The Vanarama National League column – stars of the future?
BY Glenn Moore, FWA member and former Independent football editor
Will it be Joe Ward? Will it be Joe Pigott? Will it be Bernard Mensah? Since Jamie Vardy proved potential England forwards could still be found in non-League football, not just back in the days when Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand and Alan Smith were in the part-time game, scouts have been flocking to the Vanarama National League.
This window, a cluster of promising players have moved into the Football League with that trio of attacking players to the fore. Winger Ward so impressed Peterborough when playing against them for Woking in the FA Cup the Posh signed the 22-year-old. Pigott, 24, was snapped up this week by AFC Wimbledon having scored 12 goals for Maidstone United this season. Mensah also went to a League One club in Bristol Rovers after shining for Aldershot.
Like Vardy, who began at Sheffield Wednesday but was released, all three players had been at league clubs earlier in their careers but had struggled to make the grade. Regular football in the Vanarama National League has enabled them to rebuild their confidence, match themselves against seasoned professionals, and gain experience in an environment where results matter far more than in age-group football.
Peterborough have long scoured non-League for players, a reflection of Barry Fry’s influence at the club. Ward follows the likes of Craig Mackail-Smith and George Boyd, both of whom went on to play for Scotland, Aaron McLean, now back in the Vanarama National League with Ebbsfleet after a decade in the full-time ranks, and current London Road winger Marcus Maddison.
It is Ward’s second attempt at cracking the Football League after joining Brighton & Hove Albion from Chelmsford City at 19. That did not work out but he is now more experienced and is making a smaller step up. “He wanted to play regular football and he took the opportunity in the National League and credit to him for that,” said Posh boss Grant McCann. “”He brings pace, energy and can go past people.”
Piggott came through the ranks at Charlton, where he made 16 appearances, then had a series of loans before joining Cambridge United. One goal in 17 matches led to a further loan, to the Stones, a year ago, but he did well enough at the Gallagher Stadium to win a permanent deal and has continued to prosper. He now joins a club that is no stranger to resurrection stories.
Mensah was a Watford youth product, but only made two appearances for the Hornets. Joining Aldershot in June 2016 he has flourished with regular football.
A pair Vanarama National League South players have also secured moves, Wealdstone defender Ciaron Brown leaping up four levels into the Championship with promotion-chasing Cardiff City. Brown, 20, had only been at Wealdstone 18 months after joining from Combined Counties League side Bedfont Sports. Goalscoring midfielder Dayle Grubb left Weston-Super-Mare for Forest Green. The move means the 26-year-old will have to leave his job as a sports teacher but he feels it is a risk worth taking to follow the dream of a pro career after nine years at Weston.
All these players will be hoping to be the next Vardy, or, if not that, maybe another Glenn Murray or Dwight Gayle, and prove, like those Premier League strikers, there are rough diamonds to be found in the Vanarama League for those that look.