There’s a few pathways that players take on their way to English Football’s elite. Some have to work their way up from the very bottom, a recent example is Jamie Vardy, who helped Leicester to their famous Premier League title-winning season having began his career in non-league with Stocksbridge Park Steels. Others make their debut at the top and stay there throughout their careers, like Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard to name a few. But which Premier League players first made a name for themselves in the third tier of English football before going on to have impressive careers at the top level?
Yes, believe it or not Harry Kane was a League One football player. Technically speaking, he was only on loan whilst contracted to Premier League Tottenham, but the England Captain in fact made his professional debut for Leyton Orient in the third division. It was on the 15th January 2011, when a 17-year-old Kane came off the bench away at Rochdale to make his first ever appearance. A week later Kane was handed his first start and yes, you guessed it, scored his first ever professional goal in a 4-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday as the forward got on the end of a Dean Cox free-kick to get the first of many.
The future England superstar, bagged a brace from the bench a few weeks later in a 4-1 win over Bristol Rovers and went on to score a total of five goals in 18 appearances at League One level before a number of loan spells in the Championship.
It comes as no real news, that since then, Kane has gone on to become one of the deadliest strikers in the world, with (at time of writing) 190 Premier League goals, 51 England goals in 75 caps and three Premier League golden boots on his mantle piece. It seems only a matter of time before Harry Kane cements his name in Premier League folklore for eternity as he quickly chases that 260 goal record currently held by Alan Shearer, with Wayne Rooney’s 53 goal England record all but beaten at this point. On track to go down as the best English goalscorer of all time the one thing that the former Leyton Orient loanee will be desperate to add to his illustrious career is a major trophy win for either his beloved Spurs or for his country.
Another England international, another captain of the ‘big six’ and another Harry, Maguire also broke through in the third tier of English Football. Growing up in the small village of Mosborough just outside of Sheffield, Harry came through the ranks at his boyhood Blades where he made his professional debut in the Championship as a teenager in 2011. Making five appearances in the 2010/11 season, Maguire was unable to save the Steel City club from relegation to League One.
Having played as a midfielder at youth level, Maguire’s composure on the ball as a young centre back was one of the impressive traits which made him a mainstay in the United team the following season, with the future England star scoring his first ever goal in Sheffield United’s 2011/12 opening day win over Oldham Athletic. That year Maguire went on to win the club’s ‘Player of the Year’ award whilst being named in the Match of the Day Magazine’s League One Team of the Year as United narrowly missed out on promotion finishing third before a Playoff Final penalty defeat. The Blades defender went on to make over 100 appearances in League One before Hull City splashed £2.5 million to bring the youngster to the Premier League.
After initially finding minutes hard to come by at his new club, Maguire gradually forced his way into the team after relegation to the Championship in 2015 gave him the chance to impress. Hull City bounced back immediately, winning promotion back to the top flight via the playoffs in 2015/16 with Maguire able to become a much more prominent team member in the Premier League the second time around. The Tigers would unfortunately be relegated again that season, however Maguire had done enough to earn a move to former Premier League champions, Leicester City, who paid a starting fee of £12 million for the defender’s services.
After two solid years at the King Power along with an impressive 2018 World Cup for England, Maguire became the most expensive defender in history, signing for Manchester United in 2019 for a whopping £80 million. Since that move, Maguire has had an up and down career at Old Trafford, splitting the opinions of many.
One thing is for sure though, Maguire has achieved an incredible amount since coming through as a teen who was relegated with Sheffield United. World record fees, captaining one of the biggest clubs in the world, smashing a penalty into the top corner during a Euros Final and the list goes on. Currently in a bit of a crisis of form it’s hard to know where the 29-year-old’s career will go from here, but he has shown that on his day Maguire has the minerals to be a top defender.
Somewhat similar to the Jamie Vardy story, Michail Antonio started his career with non-league Tooting and Mitcham United before getting his big move to Reading at the age of 18. Finding Championship chances slim, it was loan spells to League One that really ignited Antonio’s career.
Operating as a winger in his earlier years, Antonio enjoyed a productive loan at Southampton during the 2009/10 season, scoring three times in 28 third division appearances. A few seasons later, Antonio would join Colchester United on loan in 2011, where he impressed during the first half of the season scoring four goals in 15 games, earning him a move further up the table to promotion contenders Sheffield Wednesday. Making his Owls debut in a 1-0 Steel City Derby win at Hillsborough, Antonio was the catalyst for Wednesday’s fantastic end of season form which saw them pip their city rivals, Sheffield United, to second place and gain promotion to the Championship.
In his 14 games on loan with The Owls, Antonio’s direct attacking style made his an instant fan-favourite in South Yorkshire as the winger scored 5 goals during that stint, including a goal in Wednesday’s final game of the season against Wycombe, which saw them secure promotion at a packed out Hillsborough, a day which lives long in the memory for any Wednesdayite. Along the way to promotion, another one of Michail’s goals was a crucial 95th minute winner against Carlisle United, a goal of paramount importance in the promotion race.
Antonio’s contribution to The Owls’ success saw him get a move to Yorkshire on a permanent basis were he would continue to strut his stuff in the Championship, claiming seven goals and 11 assists in his first full season at the club. Unfortunately, an injury plagued second season prevented Antonio from playing his best football at Hillsborough before a £1.5 million move to Nottingham Forest continued his rise up the footballing pyramid.
Fourteen goals and fourteen assists in his one and only full season at Forest in 2014/15 gave Antonio the chance of Premier League football with West Ham, who spent £7 million on the former non-league youngster. Since his big move, Antonio once again secured himself as one of the fan-favourites with The Hammers, showing his versatility in his first few seasons, popping up out wide as well as at right-back on numerous occasions for the London club.
Eventually moved up front, Antonio took to his new role like a duck to water and looked as though he’d been playing as a Premier League striker all his life, with the forward having hit double figures in the league for the last three seasons running. Now into his eighth year at the club, Antonio has overtaken the goalscoring numbers of Paolo Di Canio and has etched his name in West Ham history, becoming their all-time leading scorer in the Premier League. Not bad for a winger from Tooting and Mitcham United.
No longer a Premier League star, but an interesting career nonetheless, Dele Alli now of Besitkas began his playing days in League One with MK Dons. Making his debut on 2nd November 2012, a 16-year-old Alli came on as a substitute in a 0-0 FA Cup First Round tie with Cambridge City. In the replay, Dele would be handed his first professional start and would bag his first goal in 6-1 win at Stadium MK.
It wasn’t until the next season that Alli became a first team regular though. In the 2013/14 League One campaign, Dele would go on to make 33 League appearances, scoring six goals including a hattrick for the 17-year-old in a 3-1 win at Notts County. After an impressive first full season, Alli took it to the next level the following year, bagging 16 League One goals and 9 assists in 2014/15 as MK Dons were promoted in second place whilst Dele claimed the League One Player of the Year award. During that unbelievable season, the midfielder was noted by scouts of Liverpool and Bayern Munich as he played 90 minutes in MK Dons 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United in the League Cup Second Round.
However, it was Tottenham Hotspur who snapped up the wonderkid, agreeing a £5 million deal in February 2015 before loaning Alli back to MK Dons for the remainder of their 2014/15 promotion season.
In his first few years in the Premier League it looked as though Alli was on the path for greatness, as he claimed back-to-back PFA Young Player of the Year and Team of the Year awards in 2015/16 and 2016/17. In his maiden year at Spurs, Dele struck 10 goals whilst providing nine assists before bettering that record in his second year with 18 goals in the Premier League. Alli’s explosive club form earned him a regular spot in the England national team, for whom he scored three times most notably in the Three Lions’ 2-0 2018 World Cup Quarter Final against Sweden.
However, since then the numbers slowly began to drop off for the England starlet. Failing to score a single league goal in the 2020/21 season, Alli’s sudden downwards spiral is one of the most mysterious in recent history, from one of the world’s most exciting midfielders, to now plying his trade away in the Turkish League.
Alli’s once glorious Tottenham career came to a disappointing end in January when Frank Lampard signed the midfielder on a free transfer for Everton, in an unusual deal which could eventually be worth £40 million should certain benchmarks be met. One of which is thought to be a £15 million fee if Alli makes 20 appearances for The Toffees. Since joining at the start of the year, Alli has managed just one start for Everton whilst coming off the bench 12 times but failing to register a goal or assist as the former England international flattered to deceive before joining Besiktas on loan in August.
At 26, Dele Alli’s fate is still very much in his hands, with no doubting the midfielder’s talent. The question is now will the former MK Dons man beagle to rediscover the form of his early years or will his career continue its current downward trajectory.