Les Ferdinand: The Non-League Superstar Who Became a Premier League Legend

By Charlie Stewart

Everyone loves a good underdog story. There's just something special about when someone overcomes impossible odds to achieve something great.

And in football, we've seen plenty of them. Greece in 2004, Leicester in 2016, and plenty of zero-to-hero type tales.

Not every footballer begins their career at the top, though. In fact, the overwhelming majority are way down at the bottom of the pyramid. However, they can take inspiration from those who shot up the ladder - the likes of Jamie Vardy, Ian Wright, and, of course, Les Ferdinand.

Renowned for his speed, strength, aerial ability, and lethal finishing, Les Ferdinand is the Premier League's tenth highest goalscorer of all time with 149. But things weren't always so easy for the forward, whose younger days were spent in the lower divisions.

Ferdinand spent his youth career at non-league clubs Southall and Hayes, before playing a year in the latter's first team in 1986. It was at Hayes where he captured the attention of Queens Park Rangers, who subsequently bought the 20-year-old for £50,000.

The Englishman's took a while to make it into the Rs' first team. After a brief loan spell at Brentford where he made just three appearances, Ferdinand headed off to Besiktas for the 1988/89 season.

His year on loan in Turkey was highly successful. Scoring 17 times in all competitions, Ferdinand helped the Black Eagles to a second place finish in the league, while winning the Turkish Cup for only the second time.

Ferdinand's first full season at Loftus Road came in 1989/90. He only made nine appearances, and scored just twice. But he could hardly have chosen a better game for those two goals to come in. In a fixture against fierce west London rivals Chelsea, Ferdinand netted a first half brace as QPR defeated the Blues 4-2.

Les Ferdinand and Trevor Sinclair
Les Ferdinand and Trevor Sinclair / Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

The season afterwards saw QPR boss Don Howe give Ferdinand more game time - this time featuring on 21 occasions. Things weren't going well for the west Londoners, who had picked up just 18 points from their first 23 games. However, a run of seven goals in as many games from Ferdinand turned their fortunes around, and they ended the season with a flourish, settling in 12th place.

In the next campaign, Ferdinand finished as QPR's leading goalscorer in the league with ten. But it was the season after which saw him really thrive.

In the inaugural Premier League season, Ferdinand made a name for himself, bagging 20 league goals (only Tottenham's Teddy Sheringham scored more). These goals led QPR to fifth place - their highest ever finish in the Premier League era. It was this form that earned him his first cap for the England national team.

His debut for the Three Lions was a successful one, as he nodded home from close range to make it 6-0 against San Marino at Wembley in February 1993.

Ferdinand on his England debut
Ferdinand on his England debut / Steve Morton/Getty Images

A couple of months after his England debut, Ferdinand hit his first hat-trick in English football in a 4-3 home victory against Nottingham Forest, and then followed this up with another treble against Everton at Goodison Park two days later. In doing so, he became the first of five players to score back-to-back hat-tricks in the Premier League - the other four being Ian Wright, Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, and Harry Kane. Decent company.

His goal tally dropped to 16 in the next season, but he soon followed this up with his best goalscoring campaign yet in the 1994/95 season. The striker netted 24 goals in 37 appearances, including a brace against Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. His tally was beaten only by Blackburn's Alan Shearer and Liverpool's Robbie Fowler.

This was to be his last season at QPR. After nine years at Loftus Road, Ferdinand was sold to Newcastle United for £6m - to this day the fourth highest transfer fee ever received by the west Londoners. He left the Rs having bagged 90 goals in 184 outings in all competitions.

Ferdinand became a QPR legend
Ferdinand became a QPR legend / Ben Radford/Getty Images

QPR never truly recovered from the sale of their star man. Ferdinand's departure saw the Hoops drop from eighth to 19th in one season, relegating them to the second tier. They wouldn't return to the top flight until 2011.

In contrast, Ferdinand's arrival at St. James' Park sparked an upturn in fortunes for the Magpies. After finishing sixth in the previous campaign, Kevin Keegan's side mounted a serious title charge, and ended the season in second place, behind Manchester United. However, they would have been disappointed with this finish, given that they were 12 points clear of the Red Devils at one point in February.

Nonetheless, the 1995/96 season was the peak of Ferdinand's career. Having scored 25 league goals, the Englishman picked up the PFA Player of the Year award, earning him an unofficial knighthood among Newcastle fans, who gave him the moniker 'Sir Les'.

Off the back of this extraordinary season, England manager Terry Venables named Ferdinand in his squad for Euro 1996. However, he didn't make an appearance, with Venables preferring Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, and Robbie Fowler.

For the next campaign, Shearer partnered Ferdinand up front following his £15m move from Blackburn Rovers - a then-world record fee. The two formed a lethal duo, scoring 41 league goals between them.

Shearer and Ferdinand formed a deadly partnership
Shearer and Ferdinand formed a deadly partnership / Getty Images/Getty Images

About halfway through the season, Kevin Keegan resigned as Newcastle manager, and was replaced by Kenny Dalglish. This, surprisingly, was the beginning of the end of Ferdinand's time on Tyneside, and it soon became clear that he would be sold in order to raise funds for new signings.

In his second and final year at the northerners, Ferdinand helped guide Newcastle to another second place finish - once again behind Manchester United - before being sold to Tottenham Hotspur for £6m, his boyhood club, having netted an impressive 50 goals in just 84 games at St. James' Park.

Unfortunately, Ferdinand's debut season at White Hart Lane didn't go as planned. Due to injury, he missed large parts of the campaign, making only 21 league appearances. It was a difficult season for Spurs, who found themselves in the relegation zone in February.

However, Ferdinand's partnership with German forward Jurgen Klinsmann helped steer the Lilywhites clear of the drop and earned him a place in the England squad for the 1998 World Cup. Once again though, he was an unused sub throughout.

His time at the north London club never really took off and in his first three seasons at White Hart Lane, he netted just 12 goals - though he did help Spurs win the 1999 League Cup, their second and last piece of silverware for the decade.

Ferdinand failed to ever again hit the heights of his QPR and Newcastle days, and despite scoring a much-improve 25 goals over the next two seasons, he wound up at West Ham where he was sampled Premier League relegation. A successful year at Leicester followed, before fleeting pit stops at Bolton, Reading and Watford took 'Sir Les' through to his retirement in 2006.

In his pomp, Ferdinand was one of the Premier League's fiercest marksman and deserves his place among the 1990s elite.