Just over seven years ago, Tottenham Hotspur signed Dele Alli from his boyhood club MK Dons in the closing hours of a mid-season transfer window. At an initial fee of £5 million, Alli was definitely a risk for a club to expect big things from him — at that point had played most of his professional minutes in League One, England’s third tier domestic league. Voted as the Young Player of the Year that season, Dele started his Spurs career in 2015-16 after completing the rest of his 2014-15 season on loan with the Dons.
Almost immediately, it became clear that Spurs had a generational talent on their hands. And unlike other big clubs, who were chopping and changing their squads and spending huge sums in the process, Spurs used Dele from the beginning, a choice which catapulted them into the tier of the Premier League elites under Mauricio Pochettino. By looking to the Football League in England, Spurs improved immensely and did so without spending nearly anything. This was not Liverpool, who shelled out a huge transfer fee for Luis Suárez, or Manchester United, who spent big on a player that flopped in England in Ángel Di María. Five million pounds!
Of course, it is unfair to expect big things from every budding talent in England, but the Dele’s case proves that there are diamonds in the rough within the English lower leagues. The ending of Dele’s time in north London was obviously not what many had expected after the player won the PFA Young Player of the Year award in consecutive seasons from 2015-2017. But those issues are a story for another time.
Despite the success that came from the Dele deal, as we look back at Spurs’ past in recent seasons, they have (head-scratchingly) gotten away from pursuing these types of deals. I guess you could make an argument for Ryan Sessegnon, but the former Fulham man did play in the Premier League before he moved to Spurs. The English Football League provides for so many opportunities for bigger clubs to come in and swoop up top talents. From competitions such as the League Cup and the FA Cup to each club’s respective scouting network, each and every partially-notable player within the country could and should be discovered and amplified. Despite this, not every stone gets turned over. And for a club like Spurs, who, as we know, do not have the finances to compete with England’s elite, this an area that they need to exploit
Considering the global climate in recent years, so many lower-league clubs have been struggling and looked poised to give away some of their top assets in exchange for a quick cash infusion. Spurs’ finances are actually in a pretty secure position compared to nearly every club in England, in large part due to their stadium revenues starting kick in, which includes many events (boxing, NFL games, concerts, etc.) on the horizon.
Spurs have spent so much of their transfer budget in recent seasons outside of the country. From big-money purchases such as Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso to even smaller, loan-modeled deals like Sergio Reguilón and Pape Matar Sarr, there has not been an emphasis on finding players within the country. I understand that it is hard to judge Spurs based on the variety of issues/challenges within the club and situations they have found themselves in in recent years with multiple managers, but it is also hard to give the club a pass in areas such as these that they could be winning, even if doing so is a long term focus.
Despite their issues in recent seasons, the club has sprayed money around in hopes of solving their issues. It didn’t work. Ironically, Spurs and Antonio Conte still find themselves relying on players that were brought in years ago under Pochettino. Rather than shelling out money for players looking to put band-aids on wounds, perhaps it would behoove Spurs to put more of a focus on players within England’s lower leagues. This article serves as a sister article to the one I wrote regarding the club’s handling of their youth academy and the problems there in recent seasons.
After Dele’s success story, a variety of clubs have followed similar models and turned their attention to the EFL to find untapped talents. Let’s take a look at a few of the most significant ones:
- Jarrod Bowen, West Ham: One of the more underrated talents in the league, Bowen is a nuisance on either attacking side and showcases good play-making and finishing skills. Though linked with a Premier League move for years, he moved to West Ham from Hull City after over 100 caps in the Championship.
- Andrew Robertson, Liverpool: Robertson did have two seasons within the Premier League for that same bad Hull side, but he has turned into one of the best left backs in the world with better talent in front and around him.
- Michail Antonio, West Ham: Before becoming a force for West Ham, Antonio spent years within the EFL playing multiple positions. He most notably played for non-league Tooting & Mitcham and had a bevy of loans before moving to Hammers.
- Michael Olise, Crystal Palace: A player to watch going forward, Olise is a dynamic passer of the ball who can operate in a variety of roles. Despite winning Young Player of the Year in 2021, it was Palace who activated his release clause.
- Tyrone Mings, Aston Villa: It was Bournemouth where Mings first broke into a Premier League side, but he spent the early days of his career with non-league Chippenham Town and Ipswich Town.
- James Tarkowski, Burnley: Before blossoming with Sean Dyche at Burnley, Tarkowski worked his way up in English footballing circles at little-known Oldham Athletic.
The examples are all over the place across the Premier League. So many players have made it to England’s top flight via non-orthodox routes. It is not talked about as much, but mining the EFL provides for the opportunities (from the facilities at bigger clubs to the level of competition and atmosphere) that many of these lesser-known talents are in need of to take that next step in their career. In fact, it is somewhat of a foundational malpractice of squad-building to overlook the English Football League and only pursue targets abroad. In the coming days, I plan to write an article on 10 lower-league talents I have had my eye on and Spurs should find interest in.
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