Watching Sutton United playing Arsenal in the FA Cup last Monday reminded me that when Sutton beat Coventry City – then in the top division and FA Cup winners two years earlier – in 1989, they had a player in their team named Paul Rogers.
Three years later Sheffield United – then also in the top division – signed the 26-year-old Rogers from Sutton, who were by this time in the Conference South. Inside a month Rogers was playing in what would now be called the Premier League, and one of his earliest appearances was in the derby match at Hillsborough when United won 3-1. He did not look out of place, despite the step up of five levels.
It was not really a gamble for United, as Rogers did not cost much, but it was more of a gamble for the player as he gave up a lucrative job in the City. In fact it was reported he was taking a pay cut to join United. Rogers said at the time.
Rogers stayed at United for nearly four years, and had a lengthy career thereafter playing for Notts County, Wigan and Brighton.
Could such a thing happen today, where a non-league player in his mid twenties steps seamlessly into a Premier League team’s starting line-up? In all probability no, mainly because of the huge escalation in quality of the Premier League in the past 25 years. Just look back at the standard of some top-division regulars in 1992 – with all due respect to John Gannon, Jamie Hoyland and Paul Rogers, they would be mediocre Championship players at best nowadays. Geoff Thomas and Carlton Palmer were two of the finest midfielders in England, which says a lot about the prevailing standards.
Some non-league players have risen to the top the hard way over a number of years but surely there’ll never be another Paul Rogers.
And by the way, despite the ‘magic’ of this season’s FA Cup, it’ll still be the top four teams in the Premier League in the semi-finals.