Football’s Late Bloomers: 13 Stars Who Struggled To The Top

Jamie Vardy celebrates scoring during Leicester City's Premier League winning campaign.

To people from bigger footballing countries, it always come as a bit of a shock to hear that Iceland’s manager is a practising dentist, or San Marino’s frontman works in a bar.

For players hoping to make it in Europe’s top leagues, such as the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A or Bundesliga, football can never come second. For some the journey starts from as young as eight, when they are snapped up by prestigious youth academies which promise to turn them into the stars of the future. Some are forced to leave their families behind, such as those at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, while others decide against studying for or taking their school exams in order to focus on football.

While many of these players do usually end up plying their trade in a professional setting, whether the Premier League or League Two, some are dropped onto the scrapheap, discarded by the sport that they have dedicated so many years to and given up so much for. For many this rejected is too much to take, and they set about rebuilding their lives away from football.

However, many others keep on fighting for their place, and many of they make it, proving that, like these 13 players, you don’t have to be a 18-year-old prodigy to make it as a professional footballer.

1. Jamie Vardy

While many of the star players that he now plays alongside were preparing to make a break for their respective clubs’ first teams, Jamie Vardy was suffering the rejection of being turned away by Sheffield Wednesday. Fearing that his football career was over, he took a job in a factory producing medical splints, while also playing for Stockbridge Park Steels for just £30-a-week.

Vardy was still at the seventh tier club at the age of 24 back in 2010, before finally getting a move up to Halifax Town and then Fleetwood Town, before Leicester City finally came calling. Although, The Foxes weren’t yet at the top and it would still take some effort for Vardy to reach his best. In fact, he nearly quit football after just one season, as he struggled to cope at a higher level. However, he persisted and was rewarded with his first Premier League title in the 2015/16 season, aged 29.

2. Antonio Di Natale

When you consider that Antonio Di Natale spent an astonishing 12 years at Serie A club Udinese, it’s difficult to believe that he entered the world of top flight football so late.

Italian ace Antonio Di Natale started his career with Empoli, joining their youth ranks at the age of 17, before finally getting his break in Serie B six years later. After helping the club to reach Serie A, playing his first top flight season aged 25, he joined Udinese two seasons later. Aged 27 by then, you would have expected Di Natale to be in his prime. However, he started poorly, but seemed to get better and better with age, scoring seven goals in his first season, eight in his second, 11 in his third and 17 in his fourth (at the age of 31!).

Di Natale would continue playing at the very highest level until he eventually hung up his boots in 2016, by then aged 38.

3. Ian Wright

Nowadays Ian Wright is a household name due to his status as one of England’s greatest ever goalscorers. However, Wright came very close to throwing away his dream of becoming a professional footballer - aged 21, Wright had started to put football second after a string of rejections from the likes of Southend and Brighton. Instead, he opted to pursue a career as a plasterer while getting his football fix playing non-league football.

However, while playing for non-league side Dulwich Halmet FC, Wright was spotted by Peter Prentice, a Crystal Palace scout who would turn his life upside down. He signed his first professional contract just before his 22nd birthday and by 26 he was a Premier League player.

Despite starting late, Wright would make his mark in the top flight, netting 113 goals in 213 games before his eventual retirement in 2000.

Ian Wright stretches to reach the ball while playing for Arsenal.

Ian Wright became one of the Premier League's most prolific goalscorers during spells with Crystal Palace and Arsenal.

4. Luca Toni

Luca Toni is one of football’s true journeymen, having played for no less than 16 clubs throughout his 22 years as a professional footballer. However, the first five of those teams featured in the lower tiers of Italian football. After starting out at Serie B side Modena, Toni went on to play for Empoli, Fiorenzuola, Lodigiani and Treviso in Serie B and Serie C1 before finally getting his break in the top division at the age of 23.

However, at 26 he found himself back in Serie B with Palermo, but he was finally ready to unleash his potential. 51 goals in 82 games across the top two divisions earned him a move to Fiorentina, while he would also go on to represent Bayern Munich and Juventus in his later years.

His unbelievable goalscoring form would continue right up until his retirement in 2016, having scored 48 times in 95 appearances for Serie A side Verona, including 23 goals in 39 appearances throughout the 2014/15 season.

5. Ricky Lambert

While Ricky Lambert was never able to cut it at one of the top clubs, after close to two decades spent struggling to make it to the top (and many years spent working in a beetroot factory), he deserves his place among football’s greatest late bloomers.

After struggling his way up through the league divisions, turning out for the likes of Blackpool, Macclesfield Town, Stockport County, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers over the course of 11 years, he eventually found his way to League One side Southampton, aged 27. At that age, climbing another two levels to reach the Premier League seemed like an almost impossible task, but Lambert helped his side to earn two promotions in time to debut in the 2012/13 Premier League season.

Under the eye of top boss Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton developed into a top side within two seasons in the top flight, earning Lambert the chance to join Premier League heavyweights Liverpool. Things didn’t quite go to plan for Lambert, but his incredible rise cannot be discredited.

Zinedine Zidane headbutts Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final.

Marco Materazzi was on the receiving end of Zinedine Zidane's infamous headbutt.

6. Marco Materazzi

Marco Materazzi, the Inter Milan defender best known for his farcical Zinedine Zidane episode in the 2006 World Cup final. For those that don’t recall, deep into extra-time, Materazzi was said to have aimed at insult at Zinedine Zidane about his mother, which prompted the French legend to aim a headbutt straight into his chest, earning him a red card in his last ever appearance as a player.

Had it not been for his surprising rise and an injury to Alessandro Nesta, one of football’s most iconic moments may never have occurred. It had taken a long time struggling in the lower leagues for Materazzi to reach the heights of an Italy national team player - he hadn’t made his first international appearance until the age of 28 and he had only taken to the field in Serie A four years earlier, after years spent in Serie C2, Serie C1 and Serie B.

7. Javi Varas

It’s a little unusual to class a goalkeeper as a late starter, as most goalkeeper tend to peak late and retire old. However, what’s unusual about former Sevilla shot-stopper Javi Varas is the fact that he had never played professional football before joining the La Liga club.

Varas arrived at the club in 2003, aged 23, having played for many amateur sides around Seville from the age of 13. The news came as a surprise to many, given his lack of experience, but after three seasons with the B team and loans with Segunda Division sides San Jose and Alcala, the 28-year-old was finally ready to debut in La Liga.

8. Diego Milito

Jose Mourinho is often ridiculed for spending obscene amounts of money on proven, world class players in order to effectively buy his way to the title. However, Diego Milito presents a (somewhat rare) example of Mourinho grabbing a bargain.

After spells at Argentine side Racing Club, Real Zaragoza and Serie A side Genoa, Milito got his big break when he joined Mourinho at Inter Milan for just €10 million, after scoring 24 goals in just 31 appearances for Genoa. Milito had always been good at a lower level, but few expected him to continue to impress with one of Italy’s biggest clubs - 62 goals in 128 games later, and Milito is considered one of the most prolific goalscorers of his generation.

9. Jay DeMerit

Not quite in the same league as some of the names on this list, but Jay DeMerit achieved his goal of becoming a professional footballer against the odds.

Despite impressing at college, the American defender was initially rejected by every Major League Soccer side in the 2001 draft. After saving some money working in a bar, DeMerit opted to fly to England in order to find a club, initially taking up refuge with ninth tier side Southall, where he was paid just £40-a-week.

A year later, 25-year-old DeMerit was playing for seventh tier side Northwood, when he came up against Championship side Watford. Knowing that he had the chance to impress, the ageing defender played his heart out, grabbing the attention of Watford boss Ray Lewington.

DeMerit would go on to play close to 200 matches for Watford, even grabbing a few seasons in the Premier League, before moving to MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps in 2011.

10. Jackson Martinez

It feels like Jackson Martinez has been around forever, given the amount of interest that surrounded him during his three year spell at Portuguese side Porto. Every summer without fail, Martinez would be linked with a move to the likes of Premier League heavyweights Chelsea and Arsenal due to his brilliant goalscoring tally. However, the move never came and his best years seemingly escaped him.

Perhaps those big clubs failed to realise his age - By the time he joined Porto he was already 26 years old, having spent the bulk of his career playing in Colombia’s Categoria Primera A for Independiente Medellin.

11. Dario Hubner

Often regarded as one of Italy’s most prolific goalscorers of all time, Dario Hubner never really got the chance to prove himself at a top club.

Hubner certainly wasn’t late to football. He signed his first senior contract with Serie D club Pievigina in 1987, aged 20, but it would take some time for him to reach the top. His career would take him to Pergocrema, Fano Calcio and Cesena over the next five years, which saw him rise to Serie B. However, the pay was low and football had to be balanced with his full-time job as a window cleaner.

Hubner eventually made it to Serie A in 1997, aged 30, and quickly transformed himself into one of the most feared strikers in the league. His greatest achievement came in the 2001/02 season when, by then aged 35 years old, Hubner secured the Serie A top goalscorer award with 24 goals in 33 games.

12. Miroslav Klose

In just 16 years, Miroslav Klose went from being a 20-year-old struggling to earn a professional contract with fourth tier side FC 08 Homburg to the all-time leading goalscorer in World Cup history.

Homburg did eventually give him his contract, sticking him in their reserves team for a year before he was picked up by second division side FC Kaiserslautern. By the age of 26 Klose had eventually found his way to the Bundesliga, playing for Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich before joining Serie A side Lazio.

He was never quite as prolific for his clubs as he was for his country, but he did score some very important goals for both in his later years, before eventually hanging up his boots in 2016, aged 38.

13. Didier Drogba

Didier Drogba will go down as a Chelsea legend for his trophy winning penalty kick in the 2012 Champions League final, as well as one of the greatest goalscorers in Premier League history, having scored more than 100 goals during his time at the London club.

However, it took some time for the Ivorian goalscorer to reach that level. In fact, despite playing for various youth teams around France from the age of 11, he wasn’t handed a professional contract until he was 21.

It was Ligue 1 side Le Mans who snapped him up, before he eventually made the switch to Ligue 1 football in 2002, joining EA Guingamp at the age of 24. He joined Marseille a year later, before he finally earned his big move to England the following season, aged 26.

Didier Drogba scores past Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer to clinch the 2012 Champions League for Chelsea.

Didier Drogba is one of the most iconic players in Chelsea's history.

Despite spending so much of his career as a largely unknown Ligue 1 striker, Drogba went on to claim numerous Premier League trophies, a Champions League and various individual awards in the time he still had left.

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