From AFC Portchester Reserves to scoring the winner against Bolton Wanderers, why Tommy Leigh’s story makes an embarrassment of Premier League arrogance – Simon Carter
As recently as May 2017, a year after being released from the Pompey Academy, Tommy Leigh was playing for AFC Portchester. Not the first team, but for the reserves in the Wyvern Combination, probably in front of the proverbial one man and his dog.
Two years on, he was in the first team at Baffins Milton Rovers. But down in the Wessex League Premier Division, the ninth tier of English football, far, far removed from the professional game, the teenager could have been forgiven for wondering if his Blues chance would be his only shot at glory.
Last weekend, Leigh - still only 21 - scored the winner against a former Premier League club, Bolton Wanderers, in only his third League 1 start for Accrington Stanley. Last month, after scoring on his first EFL start, he made his second start against another huge name in English football, Sheffield Wednesday.
Tommy Leigh - four goals in his last six professional games, if you include the EFL Trophy - appears to be taking his second chance. It is a heartwarming story, and at this moment in time God knows we could do with more of them.
‘Everything good in English football sits in the Premier League.’ They were the dismal 10 words uttered by Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow last month as he criticised the government's fan-led review of English football, swatting aside all calls for top flight clubs to introduce an independent regulator.
Those 10 words sum up the arrogance of many involved in the Premier League. Tommy Leigh’s story proves Purslow so very, very wrong. Some of the best elements of English football belong at the levels Leigh was playing at not so long ago. And if you want the best stories, you simply have to look outside the top four tiers. Purslow might not like it, but non-league football has always been the beating heart of Pele’s beautiful game.
In recent years, the best Premier League story - bar none - was Leicester’s title success. And the man whose goals played a major part in that remarkable success? Why, the same man who five years earlier was playing in the seventh tier for Stockbridge Park Steels in Yorkshire, Jamie Vardy.
Vardy’s story is pure Hollywood in these days of wall-to-wall coverage of the Premier League. But … pause to insert tongue in cheek ... for those of us who can remember football before Sky invented it in 1992, it was hardly new.
Ian Wright’s journey from Dulwich Hamlet striker to Arsenal title winner inside five years in the 1980s is a wonderful tale. So, too, Cyrille Regis who went almost straight from Hayes to West Bromwich Albion’s first team in 1977, and later won five England caps and the FA Cup with Coventry, after being signed for an initial £5,000.
Prior to that, Steve Heighway was playing for Skelmersdale United when he was spotted by Liverpool. He went on to win the European Cup twice, four First Division titles, two UEFA Cups, an FA Cup and a League Cup. That’s some story, from an era where our country’s richest clubs weren’t all consumed about wanting to become even richer.
I’m a football fan who just loves to see non-league players getting a chance in the top four divisions. I appreciate Premier League ‘tourists’ - the ones with their mobile phones glued to their hands in a bid to catch a pic of Salah or Ronaldo, the sort of ‘fans’ I have little time for - might have a different opinion. When I was growing up, such transfers happened far more often - and far more spectacularly - than they do now, or will ever do again.
Tommy Leigh’s story is a good one, but it pales into near insignificance compared to that of David Leworthy. After 25 goals for Fareham Town in 1983/84, Leworthy won an astonishing move to Tottenham. The following year, in April 1985, he made his Spurs first team debut against Arsenal. From Fareham to a north London derby in front of over 40,000 within 12 months! Fareham were a Southern League club at the time, in the sixth tier of English football compared to the ninth tier they currently reside in, but still. Imagine a Hawks player - say, James Roberts or Billy Clifford - being signed by Tottenham today.
Another former Fareham striker, Paul Moody, was at Waterlooville in the summer of 1991 when he was signed by Southampton. Again, from the sixth tier to the top flight in the blink of an eye. Imagine Saints signing Hawks striker Tommy Wright today. But that was football back then, three decades ago, before the money men moved in.
Moody had been signed by Waterlooville three years earlier to replace Guy Whittingham, who had moved up the non-league ladder to join Yeovil Town. The same Guy Whittingham who in 1991/92 would break Pompey’s seasonal goalscoring record.
Whittingham wasn’t the first striker plucked from non-league football who would enjoy a superb Fratton Park career. Back in the mid 1960s, the Blues signed Ray Hirons from Fareham, then a Hampshire League club. Whittingham wasn’t the last either - Lee Bradbury had started out at Cowes Sports.
Look at the England team that was agonisingly close to reaching the 1990 World Cup final. Chris Waddle - started out at non-leaguers Tow Law Town, famously working in a sausage factory when he was spotted by Newcastle. Stuart Pearce - played five years in non-league football for Wealdstone. On the bench was Steve Bull, who five years earlier was playing for Tipton Town. Peter Beardsley and Paul Parker started out in the Third Division, for Carlisle and Fulham. Two years prior to his wonder goal against Belgium - still one of my favourite ever England goals - I saw David Platt playing for Crewe in the fourth tier.
Vinny Jones went from working on a building site and playing for Wealdstone to being part of one of the FA Cup’s greatest stories. When I was growing up, Wimbledon, Coventry, Oxford United, Luton, and West Ham won major trophies. Watford and Southampton finished second in the top flight. There was more of a level playing field than any Premier League Johnny Come Lately would ever recognise, and it was something special.
There are always rough diamonds playing non-league football, the trick is being able to find and develop those players. A bit of spot and polish, so to speak. And it takes a brave EFL manager to look outside the professional game in a social media dominated era where most fans crave instant success.
Of course, it is different at Accrington Stanley. Their boss, John Coleman, is battling different expectations to those put on Danny Cowley. It is easier to be braver when you haven’t got thousands of impatient supporters on your back. It is easier to be braver and sign players from sixth tier Leamington (top scorer Colby Bishop) and seventh tier Bognor Regis (Leigh) when you know you could never afford a John Marquis or Charlie Wyke.
Fans of Pompey, Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland, Bolton and Charlton will no doubt fondly recall the days of Premier League plenty, furiously milking Murdoch’s cash cow. They would all expect to beat ‘little’ Accrington with their small crowds and lesser budget. But, gloriously, football doesn’t always work like that. I remember Ipswich winning the European Cup Winners Cup; now they’re below Accrington Stanley in the league and losing to Barrow in the FA Cup. Brilliant.
It’s because I’ve always supported an unfashionable club with no history of success - Exeter City - that I love an underdog story. My first terrace idol, Tony Kellow, was signed from non-league Falmouth Town in 1976. Five years later he struck a hat-trick that knocked top flight Leicester (Gary Lineker included) out of the FA Cup.
Thankfully, there is still a place for romance at the top level, though the owners of the biggest clubs who were so keen on a European Super League obviously hate the fact. Eddie Howe has never got the recognition he deserves for taking Bournemouth from the bottom of the fourth tier into the Premier League, and keeping them there for five seasons. Bournemouth! When I was growing up, I didn’t think they were any bigger than Exeter.
Same with Brentford. Back in 2008/09, not that long ago at all, Exeter finished as runners-up in the fourth tier. Just behind Brentford. Look where they are now - another incredible story. The Premier League wasn’t set up to welcome clubs like Brentford or Bournemouth.
And look who’s a regular in the Bees team, Ethan Pinnock. The same Ethan Pinnock who played for Dulwich Hamlet in the eighth tier of English football. The same level that, until this season, Moneyfields played at.
Like Tommy Leigh, Ethan Pinnock is an inspiration to all the ambitious youngsters in non-league football.
Leigh is by no means the first player to go from the Wessex League to the professional ranks.
I give you Jody Craddock, Harry Cornick, Brennan Dickinson and Michael Green (recently retired after a short spell at Hawks) - and all four of those played for the same club, Christchurch.
I also give you Jason Prior (Moneyfields), Charlie Austin (Poole), Simon Moore (Brading), Jordan Rose (Brockenhurst), Jason Rockett (Havant Town) and Guy Madjo (Petersfield).
Apart from Austin, Christian Purslow probably hasn’t heard of any of those players. He’s well aware, though, of a striker who spent time at Weston-super-Mare in the Southern League in 2014/15.
That was Ollie Watkins, a teenager on loan from Exeter at the time. Another heartwarming tale, therefore, which began a long way away from the Premier League bubble. I repeat - those are the best stories in football.