More non-league gems to be had, says Wilkins

Ben Coker yesterday made his dream move from non-league football to League One side Colchester United. Now Bury Town boss Richard Wilkins believes more pro clubs should being following suit. STUART WATSON spoke to the ex-U’s favourite.

RICHARD Wilkins believes the talent that Football League clubs are desperately searching for this summer is right under their noses.

Many managers in the lower echelons of the professional game are frantically wheeling and dealing at present, gambling with sizeable wages for loan stars or paying out for foreigners on the basis of a handful of scouting reports.

Colchester United are breaking that mould ahead of the new season though, new boss John Ward having signed two players from non-league.

One of those players – 21-year-old Ben Coker – has come from Suffolk side Bury Town, the team former Layer Road favourite Wilkins has led up the non-league pyramid over the last decade.


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And Wilkins is now confident that his young protegee can follow his exact same path and become an established player at the U’s over the coming years.

Wilkins himself was rejected by Ipswich Town at the age of 16 you see. However, after starting his career at Suffolk non-league side Haverhill Rovers, he was later snapped up by the U’s at the age of 21. He went on to make nearly 300 appearances over two spells at the Essex club.

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“I’m delighted for Ben,” said Wilkins, who has just led Bury Town to step three of the non-league pyramid.

“Colchester wanting to sign him is not a surprise to me at all. He’s sharp, lively, wants the ball and makes good angles. He’s got a great range of passing has improved a lot on his crossing and can deliver a great free-kick too.

“I came into the professional game from non-league and didn’t take anything for granted. And I do believe that, because of the route he’s taken, Ben will have more hunger than those that have been within pro clubs from a young age.

“I know he’s technically good enough for that level and I wouldn’t be surprised if he made 15 or so appearances for the first team by the end of the season.

“I can see him going on and making a number of appearances for Colchester United over the years.”

Coker becomes Colchester’s second signing from non-league this summer, following Ward’s acquisition of 25-year-old midfielder Andy Bond from Blue Square Premier side Barrow.

And Wilkins – who has already helped the likes of Liam Trotter and Ian Miller break through into the professional game via the West Suffolk College Football Academy which is affiliated to Bury Town – has hailed the transfer policy of his old club.

He said: “Without a question of a doubt there are plenty more players like Ben in non-league that are good enough to make the step up to the pro game.

“The influx of foreign players at all levels of the game – not just the Premier League – means that non-league is now very strong and a few professional clubs should be giving these lads a chance. They are hungry lads with no agents, not asking for stupid money and with something to prove.”

He added: “If I didn’t have my contacts at Colchester, the truth is Ben would have probably ended up at Nuneaton next season because they were showing interest.

“He is buzzing, but one thing I know about him is that he won’t just sit back now and think he’s made it. He’ll definitely be looking for a first team place because that’s the next step for him now.

“I’m chuffed to bits for him – he deserves it. Now I hope we can build some good relations with Colchester United.”

Non-league success stories

Jermaine Beckford

Rejected by Chelsea as a youngster, he went on to work part-time as a windscreen fitter for the RAC while playing for non-league side Wealdstone. Signed by Leeds United for �65,000 in 2006 and has just been snapped up by Premier League side Everton following his goalscoring exploits.

Ian Wright

Failed in trials with Southend and Brighton before eventually being spotted by a Crystal Palace scout aged nearly 22. Went on to become an Arsenal legend and gain 33 international caps.

Steve Morison

Following a failure to launch his career at Northampton, the striker dropped down to play for Bishops Stortford and Stevenage in non-league. Signed by Millwall for �130,000 in May 2009 and has just helped fire the club into the Championship in his first season at The New Den.

Neil Harris

Started out at Essex non-league side Maldon Town before going to Cambridge City. Signed for Millwall for �30,000 in 1998 and went on to become a cult hero at the club during his two spells there.

Vinnie Jones

Started career at non-league side Wealdstone and worked part-time as a hod carrier. Signed by Wimbledon in 1986 for �10,000 and went on to win the FA Cup with the ‘Crazy Gang’ two years later. Went on to play for Leeds and Chelsea and now enjoys a Hollywood film career.

Charlie Austin

Released by Reading as a youngster for being too small, he played locally before eventually ending up at non-league side Poole Town while also working as a bricklayer. After scoring 62 goals in 57 games at that level, League One Swindon Town came calling. Has just scored 19 goals in 33 games as The Robins narrowly missed out on promotion in his first season there.

Stuart Pearce

Another to come from non-league side Wealdstone, Pearce started out as a part-time electrician and plumber. Coventry signed him for �30,000 in 1983 and he never looked back, playing at the very top for over 15 years and earning 78 international caps.

Cody McDonald

Played for Essex non-league side Witham, as well as in the Braintree & District Sunday League, until step three side Dartford spotted him. Twenty goals in 19 appearances saw Norwich City sign him in February 2009 aged 22.

Aaron McLean / George Boyd / Craig Mackail-Smith

Eyebrows were raised when Peterborough signed the trio from non-league clubs for six figure fees. All three have become huge successes at the club though.

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