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Making the jump into League football – a study of National League transfers

By: Andy Cooper

Since it was founded in 1979, the National League has been providing a platform for generations of young footballers to make the step-up to League football and for non-league clubs to potentially earn large windfalls in transfer fees.

However, recent evidence would suggest that the standard of football between elite non-league level and the lower reaches of the Football League may not be as big as it once was.

During the last ten years, of the twenty clubs that have been promoted to the Football League, eight have gone on to secure promotion to League One and in the case of Burton Albion, promotion again into the Championship. Burton remain in the second tier, with AFC Wimbledon, Fleetwood Town, Oxford United and Bristol Rovers still in League One. In contrast, only three clubs promoted during this time have dropped back into the non-league.

This success, which has coincided with a major improvement in the quality of playing surfaces and a sustained push by several non-league clubs to go full-time, would indicate that the standard of the competition is constantly improving. This is a point backed up by three current National League club staff on a recent podcast.

As a result, the requirement for a Football League club to profile all of the players in the National League, for recruitment purposes, is now more important than ever. To back this point up, here are just a few examples of transfers involving National League players in recent years, which doesn’t include the most high profile transfer of all, Jamie Vardy.

Name From To Fee (reported)
Andre Gray Luton Town Brentford £500,000
Marcus Maddison Gateshead Peterborough United £250,000
Sam Hughes Chester FC Leicester City £130,000
Jordan Williams Barrow Rochdale £100,000
Luke Maxwell Kidderminster Harriers Birmingham City £75,000
Shilow Tracey Ebbsfleet United Tottenham Hotspur Undisclosed
Tyrese Shade Solihull Moors Leicester City Undisclosed
Jarrod Bowen Hereford United Hull City Free

Having quickly identified these players as having made successful moves up the football pyramid, we thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to do further research on all transfers involving National League players.

Therefore, we have looked at all transfers during the past four seasons to see how many players have moved directly to Premier League and Football League clubs, starting with the recent January transfer window.

Transfers: January 2018

In total, fourteen players left the National League for League clubs in January, including two players who moved directly to Premier League clubs. Six players were signed by League Two clubs, four by League One clubs and two by Championship clubs.

Name Position From To Fee
Jack Withers Defender (Central) Boston United Swansea City Undisclosed
Joe White Forward (Striker) Dagenham & Redbridge Stevenage Undisclosed
Oladapo Afolayan Forward (Striker) Solihull Moors West Ham United Undisclosed
Abobaker Eisa Midfield (General Winger) Wealdstone Shrewsbury Town Undisclosed
Stuart Moore Goalkeeper Barrow Swindon Town Free
Jonathan Maxted Goalkeeper Guiseley Accrington Stanley Undisclosed
Luke Hannant Midfield (Central) Gateshead Port Vale Undisclosed
Joe Pigott Forward (Striker) Maidstone United AFC Wimbledon Undisclosed
Bernard Mensah Forward (Striker) Aldershot Town Bristol Rovers Undisclosed
Connor Simpson Forward (Striker) Hartlepool United Preston North End Undisclosed
Joe Ward Midfield (Right Winger) Woking Peterborough United Undisclosed
Dayle Grubb Forward (Striker) Weston-super-mare Forest Green Rovers Undisclosed
Victor Sodeinde Forward (Striker) Maidstone United Nottingham Forest Undisclosed
Alex Whittle Midfield (Left Winger) York City Forest Green Rovers Free

Interestingly, the vast majority of players who moved would be classified as creative or attacking players (7 forwards and 3 wide players). The only defender to move, Jack Withers, was a youth team player and has yet to make a senior league appearance for any club.

Four-Year Transfer Breakdown

Whilst the January window offers us an interesting recent snapshot of transfer activity, we have also taken a more extensive look at permanent transfers over a four-year period.

In terms of the number of players who have moved up the pyramid, it transpires that on average more than 42 players have made a move into League football each year. In both of the last two seasons the number has stood at 47, which is the equivalent of two entire first-team squads.

Not surprisingly League One and League Two have been the main destination for National League players, but there has also been 23 players over the four-year period who have moved directly to clubs in the top two tiers of English football.

Permanent Transfers from National League Clubs to Premier League and EFL Clubs: June 2014-Present

League 2014/15 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 Total
Premier League 1 2 0 4 7
Championship 4 4 6 2 16
League One 12 7 11 16 46
League Two 24 21 30 25 100
TOTAL 41 34 47 47 169

When we looked at the clubs who have lost players, arranged by division, it transpires that the vast majority of players have been recruited from National League Premier clubs. However there are also examples of players who have jumped straight from the sixth tier (North and South) into the Football League, including four in the recent transfer window.

Total Number of Players who have been sold/lost to Premier League or EFL Clubs, arranged by Division: June 2014-Present

League 2014/15 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 Total
National League 29 25 33 40 (10) 127
National North 6 4 8 5 (2) 23
National South 7 4 6 2 (2) 19
TOTAL 42 33 47 47 169

Transfers that occurred during 2018 January transfer window listed in brackets.

Having established that League One and League Two tends to be the main destination for departing National League players, we have also tried to identify the clubs who have signed the most players from this level during the past four years.

The top two clubs on the list are both former National League members, Newport County and Stevenage. Peterborough are another club with a reputation for recruiting non-league players, so it will come as no surprise that they appear high on the list as well.

More surprisingly, Championship side Barnsley are joint fourth on the total list, however four of the players were signed when they were a League One club.

EFL clubs who have recruited the most players from National League Clubs: June 2014-present

Club No. Players
Newport County 14
Stevenage 10
Accrington Stanley 9
Barnsley 7
Hartlepool United* 7
Peterborough United 7
Shrewsbury Town 6
Barnet 6

* = only includes transfers which occurred when Hartlepool United were a League club

After identifying the clubs who have recruited the most players, we also thought it was worth looking to see if there were specific National League clubs who have seen a large number of their players transfer to Premier League or Football League clubs.

Top of the list is a club currently in the sixth tier, Kidderminster Harriers, however most of their players moved whilst they were operating at the level above.

Interestingly, three of the top five clubs listed have since gone on to secure promotion into the Football League, which indicates that despite losing key players, they have been effective at replacing them once they have departed.

National League clubs who have sold/lost the most players to Premier League and EFL clubs: June 2014-present

Club No. Players
Kidderminster Harriers 9
Forest Green Rovers 8*
Grimsby Town 7*
Lincoln City 7*
Macclesfield Town 7
Torquay United 7
Woking 7
Aldershot Town 6
Gateshead 6

* = only includes transfers which occurred when the club were in the National League


Having looked at all of the transfers over the four-year period, it would seem that the number of National League players being recruited by clubs in each of the four tiers above has remained relatively stable. However there was a noticeable increase in the number of players who moved straight into League One during the current season.

Likewise, it seems that the number of players being recruited straight from National League North and South level hasn’t fluctuated drastically either. It will be interesting to see if this changes at all during the coming years.

In terms of the seven players who have been signed by Premier League clubs, it is worth noting that none of them were older than 20 when they were recruited and in the cases of three of them, before they had even kicked a ball at first-team level. This suggests that if an older player performs consistently to a high level for a National League club, it is highly unlikely they will make the step-up directly to the Premier League.

It will also be interesting to see if there will be any changes in the profile of clubs who frequently recruit players from non-league. Is it a coincidence that the two clubs who have signed the most players are former National League clubs? Or is it because their staff are more familiar with the challenges of both competitions and as a result, have more faith in the players being able to make the step-up?

Either way, one thing we can be sure about is like the hundreds who have gone before them, players present and future will continue to take the well-trodden path from non-league into the higher echelons of English football. The question is, will the number of players increase and if so, at what rate, in the years to come?