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Matt Cafer on the “hidden gems” in the “very, very underrated” non-leagues of English football

What is the difference between the Premier League and non-league football? Matt Cafer, a goalkeeper, who has played for Yeovil Town, non-league clubs Weymouth and Bath City as well as in Gibraltar for Europa FC and Manchester 62, decided to give his opinion on why some players make it to the very top and others don’t.

Footballers at every level of the game work hard, but some stand out more than others and for Cafer, it is about shining at the right moment as some talented players in the lower leagues just don’t get picked up by bigger clubs.

Cafer explains: “You could have three amazing games and none of them [scouts] watching you and the one game that there are people there watching you, you have an absolute howler.”

One of those players who was lucky enough to get spotted from a lower league club was Deli Alli, who played for League One side MK Dons before his big move to Tottenham Hotspur.

Cafer says: “he [Alli] was doing exactly what he’s doing now in the Premier League as he was in League One at MK Dons so it’s not the fact that there’s not ability down there, it’s just when you get the opportunity to prove to play in the Premier League at the highest level.”

Photo credit: Simon Howe (@yuffie_city) | Twitter

Consistency is also another key factor. Many players are able to hit thirty, forty yard screamers but are unable to produce the superb displays on a regular basis.

In some respects, a player like Alli was lucky to get the opportunity to climb out of League One and into one of the top Premier League clubs – it’s not always easy for players to prove themselves to teams higher up the tree.

This is the pyramid scale. It is much easier for players to start out at the academies of a top Premier League team than a Football League side like Alli or Cafer, who began his career at Yeovil Town’s academy. It is fiendishly difficult to climb the pyramid scale.

Cafer says: “If you’re a youth team scholar at a Premier League club, if you get released after your scholarship or after a first year professional contract, you’ll simmer down to maybe Championship if you’re lucky, but if not certainly a League One club will take you without even looking at you because you’ve had that Chelsea background.”

But when you’re at a club in the Football League, it is easy to get pushed further down the pecking order, by the players who were formerly at Premier League clubs. This is how many players can end up in the non-league.

Photo credit: Simon Howe (@yuffie_city) | Twitter

Cafer adds: “If you were at a League One or League Two club and you don’t get given an opportunity as a pro, realistically they’re not going to be many clubs that will say if Yeovil didn’t want him, what chance is there that we’re going to want him?”

A lot of clubs who are taking players with a Premier League background are eager to snap them up without really looking at them because these players would have received a higher level of training than players at academies at clubs in the Football League.

“They’re still going to be steps ahead just from the coaching, maybe not ability-wise. That level of understanding of football is going to be a lot higher, it will just be a lot easier for them to adapt,” says Cafer.

Having recently left National League South team Bath City, Cafer is still optimistic that he can climb up a few tiers to play consistently for a League One  or League Two club within the next few of years.

Currently injured, he continues to work out regularly so he can keep himself at the same level as other footballers who are playing full-time.

Photo credit: Simon Howe (@yuffie_city) | Twitter

He also believes that strength training is an integral part of the game because of the physicality of the English system.

However, the demands of the game here are very different to the Gibraltar Premier Division where Cafer played from 2014 to 2017 for Europa FC and then Manchester 62.

Cafer explains that the Gibraltan game is based more on the Spanish style of playing:. He says: “Their ideas and methods of playing are a lot more on the Spanish tiki-taka way you see Barcelona play. They love to play little circles, little rondos before training, they’re always one touch, two-touch they try to play the beautiful way of football.”

When considering the possibility of playing abroad, Cafer recalls what his agent at the time told him: “You have a chance to get in to qualify for Europa League – something you might never get the opportunity to do again.”

The move proved to be a success and between the ages of 19 and 22, Cafer made six appearances in the Europa League.

Photo credit: Simon Howe (@yuffie_city) | Twitter

Football, however, is only part-time and Cafer pursues one of his other passions in social care as a support worker for children and says that it is a career he would like to do when he’s no longer playing football.  

Of course, most non-league players are only playing part-time so for Cafer, it’s not true that a lot of footballers just play for the money or the fame.

He says: “You’re playing football because you love it, you’re turning up on a cold Tuesday night in the pissing rain where you finish work after a ten-hour shift.”

The non-league is also a place where some “hidden gems” or Jamie Vardys could get missed, so scouts might want to take closer note of the players in those leagues because in Cafer’s words it’s “very, very underrated.”

Featured image: Simon Howe (@yuffie_city) | Twitter

Tomas Meehan
Tomas has a passion for track and field but takes an interest in doing interviews and writing articles on a wide range of sports including bobsleigh, Muay Thai boxing, boxing, horse racing, rugby, football and Ultimate Frisbee. As well as writing, he has a YouTube channel featuring interviews from high-profile track and field athletes. Prior to embarking on his Sports Journalism degree at St. Mary's University, Twickenham, he obtained an MA in Spanish from the University of Edinburgh.
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