10 greatest late bloomers in football history

Italian striker Luca Toni is amongst football
Italian striker Luca Toni is amongst football's greatest late bloomers
Scott Newman
Modified 23 Apr 2020
Top 5 / Top 10

In the world of football, a lot of hype is naturally given to the young players who turn out to be teenage prodigies, capable of making a massive impact on the game at the earliest points in their careers.

From Ronaldo and Michael Owen to Erling Braut Haaland and Jadon Sancho, the history of the game is filled with the stories of these tyros. However, it sometimes takes a little longer for a player to make a big impact.

A handful of great players in the game’s history only rose to fame in what would usually be the latter stage of their careers – their mid to late 20's, or in some cases even their 30's. These players surprised everyone with their success – and some continue to do so today.

Here are 10 of football’s greatest late bloomers.

#1 Jamie Vardy

Jamie Vardy fired Leicester to the PL title in 2016 - just years after he
Jamie Vardy fired Leicester to the PL title in 2016 - just years after he'd played non-league football

The majority of football fans probably know the Jamie Vardy story by now, but it’s one so remarkable that it’s always worth telling again.

The Leicester striker was born in 1987, and although he had played for Sheffield Wednesday as a youngster, he’d been released by the Owls and joined non-league side Stocksbridge Park Steels by the time he was 16.

It wasn’t until he was 23 years old that he first signed for a professional club in the form of Halifax Town. By his 25th birthday in 2012, he was still playing non-league football for Fleetwood Town.

It was in the summer of 2012 that he first moved to Leicester, who were then an EFL Championship side. After 2 seasons in England’s second tier, he finally found himself in the Premier League at the age of 27.

From there on, the rest is history. Somehow retaining his incredible pace through his late 20’s and into his early 30’s, Vardy has proved to be a revelation in the top flight. After brief flashes of his talents in 2014-15, he exploded into everyone’s conscience in 2015-16, leading Leicester to an unlikely Premier League title victory with 24 goals.

Since then, Vardy has proven that he’s definitely not a one-season wonder, and has continued to score goals regularly both for Leicester and for England until his retirement from international football.

Vardy is even leading the race for this season’s Golden Boot, and the striker is the very definition of a late bloomer.

#2 Luca Toni

Luca Toni was still scoring goals at the age of 38
Luca Toni was still scoring goals at the age of 38

Italian players sometimes tend to peak at a later point in their careers than players from other countries, and Luca Toni is definitely a fine example of that. The striker floated around in Italy’s lower leagues throughout his teens and early 20’s. After a pair of middling seasons in Serie A with Brescia, he moved back to Serie B with Palermo at the age of 26.

Suddenly, his career took off, and he scored 30 goals in Serie B to help Palermo to promotion. And proving that he could compete at the top level, Toni then scored another 20 goals for Il Rosanero in Serie A, helping them to an impressive 6th place finish.

That was enough to earn him a big-money move to Fiorentina, and at the age of 28, he scored an incredible 31 Serie A goals in the 2005-06 season – becoming the first player to break the 30 goal mark in the competition for 50 years.

That summer saw him score 2 goals in the 2006 World Cup as Italy won the tournament, and a year later, he made a big move to German giants Bayern Munich.

After scoring 24 goals in his debut season, injuries took their toll, and as he moved into his early 30’s, it finally seemed like the Italian was slowing down. But after signing with Verona in 2013, he then turned back the clock in the next two seasons.

Notably, he scored 22 goals in 2014-15 to end the campaign as Serie A’s top scorer at the grand old age of 38.

#3 Danny Blind

Danny Blind became an Ajax legend in his 30
Danny Blind became an Ajax legend in his 30's

One of the most fondly remembered central defenders of the last 30 years, Danny Blind saw success with both Sparta Rotterdam and Ajax, but it wasn’t until his later years that he truly hit his peak.

Somehow, despite making his professional debut in the 1970’s, all but 2 of the 16 trophies he won during his career came in the 1990’s.

The Dutchman started his career at Sparta in the 1979-80 season as a right-back, making 13 appearances in the Eredivisie. He spent a further 6 seasons in Rotterdam, largely an ever-present for De Kasteelheren before moving to Ajax in the summer of 1986. Despite his signing being criticised by star striker Marco Van Basten, Blind quickly proved the doubters wrong.

Converting into a classy centre-back capable of passing and shooting as well as any attacker, Blind established himself as a key man at Ajax and won his first Eredivisie title in the 1989-90 season.

Better was yet to come, though. Under manager Louis Van Gaal – and with Blind as captain – Ajax transformed themselves into a European powerhouse in the early to mid 1990’s.

Blind won a further 4 Eredivisie titles, the final one coming in the 1997-98 season as he turned 36 years old, and even lifted the Champions League in the 1994-95 campaign just months before his 34th birthday.

The defender finally retired at the end of 1998-99 at the age of 37, after amassing just under 500 appearances for Ajax – where he remains a club legend to this day.

#4 Josip Ilicic

At 32 years old, Josip Ilicic is producing the best form of his career
At 32 years old, Josip Ilicic is producing the best form of his career

Slovenian attacking midfielder Josip Ilicic has been one of the success stories of the 2019-20 season. Starring for the surprise package of the Champions League, Serie A side Atalanta, Ilicic has scored a total of 21 goals in just 29 matches in the current campaign, the best goal return of his career.

The big surprise here is that the Slovenian turned 32 in January.

Ilicic has been around in Serie A for a long time now after signing with Palermo in the summer of 2010 as a 22-year old. Despite spending 3 seasons at the club and then a further 4 at Fiorentina, the truth is that the Slovenian never truly stood out until recently, with 13 league goals in 2015-16 being his biggest impact.

Since arriving at Atalanta, though – moving in the summer of 2017 for a low fee of just €5.5m – he’s hit his stride and become one of Italy’s standout performers.

His debut season at La Dea saw him score 11 goals and register 8 assists, but 2018-19 was even better for him. That campaign saw him score 12 and make 7 assists as Atalanta surprised everyone by finishing 3rd, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time.

And of course, the Slovenian has been a revelation in the current campaign. 5 of his 21 goals have come in the Champions League – proving he can perform at the highest level – and his display in Atalanta’s 3-4 win over Valencia stands out as one of the season’s best.

Judging by his current form, Ilicic could easily continue to star for Atalanta into his mid-30’s.

#5 Miroslav Klose

Miroslav Klose
Miroslav Klose's best years came in the twilight of his career

It still comes as somewhat of a surprise to learn that German forward Miroslav Klose – rather than someone like Ronaldo, Pele or Diego Maradona – holds the record for the most goals scored at World Cup tournaments.

It should probably come as even more of a surprise that the striker didn’t make his Germany debut until he was 24, which is strange considering that he scored his final goals for Germany at the age of 36 at the 2014 tournament.

Klose’s professional career began at Kaiserslauten in 1998, and at 20, he was already older than many breakthrough stars. Across the 5 seasons that followed, he was a reliable – if not prolific – source of goals. He scored a total of 44 goals in the Bundesliga before moving to Werder Bremen.

There, his career continued on the same trajectory – 2005-06 being his best season as he scored 31 goals at the age of 27. But as he turned 29, he got the biggest move of his career – a transfer to Bavarian giants Bayern Munich, where he spent 4 seasons, winning 2 Bundesliga titles.

Despite turning 33 at the end of the 2010-11 season, his career didn’t peter out when he moved from Bayern to Lazio. Instead, he continued to be a reliable source of goals until his retirement at the age of 38 in 2016 – and lifted the 2014 World Cup in the process.

It’s safe to say that Klose definitely peaked during the latter part of his career.

#6 Rickie Lambert

Rickie Lambert got his big move to Liverpool at the age of 32
Rickie Lambert got his big move to Liverpool at the age of 32

Striker Rickie Lambert’s career almost certainly peaked during the summer of 2014. That summer saw him move in a £4m deal from Southampton to Liverpool – the club who’d released him as a teenager – and also head to Brazil as part of England’s World Cup squad. Incredibly, Lambert was no youngster at that time, and he was already 32 years old.

Prior to that point, the striker had taken a seriously long route to the top. After being released by Liverpool as a teenager, he turned professional at the age of 16 with Blackpool, and then meandered from club to club in the lower reaches of the football league.

Macclesfield Town, Stockport County, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers were all home to Lambert during the 2000’s. It was only in the summer of 2009 – after he’d scored 29 goals in League One for Bristol – that he made his move to Southampton. At that point, the Saints were in League One themselves, but Lambert’s goals immediately fired them upwards.

He scored 117 in 235 for the Saints – including 28 across 2 seasons in the Premier League. That was enough to earn him an England call-up at the age of 31, as well as his move back to Anfield.

Lambert’s time at Liverpool was relatively short and his career petered out just after, but his achievements at the end of his career, after being a journeyman for so long, were still remarkable.

#7 Antonio Di Natale

Antonio Di Natale was one of Serie A
Antonio Di Natale was one of Serie A's most reliable goalscorers well into his 30's

Another Italian star who showed his best form during the latter part of his career, Antonio Di Natale still stands as one of Serie A’s all-time best goalscorers with 209 strikes to his name.

That total puts him above legends such as Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta and Alessandro Del Piero, and yet his best goal return of 29 came in 2009-10, when he was 32 years old.

The early part of Di Natale’s career saw him float around in Italy’s lower leagues in loan moves from his parent club Empoli. By the time he broke into Empoli’s first team, he was already 23, and even then, the best return he managed was 18 goals in Serie B in the 2001-02 campaign.

Di Natale moved to Serie A side Udinese in the summer of 2004, but despite turning 27 – usually an athlete’s prime – he only delivered 11 goals in 41 appearances in the 2004-05 season. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2009-10 that he really began to score on a prolific basis, just as he entered his early 30’s.

Even at the age of 35, the forward was one of Serie A’s most reliable goalscorers. The 2012-13 season saw him deliver another 23 league goals, and even at 37 he still managed a very respectable return of 14 strikes. His record remains incredible considering he didn’t even break onto the Serie A scene until his late 20’s.

#8 Aritz Aduriz

Aritz Aduriz has dramatically improved his goal rate as his career has gone on
Aritz Aduriz has dramatically improved his goal rate as his career has gone on

Few players have aged quite so well as Spanish striker Aritz Aduriz. Currently in the midst of his third spell at LaLiga side Athletic Bilbao, Aduriz has scored a total of 285 goals over his career, which dates back to the 1999-00 season. Incredibly, more than half of those goals have come since the striker turned 30 years old.

Aduriz’s career path is simply bizarre when you look at it on paper. He turned professional at the age of 19 with Bilbao, and played for their reserve side for 3 seasons before moving to Segunda Division side Valladolid. 16 goals in the 2004-05 season were enough for Bilbao to bring him back, but after moderate returns at best – 23 goals across 3 seasons – he moved again.

After spells at Mallorca and Valencia – again having moderate success in front of goal – he moved back to Bilbao in the summer of 2012 at the age of 31. It was at this stage that he suddenly found his scoring boots – hitting 18 in his first 2 seasons – but nobody could’ve predicted what would happen next.

2014-15 saw the 34-year old score 26 goals, and the following season he managed an incredible 36, despite being at an age that most players would be considering retirement.

Only during the current season – at the ripe old age of 39 – has his output begun to slow down. To call him a late bloomer would be a massive understatement.

#9 Ciro Immobile

Despite turning 30, Ciro Immobile is currently one of Europe
Despite turning 30, Ciro Immobile is currently one of Europe's hottest strikers

Currently one of the hottest strikers in world football, Ciro Immobile is leading 2019-20’s race for Europe’s Golden Shoe. The Lazio striker has scored a scarcely believable 27 goals in 26 Serie A games, even more than Portuguese legend Cristiano Ronaldo. To make his feat even more incredible, he’s 30 years old.

This wouldn’t be such a surprising achievement had Immobile been amongst the ranks of Europe’s best forwards for the majority of his career, but that simply hasn’t been the case. Instead, after joining Juventus as a 19-year old in 2009, he embarked on various loan moves until signing fully with Genoa in 2012-13, where he scored just 5 Serie A goals.

A move to Torino in 2013 – when he was 23 years old – yielded a stronger return of 22 goals, but after this he quickly slipped back into his previous form. He struggled for goals at Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla and again at Torino, and it wasn’t until he moved to Lazio in 2016 that things really turned around.

The 2016-17 season saw the Italian international turn 27 – and he produced his best season yet, scoring 26 goals in all competitions. A year later he managed an amazing 41 goals, and this season, despite turning 30, he’s on course to produce perhaps his best season yet – making him a definite late bloomer.

#10 Ian Wright

Ian Wright
Ian Wright's best years came after his 30th birthday

Alongside the likes of Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham, Arsenal legend Ian Wright was amongst the best English strikers of the 1990’s. Unlike those aforementioned players though, it took Wright some time to reach his peak. By the time he’d become a regular with England and had broken Arsenal’s all-time goal record, he was well into his 30’s.

Wright didn’t actually turn professional until he turned 21. Before that point, he’d played for an amateur Sunday league club and then semi-professional side Greenwich Borough. 1985-86 saw him move to Crystal Palace shortly before his 22nd birthday, and while he was a regular goalscorer in the old Second Division, his first season in the top flight saw him struggle somewhat.

By the 1990-91 season though – when the striker turned 27 – he’d become a prolific goalscorer. Soon after, he moved to Arsenal, where he began to score goals at a tremendous rate. When the Premier League era began in 1992-93, despite the England international already being 30 years old, he was able to score more than 30 goals in all competitions for 3 campaigns running.

1996-97 – the season that saw him turn 33 – was probably his finest, as he finished as second-top scorer in the Premier League with 23 goals. He also helped England qualify for the 1998 World Cup. Overall, Wright scored 324 goals in his professional career, and over half of them came after he’d turned 30.

Published 23 Apr 2020
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