As we continue to mark this year's Non-League Day, which takes place in England today (Saturday), we recall five players who stepped up directly from non-league to play for Chelsea in years gone by.
Always scheduled to coincide with an international break, Non-League Day provides a platform for clubs to promote the importance of volunteer-led community football while giving fans across the country the chance to show support for their local non-league side. Visit the Non-League Day website to find your nearest game this weekend.
While the prospect of players in action today hurtling up four divisions or more in one transfer seems unlikely in modern football, such a stratospheric rise was not so uncommon in previous decades, as we explore here...
This man-mountain of a centre-half spent 15 years with Chelsea, many of which were as captain – but he very nearly turned down the chance of becoming a Blue. Having been messed about by Football League clubs while trying to make it into the game as a teenager, Droy was quite happy to be playing alongside his mates at Slough Town, earning a living with a tiling company during the week.
It was only when his old boss offered to give him his job back if things didn’t work out at the Bridge that he finally decided to sign; six months later, he was playing in a Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against Manchester City.
Things were a little different in Saunders’ day, when retaining one’s amateur status could prove to be more lucrative – depending on their day job – than turning professional. However, having captained England’s amateur side and won an FA Amateur Cup with Walthamstow Avenue, Saunders followed a fine showing at the Helsinki Olympic Games by signing for the Blues in 1953.
He was one of only two players to appear in every game of our 1954/55 Division One-winning campaign and he played more than 200 times for the club before hanging up his boots just after his 31st birthday. After retirement he helped coach our youth team.
The signing of Hutchinson proved to be a feather in the cap for the scouting department and manager Dave Sexton, after he was plucked from Cambridge United in 1968 at the age of 20 for £5,000. Despite Peter Osgood quipping after his first training session that the club had paid “about £4,995 too much for him”, the two struck up one of the best strike pairings in the club’s history.
Hutch went on to score in our famous FA Cup final against Leeds United, as well as being renowned for his long throws, but he was too brave for his own good and ended up retiring before he turned 30 after finally succumbing to injury.
Sexton certainly had an eye for a player. Swain had come down from Liverpool to go to university, combining a teacher’s training course in physical education with a part-time playing role at Wycombe Wanderers.
At the end of his third year at uni, Sexton offered him the chance to train with Chelsea – and at 21, he saw it as a case of now or never and gave up on his studies to join the Blues. He proved to be a fine foil to Steve Finnieston in another famous strike pairing, and he later joined Aston Villa and won the European Cup as a full-back.
While plying his trade at Hillingdon Borough, Canoville was close to giving up on his dream of making it at the top level of English football, having previously turned down Wimbledon as they offered him less than he was making on the dole!
Ironically, the boyhood Leeds fan was given his big break by Chelsea, whose boss John Neal liked what he saw of Canners during two separate trials. He became the first black player to appear in our men's first team and overcame the considerable challenge of prejudice from a sizeable section of the club’s own support to become a popular and key member of Neal’s beloved side of the mid-Eighties.
Non-league links in 2022
Two members of Thomas Tuchel's current squad have past experience in non-league football, albeit at varying ages. Goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli spent a season on loan from Fulham at Conference side Dartford almost a decade ago, gaining his first experience of senior football. In a recent interview with this website, he claimed it was 'probably one of the best moves I ever made.'
Meanwhile, Christian Pulisic developed his love for the game as a seven-year-old in the youth system at Brackley Town in Northamptonshire while his family were based in the area prior to their return to Pennsylvania.
There are also two Academy goalkeepers currently on loan in non-league football - Ethan Wady with Southern League Premier Division South side Hendon and Sami Tlemcani at Isthmian League Premier Division side Merstham.