The English Football League is growing in quality every year. Each division is a logjam of teams, either fallen giants or exciting underdogs, all aiming to get to the next level. In England‘s 5-0 win over San Marino, 11 of the 16 players that appeared have played in the EFL and at least eight of them came through an EFL academy.
The lower leagues have become a clear pathway for future England internationals to learn their craft and has become a ground to find the next Premier League star.
Recent debutant and goalscorer Ollie Watkins is everything the EFL wants in an England international. He’s played over 200 games in League Two and in the Championship and represented lower league clubs for six years.
Watkins scored over 60 goals for Brentford and Exter City and has proven to be just as prolific for new club Aston Villa, netting 10 Premier League goals and earning himself an England call-up. Unlike another EFL veteran turned Premier League star Jamie Vardy, Watkins entered the Premier League at the young age of 25, so could be a more attractive target to one of Europe’s elite eventually. Watkins’ success may see more Premier League clubs look further down into the national talent pool for talented marksmen.
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The most obvious choice on this list, Ivan Toney has defied expectations as Watkins’s successor at Brentford. Toney has already passed Watkins’ 25 goals from last season with a league-leading 28 goals in 36 games. The former Peterborough United man is scoring all types of goals, he’s scored five with his head and 22 with his right foot proving he’ll be able to play multiple styles of football.
This is key in the Premier League due to the constant turnover of managers. Toney is almost as good at creating goals as he is at scoring them. He has nine assists with his hold-up play key in bringing others into games and helping Brentford launch a counterattack. He averages 1.1 key passes a game, numbers fit for an attacking midfielder.
Brentford are fourth in the Championship but have only won five of their last 10 games and risk falling out of the automatic promotion race if they don’t pick up form soon. If Brentford do miss out on promotion, for the third year running they’re going to risk losing their star striker. Neal Maupay joined Brighton and Hove Albion in 2019 and Watkins left for Aston Villa in the summer. If Toney continues his current form in the Premier League an England call-up will come and he will have replicated Watkins’ journey.
In League 1 at 25-years-old, Dion Charles‘s story relates more to Vardy than Watkins but Vardy’s journey proves there is still time for the Accrington Stanley striker to reach the top. Non-league veteran Charles was a gamble when Accrington signed him from Southport in 2019 but his 17 goals this season prove he’s a gamble that’s paid off.
Charles hadn’t scored a goal in a level above the National League North or South before he was snapped up by Accrington but they were proven right in thinking his goalscoring instincts were natural at any level and are set to make a huge profit if they choose to cash in on the striker.
However, his aerial presence is a liability but he makes up for it with his superb finishing and defensive effort. The Northern Ireland striker recently earned his first international call-up and with the country failing to qualify for the summers European Championships, Charles may be part of the new wave of players manager Ian Baraclough looks to bring through.
Mallik Wilks is already a highly experienced EFL goalscorer at the young age of 22. He’s played 162 games and scored 47 goals in a career which includes goals in all three lower league divisions. He has 17 this season for League One promotion hopefuls Hull City and has played mostly from the right-wing.
The 22-year old is on the cusp of stardom, he is excellent at beating players off the dribble but struggles to keep the ball with his risky style of play and sometimes lacks defensive effort. This style is great for a team looking for promotion but if Hull gains promotion Wilks may need to adapt his game to stay on his upward trajectory. Still only 22, Wilks has time to mature his game and move to the next level. In comparison, at 22, Watkins was still playing in League 2 for Exeter City scoring 15 goals and earning his move to Brentford that summer. Wilks needs to continue his goalscoring and add better crossing, passing and defensive effort to his game if he wants to reach the Premier League eventually.
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