy feeling a genuine part of your local club – all for an affordable price.

It would be cliché to claim that the following players are Vardys in the making. He was long-listed for the Ballon D’Or, after all. But after the rise of players like Freddie Ladapo (Margate to Crystal Palace) and Cohen Bramall (Hednesford Town to Arsenal), here are seven non-league players to keep an eye on in the coming months. All have the ability to push into pro football in 2017…

(Note that in this list we aren’t necessarily selecting the best players in non-league today, or we’d have picked older and more experienced players like Ricky Miller and others. Rather, here are the ones we feel have big chances of pushing into pro football before the end of 2017…)

Best talents in non-league: 7 to keep an eye on

Sam Hughes (Chester FC)

A good centre-back is hard to find these days. Thus, the few talented ones around rapidly attract interest like bees to honey. Case in point: Chester FC defender Sam Hughes.

The 19-year-old defender only made his full Chester debut a year ago and is experiencing regular Conference football for the first time this season. Yet pro clubs are already flocking to watch the teenager, and it seems very unlikely he’ll be a non-league player for much longer.

SEE ALSO: Aston Villa send scouts to watch non-league talent Sam Hughes

Hughes has good stature and is a composed, solid defender with plenty of development potential. He’s also popped up with a few goals for Chester this season, and can be dominant in the air. Cue the interest.

Barnsley had a £50,000 bid turned down in January, while other Championship clubs are reportedly keen, Wolves and Aston Villa among them. The Chester Chronicle even reported that Premier League clubs are taking notice. 

Hughes is out of contract this summer and so a tribunal would decide any fee should compensation not be agreed, but the widespread interest is both a sign of Hughes’ undoubted potential and of the value for young players in gaining senior experience at whatever level possible.

Chances of making it pro? 10/10

Idris Kanu (Aldershot Town)

An attacking midfielder or forward who likes to entertain, teenager Idris Kanu is most certainly a non-league talent to watch. Formerly at West Ham United’s academy, Kanu doesn’t turn 18 until December but is already attracting the attention of some of England’s biggest clubs.

The youngster had trials at Manchester United as a 16-year-old, but instead is enjoying the challenge of playing men’s football in the National League for Aldershot Town, having described Under-18s football as ‘too easy’.

Kanu’s driving runs and enterprising style of play excite Shots fans, and word has spread fast. Arsenal and Leicester City are among the clubs to have shown an interest in the youngster, but given his evident distaste for academy football – not to mention a two-year deal at Aldershot signed not long ago – prising Idris Kanu out of non-league football will not be straightforward.

Chances of making it pro? 9/10

Sam Habergham (Lincoln City)

A central part of the Lincoln City side that reached the FA Cup quarter finals in style, Sam Habergham is one of Lincoln manager Danny Cowley‘s stalwarts. Formerly contracted to Norwich City’s academy, Habergham was part of the Braintree Town team that stunned the Conference last season in reaching the play-off semi-finals – despite having one of the division’s poorest budgets. 

Such success soon saw Cowley move on to Lincoln, and he immediately took reliable left-back Habergham with him. With two goals and nine assists in 36 games this season Habergham is a dependable defender more than comfortable at this level.

He should push up into the Football League next season, possibly with Lincoln who are flying high at the top of the league.

Chances of making it pro? 8/10

Tom McHale (Truro City)

While he no doubt has some technical elements of his game that could improve, 21-year-old goalkeeper Tom McHale has the potential to play at a much higher level, and should push up the leagues within the next few seasons.

Tall, vocal and already a leader, McHale broke into the team at Conference South Truro City at just 19, before heading out on loan to Weymouth FC this season. There, fans have praised his shot-stopping ability and propensity to pull quality saves out of the bag on a regular basis.

McHale has become something of a fans’ favourite at Weymouth, regularly praised on one local fans’ podcast for his part in shoring up the Terras’ defence. 

As with any young keeper, certain aspects like coming for crosses and positional sense can improve, but McHale already looks a cut above his current level. And don’t forget, he’s playing in the most mentally challenging position on the field for a young player.

“I feel safe with him in goal,” Weymouth manager Jason Matthews enthused – shortly before Truro realised the error of their ways in loaning McHale out and promptly recalled him straight back into their first team. 

Chances of making it pro? 8/10

Dan Wishart (Forest Green Rovers)

Perhaps the best left-sided player in non-league, Dan Wishart must have been kicking himself when the FA Cup last 16 draw came out pitting Sutton United against Premier League big boys Arsenal. Wishart was comfortably Sutton’s best player before moving to Forest Green Rovers earlier in the campaign to progress his career.

The 24-year-old marauding left-back had been very close to sealing a move into the Football League, but eventually it was Conference promption-chasers Forest Green that got the deal done. Had he waited a while longer Wishart would have been displaying his powerful running and dynamic style of play down Sutton’s left side against Arsenal on national TV rather than watching his former teammates from the stands as he did.

“Dan was close to joining a League One team last season,” revealed Forest Green boss Mark Cooper after concluding the deal for the England ‘C’ international last October. “[He] is a powerful, offensive left-back, who used to be a left-winger and he scores goals.”

Wishart hasn’t quite kicked on at Forest Green as might have been expected, but it would be no surprise if he does move up to League One level or beyond before long.

Chances of making it pro? 9/10

Max Watters (Barking FC on loan from Thurrock)

Shenfield High School student Max Watters hasn’t had too much experience of non-league football, truth be told. But in the short amount of playing time the 17-year-old has managed, both for parent club Thurrock FC and on loan at Essex Senior League outfit Barking FC, he has shown thrilling promise.

Four goals in his first seven appearances for table-toppers Barking led to a call-up to the England Schoolboys team. There, the Essex County under-18 star has again stood out, hitting a goal and assist on his debut. This has brought the attention of pro clubs, who have been seen parading the terraces at Barking to watch the exhilarating wide forward.

Chances of making it pro? 7/10

Sam Barratt (Maidenhead United)

One of the most sought-after young talents in non-league football, 21-year-old Maidenhead starlet Sam Barratt has previously had trials at Crystal Palace, and Bristol Rovers last summer, and has been watched by scouts from several pro clubs this season.

A left winger blessed with a crafty left foot and superb set-piece delivery, Barratt has four goals and eight assists this season despite not being a regular starter for the Magpies. A sign of his undoubted potential.

SEE ALSO: Gems of Non-League – Meet Maidenhead’s non-league wonderkid Sam Barratt

Being more consistent is the next challenge, as well as making the most of his wand of a left foot. Work on those two aspects and he will be well known to fans at a professional club before long.

Chances of making it pro? 8/10

Who are the best talents in non-league in your opinion? Any we should add to the list? Let us know in the comments below.

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