Burnley’s quest for a bargain saw them appoint Alfreton manager Nicky Law in a recruitment role last year. The hope is that his knowledge of non-league football will give the Clarets an edge on the rest. Adam Bate caught up with him to find out more…
Nicky Law is on a roll now as he reels off the names. There was Jordan Pickford at Alfreton. “He was very raw but you could see he was special,” he tells Sky Sports. Aden Flint too. Long before the 52 caps for Germany, Thomas Hitzlsperger was his professional debut by Law at Chesterfield. “We didn’t have enough letters for his shirt,” he remembers.
He discovered Bournemouth defender Simon Francis playing for South Nottingham College and gave him his debut as a 17-year-old at Bradford. But it is the ones that got away that still smart. Kyle Walker and John Stones were already highly-rated young prospects when Law tried to bring them in on loan. Others, however, were not so celebrated.
“Jamie Vardy was one in 2010,” he tells Sky Sports. “I think we offered Halifax £7,000 but it had to be £10,000. My chairman at Alfreton wouldn’t go to £10,000. Then Jamie went to Fleetwood for £25,000 in the end. I often reminded my chairman of it and he still doesn’t appreciate me reminding him. Of course, the rest was history.”
Law’s attention soon turned elsewhere. “I went for Andre Gray instead after he had been let go at Shrewsbury. I had watched him on loan at Telford and liked what I saw. Then he went to Hinckley. I spoke to Dean Thomas, who was the manager there at the time, and they wanted £10,000 for him as well so we missed out on him too.”
That Gray eventually joined Burnley for £6m in 2015, before being sold on to Watford for a healthy profit, is proof that Law has an eye for talent. It also offers a clue as to why the club were prepared to end his decade-long stay at Alfreton last year in order to make him Burnley’s head of national recruitment for 17 to 23 year old’s.
Law is enjoying the new role and embracing a challenge he knows well – unearthing talent on the cheap. “The players are there but they are never going to be there and ready,” he explains. “You do it one of two ways. You take the lad and invest time in him or you don’t and you let him go somewhere else and get his football education there.
“Jamie Vardy didn’t become a Premier League player overnight. He went to Halifax, then Fleetwood, then Leicester in the Championship. It was the same with Andre Gray who went to Luton. So there are two ways. You invest in them and educate them or you let someone else do it. But if you let someone else do it, you will end up paying top dollar.”
Law’s influence can already be seen in Burnley’s development squad. Harry Flowers, grandson of World Cup winner Ron, signed in March and was joined by goalkeeper Aidan Stone in the summer. Both youngsters arrived from Brocton, a team that was relegated from the Midland League Premier Division last season, the ninth tier of English football.
It is some leap and perhaps reflects the fact that it is getting harder to find the bargains in non-league football. More and more semi-professional clubs are wise to the situation and ensuring they get their young prospects under contract. At Burnley, they are also competing with some of the biggest clubs in the country for local talent.
Nick Pope on his journey from non-league football to Burnley's first team
Even so, Law remains convinced that he is looking in the right place. Non-league is where he now expects to find the players with the hunger to succeed. “The teenager is different now to how he was even a decade ago,” he says. “Not just in football but in society. They have a different mentality. If you speak to people who work in academies, they would agree.
“Even at Burnley, it is a fantastic environment to come into. The young lads here have sports science to fall back on, welfare and education. We have staff coming out of our earholes. All of them have this available to them from a young age but the problem is that if they don’t make it here, that is what they are used to. With non-league boys it is completely different.
“Some of them have run a job alongside football. They have probably worked 6am to 4pm on a Tuesday before going to training or playing a game. They cannot afford to take a day off and they are back in work at 6am the next day too. If they do not go, they do not get paid. For them, the football has been secondary. The job had had to be paramount.
“So when they get the opportunity to focus fully on their football it means so much to them. They have not had the environment that those boys have had for those years. Suddenly they are playing football without having had to do a day’s work beforehand. So not only do many of them come with a very different mentality but they can also improve rapidly.”
All of which seems to fit very nicely with the ethos at Burnley, a club that has built its recent success under Sean Dyche on work ethic and character as well as quality. It is a side constructed in the image of their manager, a man who Law knows very well. They were team-mates in Chesterfield’s defence for three seasons in the 1990s.
“We weren’t the most gifted of players,” says Law, “but we had that desire and attitude. Sean has brought some of that to the Premier League. Burnley are not Manchester United. We cannot spend ridiculous amounts on players. It is crucial that when Sean brings them in they are the right characters and they will fit into the system.
“At Burnley we have a profile. We have to work alongside what Sean has created at Burnley, which is a great thing. I think everyone will see that this club is built on character. All of the players have a fantastic attitude. If you go and watch the first team here at Burnley having their lunch, they all mix with the young lads, take their plate back and stack it.
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“There are no airs and graces to them and no players with real attitude. They are all really grounded lads who work hard in a system and give it their all. That is what Sean has created. So everyone who we bring in has to have those characteristics too. There is no place for the ones with a swagger who we know will not fit the profile.”
And with that, Law is off. There will be another game to watch this weekend but it will not be Burnley’s clash with Premier League leaders Manchester City. In fact, he is as likely to be among the crowd at a game in English football’s tenth tier as its top flight. And if the player is out there who can make the step up, you would not bet against Law finding him.