The Football League is back; and for hundreds of thousands of fans around England and Wales it couldn’t have come a minute sooner. A summer of mindnumbing gardening, accompanying the other half ‘around the shops’ and tolerating Cricket on a Saturday afternoon in a desperate search for ‘a Sporting Buzz’ is over… football fanatics can finally breathe easily again. As supporters settle down eager to see their newly assembled teams in action and following on from last week’s blog on rising stars in the bottom tier of the Football League, I recommend keeping an eye on these three young men expected to light up NPower League One (did you catch the pun?) over the coming months.
I would suggest that if there are any AFC Bournemouth fans reading, they should probably avert their eyes for the following couple of paragraphs.
Charlie Austin was simply put, last season’s sensation in League One. Having spent his early footballing career scoring hatfuls of goals for various non-league outfits, Swindon Town decided to take a gamble on the unproven youngster in October. At the time, Austin was playing for Poole Town in the Wessex League (whilst working full-time as a bricklayer) and reeling from an unfortunate set of circumstances that had been dealt to him only months previously. Having spent the majority of last summer training with AFC Bournemouth, the Cherries were unable to offer him a professional contract due to a transfer embargo that had been enforced on them by the Football League due their financial irregularities. Bournemouth’s loss became Swindon’s gain and fortunately for Austin, Danny Wilson came calling. At the second time of asking, Austin finally had had his opportunity to shine. 13 goals in his first 17 starts implied that chance may have been snapped up with both hands by the Hungerford-born player. Striking up a formidable partnership with Billy Paynter, Austin helped fire Swindon to a play-off final where dreams of promotion were destroyed by the Lions of Millwall at Wembley Stadium.
Despite his debut season heroics, some critics have questioned his ability to continue his goal scoring feats without the presence of his “partner in crime” Paynter, who has since departed to Leeds United. Possessing blistering pace and a deadly ‘knack’ for being in the right place at the right time, Austin has already silenced some doubters by scoring twice as in as many games in the first week of the season. So far so good for the young forward eager to prove he’s not a dreaded ‘one season wonder.’
Forget Ian Holloway achieving Premier League status for Blackpool; the real success story in the English game last season was John Still steering Dagenham and Redbridge to a play-off final victory against Rotherham United and a first ever season in NPower League One. Having been described as ‘a lower-league Arsene Wenger’ by his centre forward Paul Benson, Still has forged a reputation for taking gambles on the young and the unknown from the non-league who he sees as possessing true Dagger qualities (whatever Still believes those to be) and moulding them into professional footballers to the benefit of Dagenham and Redbridge F.C.
One such example of Still’s eagle eye for a talent is Danny Green, the scorer of the Wembley goal that secured promotion from League Two for the Essex outfit back in May. Having failed to impress in short spells at both Northampton Town and Nottingham Forest, Green had found himself on the verge of giving up the game altogether until he was provided with a stage to perform at Bishops Stortford in Blue Square South until the entrance of John Still in the summer of 2009. Impressed by his technical ball-striking ability and youthful enthusiasm, Green became Still’s latest import to the modest surroundings of the Victoria Ground from the lower reaches of the footballing pyramid. Possessing a venomous right-foot that has lead to Harrow-born midfielder drawing comparisions to a fellow English right-sided footballer; some might say that Green’s performances for Dagenham last season were the closest that a certain David Beckham has been to returning to the East End since he departed to Manchester all those years ago. In all truth, comparisons to Beckham are ludicrous. However with 14 goals, 16 assists and a promotion winning medal to display proudly to those who had doubted him earlier in his career, those impressive statistics will probably not be the last that fans of the Football League will hear of young Danny Green.
Speaking as a long-time supporter/sufferer of a lower league club, there aren’t many prouder feelings than seeing a local boy burst into your first-team set up. Fans automatically take to them, believing that as they are “one of our own” they feel the same way we do about our clubs. When you look through footballing archives, there are many famous examples: Alan Shearer standing on St. James Park’s Gallowgate End as a child; Islington born-and-bred Charlie George becoming a cult hero at Arsenal in the 1970’s; Liverpool’s own Steven Gerrard being hailed as the Scouse Messiah; and can you get more “Manchester United” than a certain Gary Neville?
Alex Smithies might not be as highly-regarded as the names mentioned above, but Huddersfield Town’s young home-town shot stopper is a more recent example of a local lad progressing up through the ranks. At 20, Smithies is only just out of his teens yet already his name carries quite a reputation. Having been described as “one of the finest young goalkeepers in British football” and having been capped by England at Under-19 level, it isn’t surprising that he has already secured the spot as Huddersfield’s Town‘s #1. The club’s official website doesn’t do the youngster any injustice either, stating he has “already shown enough ability in his short career to prove he could make it to the top.” Transfer columns have consistently linked Smithies with a multi-million move to the Premier League (Stoke City have been mentioned as potential suitors) but as of yet there doesn’t appear to have been any official approach.
The Terriers’ ended last season with a poor showing in their play-off semi final tie with Millwall and manager Lee Clark will be eager to put right that wrong this coming season. Having seen their expensively-assembled side begin their campaign last weekend with an impressive 3-0 victory at Notts County, Huddersfield Town fans will be expecting their club mount a serious assault towards the Championship. Should they succeed, Alex Smithies’ own reputation can only be enhanced as a result.