Non-League Day

Raya: Spell at Southport helped me to grow up

19 Mar 2024
David Raya

Arsenal goalkeeper on how time spent in non-league helped him become a Premier League player

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This weekend marks the latest Non-League Day, which celebrates grassroots football and encourages fans of Premier League clubs to take in a local non-league fixture over the international break.

As part of the Premier League's support for the campaign, we are featuring some of the top-flight players who have gained valuable experiences and lessons in the non-league game.

David Raya (Arsenal)

Raya's UEFA Champions League penalty-saving heroics against Porto last week was the latest chapter in an inspirational career that has taken the 28-year-old from his native Spain to north London via Lancashire, Brentford and a pivotal spell in non-league on Merseyside.

The Spaniard was playing youth football for Catalonian side UE Cornella when in 2011, as a 15-year-old, he was given the chance to go to Lancashire for a trial with then Premier League club Blackburn Rovers.

Despite his age and not speaking the language, Raya jumped at this opportunity.

"That was a massive change but I didn't have any doubts about it at all," he told Arsenal's official website. "I'd say the moment I realised I could play football for a career was when I signed for Blackburn's academy."

Raya signed professional forms with Blackburn when he turned 18 and soon afterwards he was loaned out to non-league club Southport, who were then in National League - the fifth tier of the English football pyramid.

David Raya, Southport

"They were some of the best times of my career in terms of learning and development," he says. "I was used to life at Blackburn, where they made your breakfast for you, they did your laundry, everything. But when I went to Southport I had to do everything for myself.

"For home matches I'd have my pre-match meal at home, and at Blackburn I wasn't used to that. It was a big learning curve, and basically I had to grow up and toughen up.

"That was the intention of the loan, sending players to non-league. You learn a lot, because it's proper football and you play against men, and wins are so important.

"Your win bonus combines with your wage and you need those wins to pay your bills. You realise how important that is."

Raya made 24 appearances in all competitions across his three months with Southport, helping the "Sandgrounders" avoid relegation.

And such was his impact, Raya's spell at the club is still remembered fondly by those who were there at the time.

"He was an unbelievable character, confident and bubbly and it was lovely to feed off that and spread it among the squad," former Southport manager Gary Brabin told Sky Sports. "It was a great team spirit.

"The way David was so confident, we played a lot more football on the ground than other teams at our level and we quickly got out of those bottom four places. He was integral to that because of how good he was.

"We felt safe having him at the back and it wasn't just keeping the ball out, he was starting our play. He was our starting point and it was successful for us."

David Raya, Arsenal

On his return to Ewood Park, Raya became an integral part of the Blackburn side with his performances leading to a move to London and championship rivals Brentford in 2019.

It did not take long for Raya to become a favourite with the Bees faithful and after helping Brentford reach the Premier League for the first time in their history in 2021, another opportunity presented itself when he was given the chance to move across the capital to Arsenal on loan two years later.

Since arriving at Emirates Stadium, Raya has made the goalkeeper's position his own, with performances like his one against Porto another example of how far he has come.

"It's a dream to play at Arsenal, one of the biggest clubs in the world," he says. "It was a dream move for me and the step up was something I needed in my career.

"I wanted that step up to challenge myself. I wanted to play in Europe and to compete for and win titles. It was something I really wanted to do, to test myself."

PL support for wider football

As well as promoting Non-League Day, the Premier League offers significant financial support to the 72 clubs in the National League, the top tiers of non-league football, in addition to all 92 Premier League and EFL clubs and women and girls’ football and the grassroots game.

Between 2022-2025, the League has committed to investing £1.6billion to the wider game and communities. Of this, £400m will go to funding projects including the development of facilities and community and education programmes. It is the biggest voluntary contribution to communities and other good causes of any football league in the world.

Through the Premier League Stadium Fund, £192.7m of Premier League money has been invested into improving the stadiums and facilities of clubs in the EFL, National League System and Women’s Football Pyramid since 2000.

More than 5,630 grants have been provided to 1,083 clubs across 114 leagues.

The Premier League will also provide approximately £16m of financial support to National League clubs in solidarity, Academy and community funding between 2022-2025.

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