As a big fan of the Hyundai A-League, but also of English non-league football, I started to reconcile the steady number of players who have crossed the bridge between both competitions.
Not many may realise it, but there have actually been several players who have performed in the English “non-league” game and also the Hyundai A-League. And for those readers of this article who are not from British shores, the term non-league is defined as any division beneath League Two (4th tier) in the English footballing pyramid. To all intents and purposes, it’s everything from the Vanarama National League (or Conference National as many still refer to it) downwards.
Previously, non-league football was defined as semi-professional. However, as money has flooded into non-league and more and more clubs have become full-time professionals, the dividing line becomes ever thinner.
For many who don’t follow the non-league game in England, it may sound as though I am trying to water down the standard of the A-League. It’s not so. Be under no illusion – non-league football is a very competitive standard. Numerous players from the game have made their way to the very top of the sport. Les Ferdinand went on to win 17 caps for England, but he actually began his senior football career at Hayes, a club in West London. And a more recent example is current England international, Jamie Vardy, who is presently scoring goals for fun in a Leicester City shirt. However, he began his senior playing career with Stocksbridge Park Steels, then of the Northern League Division One. He subsequently secured a move to fellow non-league club, Halifax Town, before ending his non-league days with Fleetwood Town.
Many players have come from the Antipodes in past (and indeed present years) and used the non-league game in England to put themselves in the shop window for professional clubs throughout the UK. There is also the chance to, in many cases, earn a very good living at the same time. Likewise, players from the non-league ranks have secured themselves moves to the national competitions of Australia and New Zealand. So who has made the leap in either direction? Here are some of the A-League players, past and present, to have done just that…
Even in the A-League’s first season – 2005/06, there was representation in the form of Sydney FC midfielder, Terry McFlynn.
The Northern Ireland Under-21 international began his career with Queens Park Rangers before dropping into non-league with Surrey club, Woking, during the January transfer window in 2001. However, his stay with “The Cards” was brief and he was on the move that summer, this time to Kent coast club, Margate. The club had just secured promotion from the Southern League Premier Division to the Conference National (these days the Vanarama National League) and McFlynn would go on to make 63 appearances for the club in a two-season spell.
McFlynn’s final spell in English football was with Conference National side, Morecambe, on England’s Lancashire coast. He signed for the Shrimpers in 2003 from Margate for a fee of £14,000. He stayed in the north-west for two seasons and made 35 appearances for Morecambe, unable to cement a place in the starting XI before being released in the summer of 2005.
During the previous spell at Margate, McFlynn had encountered New Zealand international, Chris Zoricich, who had joined the Kent club just before McFlynn departed. On Zorro’s advice, McFlynn was encouraged to up and try his lot Down Under. So it was, the midfielder arrived for a trial at Sydney FC for the opening season of the A-League. The club was one of several McFlynn had written to for a trial, but the only one which actually replied. He impressed then Sky Blues coach, Pierre Littbarski, and a legend was born.
The Ulsterman would go on to make a record 214 appearances for Sydney and also captained the side from 2010-2013. He also had the distinction of being captain for Sydney’s first ever Asian Champions League game in March 2011 against South Korean club, Suwon Samsung Bluewings. He subsequently retired from full-time football in April 2014 and turned down other A-League clubs chasing his signature so as to stay loyal to Sydney. He moved into the NSW State League to play for the Serbian-backed club, Bonnyrigg White Eagles, for whom he made 14 appearances during the 2014 campaign.
Sticking with the Sydney FC theme (sorry any Melbourne Victory fans reading this!), and that brings us neatly onto a current Sky Blues player who had a very successful spell in the English non-league game…
New Zealand international striker, Shane Smeltz, signed at the Allianz Stadium in May 2014 after leaving Perth Glory. However, he began his career by club-hopping in both New Zealand and Australia, specifically in the Queensland State League, but also with stints in the old NSL at Adelaide United, Adelaide City and Brisbane Strikers.
Thanks to having dual German citizenship by courtesy of his parents, the Kiwi decided to try his luck in England in 2005 and trialled with Mansfield Town of League Two before being offered a short-term contract. Smeltz eventually made 5 senior appearances for the Nottinghamshire club before heading south to London to trial with West Ham and, subsequently, Isthmian League Premier Division side, AFC Wimbledon.
Formed out of the ashes of the famous old Wimbledon FC (FA Cup winners in 1988), AFC retained the bulk of their supporter base and setup as a phoenix club at the very bottom of the pyramid in 2002. Through successive promotions, the side won through to the Isthmian Division One in 2004. Smeltz signed for the club in March 2005 and made his debut on the 12th of that month – a 5-0 win at home to Newport IOW. He made an instant impact with a brace in that game, which included a 20-yard volleyed goal. A late penalty miss denied Smeltz a hat-trick and Roy of the Rovers debut in front of over 2,600 fans.
With Wimbledon winning the Ryman Division One in 2005, Smeltz returned for his first full season at the club in 2005-06 and a step up to the Ryman Premier Division. The club would finish 4th at the end of the campaign and Smeltz would record an impressive 22 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions. His form was so impressive he was even called up in April of 2006 to be a part of the All Whites squad for a friendly with Australia’s Socceroos at Craven Cottage. Ricki Herbert’s first game in charge of New Zealand, the Kiwis eventually succumbed 1-0 to their trans-Tasman rivals but performed admirably with an injury-hit squad. In coming on as a second half substitute, Smeltz became AFC Wimbledon’s first ever player to be called up for a senior international while still at the club.
Keen to make the step up again, Smeltz joined Conference National side, Halifax Town for 2006-07. However, his time in West Yorkshire was far less happy and he was used mainly from the bench, scoring just 2 goals in 31 appearances. However, it was to prove a breakthrough season for Smeltz when he lead the forward line for New Zealand in a friendly against Wales at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground in May 2007. He scored both goals for the All Whites in a strong display which earned the side a 2-2 draw against a Wales team that included the likes of Craig Bellamy. On the back of that performance, Ricki Herbert signed Smeltz for the Wellington Phoenix on a two-year contract and his A-League career was born.
Despite only staying in the New Zealand capital for two seasons, he scored an impressive 21 goals in 39 games for the Phoenix and even won the Johnny Warren Medal for the best A-League player during that season.
Ultimately, the lure of the Gold Coast – the place Smeltz and his family consider “home” – was too strong and Clive Palmer’s moneyed startup franchise, Gold Coast United, won his signature for the beginning of the 2009-10 campaign. 21 goals in 28 games proved there was no let-up in Smeltz’s goalscoring prowess and it meant he was again on the move, this time to China. However, he stayed for a matter of days before heading to Turkish club, Gençlerbirliği, for a season and then returning to the A-League with Perth Glory and subsequently Sydney FC, where he is currently the vice-captain.
Heading north from Australia’s largest city and North Queensland Fury’s stay in the Hyundai A-League was brief to say the least. Just two seasons after joining the league in 2009, the club was gone. A lack of funding saw the club’s license revoked by the FFA in 2011, however it too has played host to a player from the English non-league structure.
Daniel McBreen may not be a name that trips off of the tongue when many speak of Australian football. Indeed, some may argue he’s not actually Australian, having been born in Burnley, England, of English parentage. However, having moved to Australia when just six weeks old and having been called into the Socceroos squad for an AFC Cup Qualifier against Indonesia in March 2010, that qualifies him as Australian in the eyes of many.
Having begun his senior playing career with local Newcastle clubs, Toronto Awaba Stags and Edgeworth Eagles, McBreen then turned out for Newcastle United in the old NSL for two seasons. He made just shy of 40 appearances for United before heading overseas to Romanian club, Universitatea Craiova. His time at the Romanian club was not a happy one and, after two seasons which saw all manner of wage problems between player and club, he moved on to Scotland for two seasons with Falkirk and subsequently, a short spell with St. Johnstone. During his time at McDiarmid Park, he scored against the famous Glasgow Rangers in a Scottish FA Cup Semi-Final.
McBreen’s time in Scotland was punctuated briefly by a return to England and Scunthorpe United. However, he made just 7 appearances for the Irons and was sent on loan for the first of two spells in non-league with Conference National side, York City. Initially on a one-month loan in 2007, McBreen scored 2 goals in 5 games for the Minstermen – the first against Histon and the second against Stafford Rangers. Despite York being keen to keep McBreen for a second month, the striker returned to Scunthorpe and bought out the remainder of his contract to move back to Scotland.
At the end of the 2007-08 campaign, McBreen was all set to return to Australia and sign for Adelaide United of the Hyundai A-League. The South Australia side were looking for a backup striker for the departing Bruce Djite and McBreen fit the bill. However, things didn’t work out and he ended up crossing the Tasman to trial with Wellington Phoenix instead. When neither club worked out, McBreen was back on a plane bound for England and this time put pen to paper on a one year contract with York City and a spell back in the Conference National.
It was to be a memorable campaign for McBreen, despite only managing 5 goals in 38 games. He scored in every round of the FA Trophy (a competition open to all clubs in the non-league pyramid), apart from the first round. Thanks to his goals, the club got to perform at Wembley Stadium in May 2009 against fellow Conference National side, Stevenage Borough. The outcome was a 0-2 loss for York but the Australian had given himself a memorable opportunity for a send off from English football. This was because he had agreed in February to join the newly formed North Queensland Fury for the beginning of the 2009-10 campaign.
A total of 3 goals in 21 games for the Fury was McBreen’s contribution before he left the club in January of 2010 to join Perth Glory in an interim deal. He had signed a pre-contract with Central Coast Mariners the month before and his move to Western Australia saw an impressive return of 5 goals in 7 games.
The move to Central Coast Mariners took place for the 2010-11 season and the club made it all the way to the season’s Grand Final where a 2-2 draw then saw them lose on penalties to Brisbane Roar. McBreen missed his penalty having come on as a substitute in the second half of normal time. The second season saw the club qualify for the Asian Champions League and McBreen managed a healthy return of 2 goals from 5 games, despite the Mariners not progressing beyond the group stage.
Season three proved to be hugely productive with McBreen moving to the head of a midfield diamond, instead of his customary striker’s role. The regular season saw his win the A-League’s Golden Boot with 17 goals to top the scoring charts in 2012-13. He then also won the Joe Marston Medal (the award given to the Man of the Match in the Grand Final) as the Mariners defeated Western Sydney Wanderers 2-0 at the Sydney Football Stadium. That season, he was also named to the A-League’s Team of the Season as a substitute.
Following one more season with the Mariners, McBreen moved to Chinese club, Shanghai East Asia. Originally the agreement was a loan deal but this was then made permanent for the following campaign. Unfortunately, the goals never quite flowed in China and so a move to Hong Kong club, South China, in 2015 saw him round out his playing career and healthy return to form saw 11 goals in 17 games. His contract expired, he then returned to Australia where he is now coach of the Newcastle Jets Under-15 side.
Staying in Queensland, and heading slightly further south of Townsville and to the state’s largest city, Brisbane. Very few supporters of the city’s Roar will be aware of it, but the club’s first choice goalkeeper, Jamie Young, has spent time with three clubs in English non-league football. In fact, the Brisbane-born England Under-20 stopper actually joined the Road from a Conference South club, Hayes & Yeading United.
The West London club are small by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, during Young’s spell with Hayes & Yeading, the club was homeless and had was playing its home games some 30 miles away at Woking in Surrey. Crowds of 150-250 were not uncommon for home games and a short spell at the financially-striken club saw Young make only 10 appearances as they managed to avoid relegation from the Conference South to the Ryman Premier Division. However his time ended on a sour note when he was released by the club following an altercation with his team-mate, Charlie Wassmer, following a goal conceded in a fixture against Bath City.
Prior to his spell at Hayes, Young turned out for fellow Conference South sides, Basingstoke Town and Whitehawk. He played just one game for each club before his move to West London and Hayes & Yeading. Prior to his Conference South spell, he had also spent three seasons with Aldershot Town, one of which was in the Conference National. He made over a 100 appearances for The Shots before being released as the club looked to free up room on its wage bill.
Prior to spending time at Aldershot, the ‘keeper played league football with Wycombe Wanderers and, prior to that, Reading. He joined the Royals after playing around the Brisbane area for clubs including Albany Creek and Pine Hills. But today the 30-year-old is in his second season with the Roar and has already tasted the Asian Champions League against Urawa Red Diamonds. Originally he deputised for the injured first-choice keeper, Michael Theo, but it remains to be seen whether the status quo will remain as the aforementioned closes in on a return to fitness.
Hayes & Yeading United also feature in the list of clubs for a certain Melbourne Victory striker. Indeed, 22-year-old Corey Gameiro, spent a month-long loan at the club when he was contracted to Fulham in West London.
Despite never making a senior appearance for the club, Gameiro joined Fulham from South Coast Wolves in his native Wollongong. Armed with a dual Portuguese passport, the youngster was a mainstay in the London club’s Under-21 and Youth sides, He was sent on a youth loan for one month to Hayes & Yeading to get experience of first team football. Unfortunately for Gameiro, the club he joined was struggling to avoid relegation from the Conference National, a feat which they did not manage that season.
He made his debut for the Missioners at home to Newport County on 29th November 2011. The 0-4 loss saw what would turn out to be Gameiro’s only start for the club and he was restricted to substitute appearances for the remainder of his time. That is to say, in games that the club was able to complete…
The New Year’s Day home fixture with Ebbsfleet United at Woking’s Kingfield Stadium, kicked off among a major deluge of rain in the London and Southeast areas of England at that time. Gameiro had seen his loan spell extended for another month at Hayes and had been rewarded with a start – his first since his aforementioned debut. However, with conditions worsening and Ebbsfleet taking an early 1-0 lead, Gameiro experienced a rush of blood to the head and saw a straight red after lunging in two-footed on the swimming pool-like pitch. With his opponent writing in agony on the mixture of water and turf, Gameiro headed for an early shower (followed only minutes later by the remaining 21 players and benches) and was never seen again by the Hayes & Yeading faithful, being sent back to Fulham.
Gameiro would go on to have a four-month loan spell with Dutch Eerste Divisie side, FC Eindhoven, where he made 8 appearances but failed to find the net. And in February of 2013, he finally made his bow in the A-League by joining Wellington Phoenix on loan until the end of the season. 7 appearances yielded 1 goal and the young striker caught the attentions of Sydney FC who snapped him up on a free transfer after his release from Fulham.
He made 21 appearances in two seasons for the Sky Blue, scoring on 4 occasions. He was then released and joined his current club, Melbourne City, in June 2015. He is still with City but injury has restricted him to just 5 appearances at the current time. It is hoped the Olyroo will return to action in the near future as he looks to kick on with his career.
Another Kiwi who made his mark in both the A-League and non-league in England is Steven Old, the Palmerston North centre-half who has won 17 caps for the All Whites to date.
Old is perhaps best known for his spell with the Wellington Phoenix during the 2007-08 campaign but also spent a season with the Newcastle Jets in the season prior to returning to his native land. He made just over 20 appearances during his two seasons in the A-League, having previously spent his senior career playing university football in the USA with St. Johns, and also in the ASB Premiership (New Zealand’s national competition) with the now defunct YoungHeart Manawatu.
Having departed the Phoenix for a spell in the Scottish Premier League with Kilmarnock, Old joined Conference South side, Basingstoke Town, in early 2012. He had been training with the Hampshire club prior to signing and had also experienced an unsuccessful trial with Perth Glory on a tour of South Africa.
Old stayed with Basingstoke into the 2012-13 campaign but, after 8 appearances, signed for Conference South rivals, Sutton United. The U’s, based in south London, were to ultimately only receive Old’s services for 10 games before he joined their local rivals and Ryman Premier Division side, Kingstonian for a short spell. Subsequently, a move to China and then Sweden sees Old at his current club, GAIS, who are based in that country’s second city of Gothenburg. He signed with the club in November 2015 after a spell with Ljungskille in the Swedish second tier, Superettan.
Our final A-League / Non-League connection comes in the form of Reading-born defender, Shane Huke. Having moved to Australia at a young age, Huke began his senior career in his adopted country with Queensland side, Rochedale Rovers. However, he was soon on the move to Peterborough United.
During his five-year spell with the Posh, Huke saw loan spells with no fewer than five non-league clubs. The clubs in question were a mixture of Southern Premier and Ryman Premier sides and included: King’s Lynn, Bedford Town, Heybridge Swifts, Cambridge City and AFC Hornchurch. A year-and-a-half spell with League Two club, Dagenham & Redbridge followed at the end of his Peterborough contract and ended in January 2009 when Huke accepted an offer to join the A-League’s Central Coast Mariners.
The defender’s spell in Gosford was brief and lasted just over a year. And just 3 appearances for the Mariners meant he was soon on the move again. This time, he was on a plane back to England and signed with non-league Rushden & Diamonds. The formerly moneyed club, once owned by Dr Martens owner, Max Griggs, had fallen on tougher times and was on a slippery slope down through the non-league pyramid when Huke signed. However, after one season he moved on again, this time to Dover Athletic of the Conference National.
Since leaving Dover at the end of the 2012-13 season, Huke has seen service with Conference South sides, Ebbsfleet United and Maidstone United, both of Kent in the south east of England. He finished last season with the Stones and received a Ryman Premier Division winner’s medal as the side earned the right to play in the Conference South for this season. Unfortunately, Huke wasn’t to make the step up with the team and the Anglo-Aussie is currently between clubs.