BY OLLIE McMANUS
About this time last year I wrote an article, for a different website, profiling the five non-league players destined to the big time – four of those are currently playing in the Football League with the other still impressing at non-league level – so I thought it was time to take a look at the cream of the crop this time around and assess their chances going forward.
Macauley Bonne / Leyton Orient / Striker / 22Embed from Getty Images
Born in Ipswich, Zimbabwean international striker. Macauley Bonne is far from your ordinary footballer both on and off the pitch. Beginning his career with Ipswich Town’s under-8s, the forward had a brief stint with Norwich City aged 14 before settling down with Colchester United to further his development.
The 5ft 11in centre forward makes up for his relative lack of height with intelligent positional play allowing him to buy an extra second of time for when the ball does find his feet but, equally, he’s clever enough to realise that his movement doesn’t have to result in an end-product for himself but can actually create space for his fellow team-mates.
With 16 goals from 33 league appearances this season it’s very easy to just say he’s a quality striker who’s absolutely lethal from anywhere within the box but what’s more impressive is his link-up play with those behind him.
Specifically with Jobi McAnuff, the two players have developed an understanding of unparalleled dimensions this season in which they both seem to have an intuitive understanding of each other and their movements which is why, more often than not, if there’s a goal scored by Leyton Orient then Bonne will either have scored it or have been influential in some way or other.
The twice-capped international signed for The O’s back in July on a two-year deal and has already repaid the Board’s face in abundance and made history on the 2nd September when he became the first Orient player to score a hat-trick at their home ground since 2006 – a flying start that’s refused to desist.
Given the youngster’s self-evident talent coupled with a salacious flair that makes him someone you just can’t help but love to watch, it’s understandable, therefore, that handfuls of EFL clubs have been keeping an eye on Bonne; but Orient will be hopeful of retaining their star man till the end of season.
Giancarlo Gallifuoco / Dover Athletic / Defender 24Embed from Getty Images
Versatility is the name of the game for Dover Athletic’s Giancarlo Gallifuoco who has had your less than orthodox route to the National League. As a 15-year-old youth player in Australia he was scouted for the NSWIS and, later, the AIS, which is essentially the Australian “Centre of Excellence” for their brightest prospects.
From there the defender was purchased by Tottenham Hotspur for their youth academy, becoming a regular In the Under-21 side and playing alongside Massimo Luongo (fellow Australian) before moving on to Swansea City where he won the Professional Development League 2 in 2014-15.
Following further stints with Melbourne Victory and Torquay United, Gallifuoco ended up on the south coast of England in July of last year, signing a one-year deal, and has gone on to become a cult hero with The Whites.
Having played an average of 88 minutes in each game you need look no further than the 6ft 1in centre-back when trying to work out why the seaside club have had such a watertight defence this season – a mere 33 goals conceded from 37 games, the second best record – with Gallifuoco being well revered across the league for his, shall we say, measured aggression during games which enables him to nip away at the opposing forwards whilst standing strong in the backline.
Indeed, his versatility is such that he can play at right-back, as he has once this season but more frequently when with Torquay last season and, indeed, occasionally further forward as a right-winger. Undeniably his fortes lay in his defensive capabilities and his strength.
Whilst tall, he isn’t a giant and as a result his lanky, yet physically impressive figure is a key asset for him in order to be able to be the first to the ball from set pieces and that even helps going forward from corners and free-kicks where he’s chipped in with three goals thus far this season.
With Gallifucoco forming an integral part of Chris Kinnear’s squad and pushing for a place in the Australian national team there is no real surprise to see the player linked with a six-figure move at the end of the season.
Adam McDonnell / Aldershot / Midfielder 20Embed from Getty Images
We turn now to the youngest player of this selection with Irishman Adam McDonnell who joined Aldershot Town on a permanent deal, having previously been on loan with the team, in January from Ipswich Town.
The midfielder and Republic of Ireland youth international has found solid ground with The Shots and, with that, the attention of his country’s national scouts. A diminutive yet bulky central midfielder, McDonnell’s 22 appearances in the National League have yielded positive results for Aldershot with 5 goals and 3 assists helping them to a current 5th place in the top division of non-league football.
Pivotal to McDonnell’s creative output is his dribbling ability enabling him to conjure up chances from the centre of the field with ease and such skill finds its roots in the 20-year-old’s perfect combination of being small enough to retain agility whilst possessing enough strength not to be bullied around by the opposition.
A standout performance for the Irishman came against Wrexham towards the back end of last year when the central midfielder was at his very best, passing the ball around in neat little triangles whilst often drifting out towards the right in order to provide width to the team’s attacking game-plan and also managed to find the back of the net himself.
To become more of a well-rounded footballer and thus more of a box-to-box midfielder, McDonnell probably needs to work on his tackling ability which, whilst is adept, isn’t polished enough for him to really earn the “non-league Scott Parker” badge. And truth be told there’s been a couple of occasions throughout the season where he’s been guilty of either over-committing or, conversely, under-committing in a tackle which has resulted in goals or near misses for the opposition.
Having said that the man’s still only 20 so there’s no use in critiquing him too hard because there’s plenty of natural development still to come and he could be the new Stephen Ireland (which is to be taken for the many positives attached, less so for the negatives) so, carry on Adam, carry on.
Ayo Obileye – Eastleigh, 23
We turn our attentions now to the absolute giant that is Stephen Ayomide Oluwagbenga Obileye or, for short, Ayo Obileye who has become a permanent fixture in the Eastleigh team hovering around mid-table of the National League.
At 1 metre and 91 centimetres, or 6ft 3in in old money, Ayo is pretty hard to miss even from the back of the Ten Acres ground, but his height isn’t his only asset – although it does come in handy for imposing himself on the opposing strikers and his natural strength is enough to win the majority of duels and outmuscle even the strongest of forwards.
Having first made his name in League Two with Dagenham and Redbridge, the Football League connoisseurs among us have been expecting big things from Obileye for a while now so it was a surprise when he signed for Eastleigh back in 2016, but the move appears to have been the right one in enabling the defender to hone his skills with regular football in what is, arguably, the most physical league of them all as opposed to being stuck in the training ground of some loftier team.
Obileye has really found his game improve rather rapidly since Eastleigh’s switch to a back three, a formation in which he relishes not only his defensive duties but also the attacking opportunities it provides him and by playing alongside such established footballers such as Gavin Hoyte and Paul Reid, it’s enabled him to work significantly on his leadership skills with strong vocal communication being the key to ensuring a three man defence works because, otherwise, it can just descend into chaos.
A certain leader for the future, Ayo’s proved that he’s more than capable of playing further up the pitch when need be and his six goals this season have been a career-best tally and having come from both his head and his feet it goes to show that he’s not all about being a threat from set-pieces and actually possesses the creative know-how necessary to, maybe, one day play in more of a central midfield role.
Having gained fans all along the south of England thanks not only to his footballing ability but his beaming smile, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Obileye will be welcomed back next season, should he stay, but Eastleigh’s mid-table performances could be their Achilles heel as bigger things have got to be just around the corner for this mighty talented defender.
Nathan Ralph – Woking, 25Embed from Getty Images
It would be remiss if a player from the youngest National League squad wasn’t featured but Nathan Ralph isn’t here purely for the purpose of being polite. The 25-year-old Woking FC player has earned his way onto the list by way of his consistently impressive performances over the last four or five seasons.
Being the oldest player that we’re taking a look at, Ralph is testament that you can blossom as a footballer at any age and certainly his two seasons with Woking have been the best of his career.
Back in 2012-13 the left-winger was playing for Yeovil Town in League One, appearing in a third of their games, but didn’t make it onto the pitch for any of the following season’s Championship matches before returning to first-team football in 2014-15 as he played a part in half of Yeovil’s League One games.
With a total of 41 matches over the course of three years within the EFL, Ralph was developing rapidly as a defender – he played it left-back for the beginning of his career – but was released by the club following their relegation and subsequently was hindered by numerous injuries that, ultimately, stopped his progression just as it was getting started.
Since signing for Woking back in August of 2016 he worked with Garry Hill, manager at the time, on regaining core fitness and adapting his game to the more familiar left wing position that he plays in now. Truth be told, Hill worked wonders for Ralph in principally giving him the confidence and creative freedom to just play his natural game.
His speed down the left-hand side is remarkable and whilst there aren’t any official statistics, it’s hard to imagine there’s many faster than him in the National League but his trickery doesn’t lie purely in his pace. An incredible first touch is the what first catches the eye when you watch this youngster and the range of passing he has to compliment such skills are exceptional.
Often cutting in from the left to whip it in to the box right-footed enables him to create chances aplenty throughout the game and his thunderous shooting power makes him a threat from pretty much most distances and angles.
Such is the stature of Nathan Ralph, Woking rejected a five-figure bid from Bury in January and the rumour mill is already spinning for the summer when Bury are expected to renew their interest. They’re likely face stiff competition from Charlton Athletic, Dundee, Oxford United and Hearts when his Woking contract expires at the end of the season. An exciting prospect, no doubt about it.
The five players above go to highlight just how much the National League has improved in terms of depth and quality over the last couple of years; to such an extent that my initial shortlist for this feature had 16 players, but whether you’re a non-league fanatic or just a dabbler in the lower leagues, you’re going to want to keep an eye on these stars of the future.
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