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From the archive: Scouting the National League
Orlando Valman picks out five players from England's fifth tier that have potential to climb the pyramid.
This piece was first published on our Patreon in April 2022. We’re reposting it free to read as the National League season starts again this weekend, and three of those included have since made moves up the league ladder.
Get out and support your local clubs, people. Find out where you can do so, here.
The National League – the fifth tier of English football – is establishing itself as a platform for young players to develop away from the spotlight. Orlando Valman picks out five of its best current young players, from a Barnet winger to a Bromley midfielder.
While non-league can seem a long way from the glamour of England’s top flight, it often proves to be the perfect breeding ground for future stars to develop away from the spotlight. This can particularly be the case with talented youngsters who manage to slip through the cracks in academy football, such as Jarrod Bowen and Ché Adams.
But there are also success stories like those of Jamie Vardy and Michail Antontio; players that never play proper academy football, begin their careers in non-league and end up becoming top-class players at the highest level.
Even if they don’t end up reaching the pinnacle of the Premier League, EFL clubs are increasingly looking to recruit from the National League, where there’s undoubtedly a strong breadth of talent.
On top of that, the National League has seen heavy investment in recent years. The acquisition of Wrexham by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney has been widely publicised, but the likes of Chesterfield and Stockport County also having the financial power to attract players from as far as two divisions above has gone under the radar.
The National League is increasingly being seen as an extension of the EFL – a ‘fifth division’ in the professional game – because of it’s highly-competitive qulity. Want an example? The last club to get relegated from League Two and go straight back up the following season was Cheltenham Town in 2016.
Furthermore, no club has ever been relegated back down to the National League the season after being promoted. The National League’s exports are also almost always successful too, its relentless Saturday-Tuesday nature priming its best prospects to excel at higher levels.
Anyway, here are five National League prospects to keep an eye out for…
🏴 Joe Sbarra (1998, CM, Solihull Moors)
To be frank, it’s something of a mystery that Joe Sbarra is currently playing in the National League. Despite making over 50 appearances for Burton Albion — where he came through the academy — across both League One and the Championship, he signed for Solihull Moors on a two-year deal at the beginning of the 2020/21 season upon release by the Brewers.
It’s highly unlikely that he will stay in non-league football any further than the end of this season given that at time of writing he has a whopping 14 goals and 8 assists from midfield in 36 games, but he’s still very much worth a mention as one of the most talented players currently in the division.
Sbarra is a blend of all things one would want from a creative, goal-scoring midfielder. Despite having a relatively slight build and standing at only 5’6”, he’s tenacious and dogged in midfield battles – he wins many duels out of sheer determination.
He’s also excellent in the press, given the licence to step out of midfield and pressure opposition defenders into mistakes, and is good at making sliding tackles from behind, although that is often a result of poor positioning. The flaws in his defensive technique could be exposed at a higher level – he’s prone to making challenges too early and rarely defends with the ideal body shape – but what he offers going forward is likely enough to compensate for defensive drawbacks, particularly given how good the pressing side of his game is.
On the ball, Sbarra oozes quality at National League level. He has a low centre of gravity to beat a player using trickery, strong ball-striking technique off both feet, and a particularly strong aptitude for picking a through pass. The latter forms a large part of what has become a trademark move of his in Solihull Moors’ goalscoring exploits this season: Sbarra picking up the ball in the opposition half, sending a slide-rule pass into the channels for a runner and then spinning off his marker into the box to get on the end of a return cut-back. He also has a creative spark in him – an inventive backheel or sudden one-two with a teammate is never far off when Sbarra is on the ball.
A lightning-quick player with the ability to unlock tight defences with a bit of creative magic, Sbarra has the potential to go much further than the National League. Now with 150 career games under his belt at only the age of 23, he should use this season of dominance in the National League as a springboard for a move to an EFL club that will offer him creative freedom.
If such a move ends up materialising, it is highly likely that the coming years will see Sbarra push on to much higher levels.
Update – August 2023:
Despite links with a couple of League Two clubs, Sbarra stayed at Solihull Moors for the 2022/23 season, where he played just under 2,500 minutes and won the club’s Player of the Year award.
🏴 Marcus Sablier (1998, CM, Bromley)
A classy, athletic central midfielder, Marcus Sablier burst onto the non-league scene after scoring his first senior goal – a fantastic acrobatic volley – live on BT Sport on only his fourth ever start in September 2021.
He was in and out of Bromley’s starting eleven for the remainder of 2021, but, for an 18-year-old making his first steps into senior football, it’s clear how talented he is.
With a tall, imposing frame, he covers ground with ease and has excellent tackling technique – particularly good in 50-50s, always fully committing to the challenge and using his body intelligently to outwit his opponent. One of Sablier’s biggest strengths is his ability to intercept passes; his frame undoubtedly gives him an advantage over others, but there’s much more to it than him just relying on his long legs or natural athleticism. He’s nimble and has excellent anticipation, and he rarely sells himself too easily. The teenager is strong in the air too, with good judgement of where to head the ball as well as being secure in the winning of aerial duels.
Prone to over-playing and attempting too many ambitious passes, Sablier’s decision-making on the ball needs improving, but it’s clear that the raw skillset is there. He possesses a lovely passing range off his right boot, and particularly notable about his passing is that its range stretches not only across all distances but also across many various techniques. He’s shown to be capable of all different types of passes, from long-distance daisy-cutters to weighted through balls in behind, and his ball-striking calibre stretches to shooting, too, as seen in his wonderful long-distance strike against Wealdstone.
After struggling to get into Bromley’s team in 2022, Sablier now finds himself on loan at Welling United, a division below in the National League South. Bromley’s decision to send him out was not particularly welcomed by their fans, but Welling is a club known for being good at youth development, and playing regular senior football for the remainder of this season will provide a good opportunity for Sablier to gain some experience and work on filtering out the callow aspects of his game.
If all goes well, it would make sense to expect Sablier to play a more involved role at Bromley next season, and, given the talent he possesses, it wouldn’t be surprising if he pushes on from that soon after.
Update – August 2023:
Sablier was sent out on loan three times during the 2022/23 season: first to Hampton & Richmond Borough in step two, then to Bowers & Pitsea and Cray Wanderers in step three. He’ll now be looking to break into the Bromley team ahead of the new season.
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🏴 Ephron Mason-Clark (1999, Winger, Barnet)
Barnet’s academy has probably been the most fruitful out of all the clubs currently in the National League. Having already produced the likes of Jamal Lowe, Jack Taylor and Ronnie Edwards, Ephron Mason-Clark is another who has the ability to reach the Championship like those three – and potentially go even further.
It’s always been clear that the winger has talent in abundance since he started playing for Barnet as a 16-year-old, but he’s really put it all together this season, even captaining the Bees having recently surpassed the landmark of 150 senior appearances. Barnet are reported to have turned down numerous bids from EFL clubs over the past few seasons for the now-22-year-old, but his contract expires this summer and he’ll almost certainly be making the anticipated move up the pyramid.
Mason-Clark is a pacy and skilful winger who combines flair with powerful, direct running to terrorise National League full-backs. Stood at 5’10” with a robust build, he’s excellent at harnessing his strength whilst dribbling: once he’s going, defenders bounce off him. Equally able off both wings, he also bears the ability to take on defenders with the intention of going either side no matter where on the pitch. He has excellent shooting technique off his favoured right foot, possessing both a fiercely powerful shot and the ability to curl it into the corner with finesse.
Furthermore, his decision-making on which foot to use depending on the situation is excellent. It’s in those little actions that his strong game understanding can be seen — not only does he have the raw ability to execute attacks well, he comes up with creative and intelligent ways of constructing them.
Off the ball, Mason-Clark does his bit. His pressing is not uncompromisingly relentless in the same way as Sbarra, for instance, but he rarely shirks defensive responsibility despite his importance in attack. His understanding of when and where to pressure the ball is impressive.
Mason-Clark’s off-ball movement when his team have possession is high in quality as well. He’s adept at coming in from a wide position on the touchline to make a curved run in behind, and he enjoys using double-movements to evade his marker when dropping deeper to receive the ball to feet.
There are clear parts of Mason-Clark’s game that could still be improved. In particular, his finishing is somewhat unreliable – he has shown to have all sorts of finishes in his locker, but often comes up short when afforded opportunities in the box. He also lacks threat from crosses in wider positions, which is particularly a shame given that he is so good at fashioning crossing opportunities.
However, what he does offer is undeniable. A dynamic force on the wing who gets spectators off their seats, it would be a huge surprise if Mason-Clark is not a regular at higher levels in the years to come.
Update – August 2023:
Peterborough United, a club who have bought multiple players from Barnet in recent years, including Ronnie Edwards and Jack Taylor, signed Mason-Clark in late August 2022.
He went on to contribute to 15 goals in 2,600 minutes across 39 appearances in his first League One season, and has since been named as Posh’s club captain during pre-season.
🏴 John McAtee (1999, AM, Grimsby Town)
In a relatively similar mould to his younger brother, Manchester City rising star James (2002), John McAtee is an all-round attacking midfielder with excellent end product.
He’s somewhat a non-league veteran, having come through Shrewsbury Town’s academy but taking in loan spells at Halesowen Town, AFC Telford United, Ashton United and Curzon Ashton before joining League Two side Scunthorpe United in July 2019.
He spent a couple of seasons there as a regular squad player, but turned down a new contract in June 2021 in order to drop down a division to the National League, joining local rivals Grimsby Town, who themselves had just dropped a division after relegation. Although McAtee signed a two-year contract with the Mariners, his performances this season make it unlikely that he’ll fulfil both years of the deal.
The thing that stands out most about McAtee is his goal-scoring ability. Although nominally a midfielder, he loves to get forward and seems to have mastered the art of Lampard-esque late arrivals in the box. This has a strong link to his offensive positioning, one of his biggest strengths: whether it be sharp off-ball movement in behind, cleverly maintaining a position in defenders’ blind-sides or popping up between the lines in a pocket of space, McAtee always seems to be in the right place at the right time to capitalise on promising situations going forward.
He combines this with being an excellent finisher. Capable off both feet, he has a canny habit of catching ‘keepers off guard by taking shots earlier than expected. There is one drawback to his shooting, though — he takes too many shots from poor locations. He scores them, sure, but it can be frustrating for coaches, team-mates and fans alike.
Although he’s so involved in the opposition box, McAtee’s game stretches across the whole final third, touchline to touchline. He appears on Grimsby’s team sheet as a number 10 in a 4-2-3-1, but in reality he operates more like a withdrawn striker in a 4-4-2. His strike partner, Ryan Taylor, is much less mobile but has good box movement and keeps centre-backs busy; McAtee is tasked with playing across the attack and facilitating play where needed.
He’s aggressive in duels and can physically be a nuisance for the opposition when popping up out wide, but is also technically proficient on the ball and has it in his locker to bypass a defender with a piece of skill. Off the ball he is very clearly partnered with Taylor to press in a 4-4-2, and he is a willing runner, once again often proving to be a source of irritation for the opposition.
Considering where he plays on the pitch, it would be understandable for McAtee to elsewhere be asked to be more of a creative outlet than he currently is for Grimsby. The Mariners’ style of play is undoubtedly part of the reason that McAtee does not play many creative passes – there are simply not many opportunities for him to do so in this system – but he does have a frustrating tendency to pass up on opportunities for through balls or line-breaking passes.
Instead, most of his creative output comes through passes into the box from slightly outside it in wider areas – there’s nothing wrong with that, but to be a successful number 10 at a higher level he may need to add a little more unpredictability to his passing.
Update – August 2023:
John McAtee is now, technically, sort of, a Premier League player.
After helping fire Grimsby to the EFL via the National League play-offs – scoring in both the semi-final and final against Wrexham and Solihull Moors respectively – McAtee was signed by Luton Town a year ago, before being loaned back to Grimsby for the League Two season.
It remains to be seen whether he’ll have a role to play in the upcoming Premier League season, but leaving on loan down the EFL ladder is the likeliest outcome.
🏴 Kabongo Tshimanga (1997, ST, Chesterfield)
Although his inclusion here is technically against the rules given that he’s now over 23 years old, it would’ve been disrespectful to write a piece on the best prospects in the National League without at least briefly mentioning Chesterfield’s Kabongo Tshimanga.
Reportedly subject to multiple bids from Championship clubs in January, with a whopping 24 goals in 27 games the striker is still the National League’s current top scorer despite suffering a horrific season-ending leg injury in February.
Boasting frightening movement both inside and outside the box, Tshimanga is a constant threat to opposition defences. He’s an equally competent finisher off both feet, and also possesses the ability to run at and take on defenders with the ball at his feet. His game as an all-round striker aside from scoring goals is high in quality too, with sharp link-up skills and excellent back-to-goal play.
As long as he recovers from his current injury into the player he was earlier this season, Tshimanga is perhaps the likeliest of all on this list to be a real star at higher levels. As we’ve seen with previous examples in recent years, strikers have the skillset most transferable to the top level for players nurtured in non-league football, and Tshimanga’s goal record in the National League is just as good as Jamie Vardy’s was.
With a bit of luck on the way, as is always needed in football, it is not unreasonable to suggest it is possible that Tshimanga might one day find himself in the Premier League.
Update – August 2023:
Kabongo Tshimanga ended the 2021/22 season with 24 goals in 27 appearances in the National League. Links to EFL clubs as high up as the Championship permeated the summer but he remained at Chesterfield until deadline day of the January 2023 transfer window.
Surprise-surprise, Peterborough United were the club that plucked him out of non-league. He struggled to make an impact in the second half of the season as Posh chased promotion, playing just 115 minutes, but will be hoping to have a bigger role in the coming season.