By Jeff Brazier
They say don’t judge a team or the players until 10 games into a new campaign. We’ve just hit that milestone now, so I wanted to review one of the main thrills of following the Vanarama which is watching a player develop in the 5th tier and getting a much-deserved break at a club in the Football League.
My favourite example is one of our most recent: Sorba Thomas. He has not only found his way into the Championship with Huddersfield, he’s also just been selected to play for the Wales national team as the injured Gareth Bale’s replacement too.
It’s a sensational story that will motivate players to work hard to emulate that pathway, convince top clubs to not just loan players to the National League to develop (which I've written about here) but also trust that the level is an increasingly viable source of first team ready talent offering excellent value for money.
I’ve used the games I’ve watched so far this season as a reference to compile a list of potential transfer targets for the not-so-distant future. Now predicting the next player to catch the eye of the EFL is easy when the player is grabbing the headlines and that’s particularly true of these goal-scorers.
Tahvon Campbell 24 CF Woking
8 in 8 at time of writing, which includes more braces than an orthodontist! Tahvon has score 2 against Torquay, Eastleigh, Chesterfield and Notts County at the weekend. A player that has been loaned several times to the National League in the past but after two seasons with limited opportunities at Cheltenham where he only played for them 11 times in the league and a loan spell last season at Halifax, he has settled in comfortably at Woking.
With Woking sitting in 8th with two games in hand over most sides above them, assistant manager Ian Dyer spoke about the opportunity for Campbell to find a home so I know it’s a big focus and consideration to he and Alan Dowson in the way they feel they can continue to get the best out of an obviously talented player.
It would be unfair to say he has never really kicked on at any of his previous clubs including West Bromwich Albion, Forest Green and Gillingham because 90 odd games in League Two does suggest he has never been completely overlooked.
The difference seems to be that Campbell has never really scored goals before at the rate he is clocking up this season so far. I haven’t watched Woking yet since we got back underway and I’m interested to know if it’s purely down to man-management that Alan Dowson is getting the best out of him in-front of goal, but I’m sure it’ll have been registered by scouts across the EFL.
Kabongo Tshimanga 24 CF Chesterfield If scoring 9 in 10 games, starting every game so far and helping your side into the top three isn’t grabbing serious attention, I don’t know what will. The striker started really showing his scoring potential at Oxford City in the National League South in the 18-19 season, scoring 24 in 42.
That earned him the move to Boreham Wood and in 2 seasons he hit 38 goals over 79 games leaving him just short of 20 goals in both campaigns. Surely he will get into the 20s with Chesterfield if he stays fit and they continue to compete for the title?
You can always sense a player that will be in the league sooner rather than later but whoever comes in for him, it’s going to cost them. I believe Chesterfield paid a fee that Bolton were not willing to pay so if he has a good season and Chesterfield don’t get promoted this year it’ll take quite an offer for the Spireites to let him go.
Joe Sbarra 22 CF Solihull Moors
With 7 goals in 10, everyone will be checking out this exciting prospect for his blistering pace and ability to break defensive lines and find the net. He was released from Burton Albion having scored just once in 70 appearances and joined Solihull on a 2 year deal, a decision made easier by the fact he’d already featured for them on loan. Joe might say otherwise but his outstanding brace against Wrexham may well be his highlight of the season so far.
I watched him play at Dagenham recently and alongside Dallas and Newton it was clear to see how dangerous they are on the break. I’d watched the highlights of their goalless draw with Dover before that and noted he’d missed a one on one which not only denied them all 3 points but spelled the first game he’d failed to get his name on the scoresheet which has turned to 3 games since.
Once again v Dagenham he failed to convert in similar circumstances when the game was only 2-1, but a few wise managers have told me over the years that if a player in the National League didn’t have anything they needed to improve, well they wouldn’t be in the National League. That always sticks with me and explains why quite a few players temporarily land or permanently stay at the level even though you can see their potential.
That’s not to say he isn’t contributing, far from it. In their 2-0 win over Southend he crossed for the first and won the penalty for the second, so goals aren’t the only reason he is setting the standard for other attacking players this season.
It's fascinating how even last year his goalscoring was comparatively modest, with 5 league goals from 34. I didn’t see him play last year but I can only imagine he was deployed in a different role as he only notched once in the final 12 games despite Solihull’s particularly strong finish to the season? Whatever it is that’s got him firing, if it can be sustained, he will undoubtedly be a temptation for any side in need of goals.
Kyle Hudlin CF 21 Solihull Moors
Maybe part of the reason Sbarra was less prolific last season is that 6 ft 9 Striker Kyle Hudlin was scoring his fair share and/or taking up positions that denied Sbarra the space that he likes to operate in? Hudlin scored 9 in the league and they ended up winning every single fixture that he scored in, so a good omen!
I remember seeing him score against Halifax last season and there’s not many strikers that could have used the combination of height, strength and technique to create that particular finish.
Scoring goals and being pretty tall doesn’t go unnoticed in football and the likes of Man City, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield have recently been joined by Celtic as potential homes for Solihull’s Young Player of the Season.
This campaign hasn’t seen Hudlin start how he left off. He started the first 3 games but didn’t score which also coincided with the team being without a win. Solihull actually won their next 3 games without him and curiously Hudlin hadn’t featured in the squad until he got some minutes against Wealdstone last time out at time of writing. I’m not sure if he was injured or Ardley dropped him but he’ll be hopeful of more chances to impress those potential suitors.
He’s a unique proposition and you can’t help feeling something is going to happen soon in order for him to play, this potentially may have more chance of happening elsewhere so my eyes, as well as a load of managers, are peeled.
Dan Mooney 22 RW/AM Altrincham
An impressive start to this campaign scoring 4, once against Dover, Kings Lynn, the winner last weekend against Dagenham and versus Grimsby midweek. I watched Altrincham beat Torquay on the opening day and he was energetic, dangerous and very attack minded, causing lots of problems on the day.
Mooney started out at Fleetwood and has been a fans favourite with Alty ever since he followed up a loan spell by signing permanently in 2019-20. Quick, talented, can play anywhere across the front 3, he’s been a handful so far and is one we need to look out for.
Phil Parkinson has done wonders to get to 15 points after just 8 games. Sitting in 9th with two games in hand over most above them and I know Mooney is a big part of that early success as is Joel Senior who seems to be racking up assists in the National League at quite a pace.
Ephron Mason-Clarke 22 CF Barnet
A product of Barnet FC’s academy, Mason-Clark continues to fly under many people’s radars, probably because he plays for a team that have had their struggles of late. Despite this, the 21-year-old is approaching close to 150 appearances for the Bees.
Apparently Darren Currie absolutely adored him in his time there and he may have been unlucky with the timing of Currie’s departure. Just before Currie left, Jack Taylor was sold to Peterborough just before the pandemic and is currently being touted as being the next player to reach the highest level to come out of the non-league pathway.
Who’s to say if Currie had stayed he wouldn’t have been the next player to progress? Worth also mentioning how ex-Barnet youngster Ronnie Edwards, 18, has been linked with Man Utd and doesn’t have a Premier League side who isn’t watching him at present.
Ephron is clearly at a club who have a knack of sending good players on to better things. Unfortunately for him, Barnet also have a high turnover of managers so the period since Currie left will have impacted his development, even if only slightly. That said, no matter which of the many previous managers have come in they always seem to value his services and you can’t sniff at the experience he has gained playing as much football as he already has.
Callum Roberts 24 RW Notts County
My favourite player to watch currently in the National League. With 4 goals in 9 appearances this season, he has excited County fans more than anyone in recent years and if he can stay injury free you almost feel like it’s a given that he will grace the Football League.
The only thing stopping him (other than injury) might be the fact he is locked in at Notts to a lengthy 2.5 year contract, so the offer would need to be good. Roberts has scored some good goals already but his winner against Aldershot epitomised how dangerous he is when he cuts in and plays little one-twos before troubling goalkeepers.
Omar Mussa 21 CM Weymouth
I watched Omar for Weymouth against his old side Dover and was impressed with his technical ability, footwork and passing. He stands out for always seemingly having more time on the ball than anyone else and whilst it wasn’t the perfect all-round performance, he showed enough to suggest if he continues to develop under Brian Stock, he can play higher.
Mussa was a Belgium under-18 international and his manager believes he can be anything he wants to be. He was at Walsall but didn’t make his mark and whereas in the Pemier League academies you wouldn’t need to ‘be ready’ until your early 20’s, if you haven’t the benefit of that patience around you it can often be why the potential of some players isn’t spotted until we get them in the National League.
Jordan Davies 23 CM Wrexham
It’s easy to see why there’s a lot of love for this guy at the Racecourse. He came through their academy, got a dream move to Brighton and when it was time to leave despite featuring in several EFL Trophy games, instead of heading to a number of interested clubs in the EFL he opted to come home to Wrexham, signing a 2 year deal in the Summer 2020.
Jordan hadn’t featured in the last 3 games until his return in the draw v Chesterfield. They lost two when he was absent so he’s looking like a vital part of Wrexham’s title ambitions.
Mo Sagaf 23 CM Dagenham
A versatile, technical, energetic and hungry player who was so impressive in the 5-1 Dagenham win against Solihull. He was confident, composed, creative. You could see there was a player there at his time with Braintree a few seasons ago. I remember he won April Player of the Month whilst under Danny Searle which earned him a move to Carlisle in 2019-20 scoring for them on his debut.
He was released at the end of that season though and Daryl McMahon was quick to snap him up. Mo was given a contract extension in the summer and is one of various players in that squad that Dagenham need to work hard to keep hold of when the EFL comes knocking.
I could probably mention a few more Dagenham players: Josh Walker, George Saunders, Aaron Blair, the lad they’ve just signed from Ongar who they’ve loaned out again, Ryley Scott! I won’t focus too much on one team for fear of getting in trouble with the manager, but it’s shaping up nicely for Daryl McMahon and the future of the club.
Saidou Khan 25 CM Chesterfield
The one that got away for McMahon at Dagenham, who had him on loan from Maidstone at the end of last year, but Khan is fancied as an all-round midfielder who excites the crowds and is definitely one to watch. Chesterfield’s 7th signing this summer, he signed a 2 year deal for James Rowe, although it was reported he was subject to serious interest from Championship side Luton.
Saidou, an effortlessly positive, direct player, has scored 2 goals this year so far and I can’t help singing a little bit of “I feel for you” when S Khan comes up on the screen on a Saturday afternoon!
That goal against Woking from inside his own half without even taking a touch almost guarantees that with a good season in this good Chesterfield side we probably won’t have him at the level for too long. He’s too audacious, has too much vision and too much belief not to be tested higher.
John McAtee CM Grimsby 22
I haven’t watched Grimsby yet, but seeing the highlights of any game will tell you his work rate is staggeringly impressive, my kind of tireless midfielder. Not just there to break up the play, he will run in behind and cause an attacking threat, proven by the 5 goals he’s scored in 10.
John was at Scunthorpe for 2 seasons beforehand, playing 49 times for them, so he’s far from wet behind the ears. He actually turned down a contract there to join Grimsby and reunite with manager Paul Hurst for a 3rd time, which is subject to an ongoing compensation dispute which reached an undisclosed ruling earlier this week.
All factors considered, it obviously won’t be a huge shock when John, who comes from a family full of professional sportsmen, does resume a role at a club higher up be that Grimsby if successful or someone else if not!
The Last Line Of Defence
Kane Smith 25 RB Boreham Wood
It feels like his move should have happened by now. You can argue his season spent on the sidelines due to a knee injury in 2018-19 might have restricted his chances but he’s stayed fit since and has been as consistent as ever as an attacking wing back who doesn’t let you down defensively.
Originally signed from Hitchin in 2017 after he’d had trials with Crystal Palace, Shrewsbury and Coventry, he has gone on to play 136 games for Luke Garrard. He has a great delivery and has constantly been one of the better full backs at the level, so you expect it to happen for him. Got his first goal of the season v Torquay too.
Michee Efete 24 RB Grimsby
Came through at Norwich and went on to represent several non-league sides before finding himself at Grimsby. Was sent off after losing his temper in his last game v Bromley, a defeat which brought an end to their unbeaten start to the season. It’s something he’ll need to curb if he wants to progress.
Focusing on his talents though, he played a big role in getting Wealdstone promoted into the 5th tier, scoring 10 goals from full back. This season he’s scored 2 already and his first came against Torquay in a game he really stood out in. Not only did he get the equaliser to set them on their way to victory, but he also attacked down the right hand side with strength, pace and power at every opportunity, causing a headache for Dean Moxey and Armani Little.
You can tell by the way Paul Hurst talks about him post-match that he knows he can go on and play higher by the way he manages to balance his praise with a healthy amount of criticism, feeling that this is what Efete needs to stay hungry and focused.
Jesse Debrah 20 CH Halifax
He caught my attention when scoring a decent effort on his debut against Woking in early September. Centre halves are not normally known for having such technical ability, their managers normally scream at them for even thinking about it!
I was disappointed with Halifax as a whole when I watched them at Yeovil but since that Jesse hasn’t played in their last 5 and it’s duly noted that Halifax have kept 3 consecutive clean sheets, their first against Stockport and the other two on the road, so it might be hard for Debrah to get straight back in the side when he returns, especially with that comeback win v Notts County.
Danny Collinge 23 CH Dover
I’m adding Danny on a hunch based both on his performance I witnessed against Weymouth and the way he spoke after the game when interviewing him for BT Sport. Some of you might wonder what that has to do with someone’s chances of progressing in the game, but he was mature, focused, resilient and full of belief that his side can climb that mountainous disadvantage of a 12 point deduction and survive.
Performance wise, Dover’s predicament means opportunities for young players like him and the draws they’ve been scrapping for lately will reflect greatly on his defensive abilities as well as his leadership qualities which he seems to have in abundance. He’ll need all of that after their 6-0 drubbing to Grimsby.