5 Players Who Have Emerged from Lower-League Football to Star for Manchester Utd
As Manchester United prepare to take on League One opposition in the FA Cup, what better time to take a look at some of the players who have shone for the Red Devils having cut their teeth in the lower leagues?
Especially given the Premier League goalscoring charts are currently topped by a player who got his start in non-league football. Jamie Vardy firing Leicester City to the top of the table is one of this season's most remarkable stories.
And United have had plenty of remarkable stories of their own, of course. While many of the most successful players in the club's history have either been imported from abroad, signed from other top clubs or been brought through the club's own ranks, the lower leagues have always been an important scouting resource.
Most of the players on this list had already made the step up to the top flight by the time United came calling, but their times spent further down the football pyramid were vital to their developments.
There are others we could have included here. Bryan Robson made his debut for West Bromwich Albion when they were in the second tier, though by the time he was a first-team stalwart, they were firmly established in the top flight.
Morgan Schneiderlin began his time in England in the second tier then spent a season in the third, but he does not make this list because he is too young in his United career to have starred for the Red Devils.
Denis Law had a brief spell in the second tier with Huddersfield, though they were a top-flight club when he joined them.
For clarity, because several of the divisions referenced in this article have changed their names more than once in the time period covered, we will refer to the leagues by tiers rather than their names at the time.
Chris Smalling was playing non-league football just two years before he signed for Manchester United. Maidstone United had taken on the teenager who had previously been on Millwall's junior books.
Peter Nott was Maidstone's reserve-team manager at the time and said, per Richard Jolly of the Express in 2011, "Chris came to us as a 16-year-old. We had a trial match and within five minutes I was walking around the pitch to get him to sign forms. Chris has worked exceptionally hard but he was a talent, he had speed and awareness."
The club secretary, Darren Lovell, said, per Jolly: "Chris was probably getting an expenses payment of £30 a week, if that. It was little more than petrol money but if you weren’t playing you didn’t get that, and he was away quite a lot of the time with England Schoolboys."
In 2008, Smalling left Maidstone. His initial destination was set to be Middlesbrough, but instead he moved to Fulham, then a Premier League outfit. Sir Alex Ferguson then snapped him up, and he has grown into an important fixture at United.
The new contract he signed with the club in April 2015 is presumably worth a lot more than £30 per week in expenses.
One of Smalling's most illustrious precursors in the centre of United's defence, Gary Pallister is worthy of serious consideration for a place in any best XI of the Ferguson era. He was certainly one of Sir Alex's most important signings.
He arrived at the club from Middlesbrough. Before the Boro, he had spent his junior years at non-league Billingham Town. His lower-league credentials are solid, given he signed for Boro when they were in the third tier, helping them get two successive promotions.
They were a top-flight side by the time Ferguson brought Pallister to Old Trafford.
Pallister played 433 games for United, which currently puts him 20th on the all-time appearance list. The team signed him for a then-British transfer record fee of £2.3 million and—remarkably—following his years of service at Old Trafford, he was even sold for a profit, per BBC Sport.
And speaking of Sir Alex's finest-ever signings, here is a player who most certainly belongs in that category. Irwin is eighth in the standings for United appearances, having played for the club 529 times—of which 511 were starts.
When Sunday World asked Ferguson if he could pick a best XI, he was unable to do so, but he said:
Honestly, I would say Denis Irwin would be the one certainty to get in the team. I called him an eight out of 10. At Highbury in one game he had a bad pass back in the last minute and [Dennis] Bergkamp came in and scored.
After the game the press said 'you must be disappointed in that pass back.'
I said, 'well, one mistake in 10 years isn't bad.' He was an unbelievable player.
Irwin, like Smalling and Pallister, played for a top-flight club by the time Sir Alex came calling. However, he started out with then-second tier Leeds United before a lateral move to Oldham Athletic. He helped get Oldham promoted and reach the first of their two FA Cup semi-finals against United before moving to Old Trafford.
Once there, he became a bona fide United legend—a rare example of a player worthy of that most overused descriptor.
Andy Cole was an established Premier League star by the time he came to United. But his journey had begun in the lower leagues, after Arsenal—where he had been a trainee—sold him to second-tier Bristol City for £500,000.
He soon established himself as a force to be reckoned with, and from Bristol, he moved to Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United—also of the second tier—for £1.75 million. He was a crucial part of the Magpies' ascent to the Premier League, and he was a prolific scorer even after the step up in competition.
He became vital to Manchester United and was an integral part of the club's most successful squad ever, as the Red Devils won the treble in 1999. He sits in 17th place on their all-time top-scorers list and—like Pallister—was sold at a profit, as he moved to Blackburn Rovers for £8 million in 2001.
Steve Coppell is unique among this list as a player who was bought directly from a lower-league club. Indeed, his is a near-unique story. Before his move to United, he was at Liverpool University studying economics while playing part time for Tranmere Rovers.
Tommy Docherty took an interest in the hugely talented Coppell.
"Apparently a couple of Liverpool directors had been watching me, then halfway through my second year at university I got a call telling me that Manchester United wanted to buy me and that Tranmere had agreed a fee," Coppell said, per Andy Mitten for Eurosport. "It was like a dream."
Docherty insisted he completed his degree. Coppell again: "I told Tommy Docherty that I had an option to delay my studies, but he said, 'Absolutely no chance, football can be finished at the click of your finger, academic qualifications are with you for life.' I’m eternally thankful for him saying that."
Mitten wrote: "Coppell’s thrilling runs and slick skills ensured he became a regular and at one point in his eight-year Old Trafford career he played 206 consecutive league games—a club record unlikely to be broken."
Coppell's was a truly remarkable rise from the lower leagues to a starring role at Manchester United.
All appearance and goalscoring data courtesy of StretfordEnd.co.uk unless otherwise noted.
All transfer-fee data per Soccerbase unless otherwise noted.