Football’s late bloomers: Five of the best

By Ciaran Roe
Tony Adams won four league titles with Arsenal

Tony Adams won four league titles with Arsenal

As the major European leagues drawled drably to an end, there was one bright spark to illuminate the predictable recalibration towards the ‘big club’ world order.

Real Madrid’s mid-season slump did not cause sufficient damage; Inter’s wobble was corrected, or aided by the inabilities of their rivals; the momentary audacious ascendancies of Genoa and Cagliari snuffed out as they tumbled back obligingly to their regular league places. Normal service resumed; status quo achieved. Even Aston Villa’s gallop towards the Champions League was trampled on by Arsenal’s Arshavin-spree.

In the habitually dull Bundesliga though, Wolfsburg were hounding towards a first ever league title. And in some style. Their attacking pair of Grafite and Edin Dzeko sparkled under the managerial helm of Felix Magath; a former coach of crumbling giants Bayern Munich. Grafite’s performances were particularly surprising, given that the former dustbin-man recently turned 30, and is the definition of journey-man; having already played for 10 clubs.

He is the type of Brazilian whose nationality has paved his way, rather than his undeniable talent. This season, in the twilight of his unremarkable career, he was a revelation: scoring 28 goals in 25 games, including a remarkable goal, considered the best across Europe this season, to finish off the 5-1 rout of Bayern.

Grafite’s late development prompted me to ponder over the other footballers who have gone on, in the later parts of their careers, to play their best football. Here are five of the most renowned from across the eras:

Tony Adams: He became the first Arsenal captain ever to win four leagues, and more importantly heralded in the era of the Invincibles. This may not seem like an orthodox choice, as he won two of those titles at a very young age: being only 23 and 24 while winning the titles of 1988-89 and 1989-90. These titles were won before the Premier League era came into its full economic-clouting force though: back in the league format winners were more fluid: the title changed hands nearly every season in the ‘80s.

More importantly, Arsenal became a consistent challenger to Manchester United’s ‘90s dominance of the title. Adams did all this after overcoming alcoholism. He might be a meek manager, but he certainly was a lion-hearted captain.

The double of 1997-98 was only the second Arsenal had ever won, and this time it was backed up with consistency. The next season went down to the wire; Arsenal only being pipped to the FA Cup by that Ryan Giggs goal, and Hasselbaink ended their league dreams in the final days.

Adams went on to win the title again in the 2001-2002 season, after finishing runner-up in the previous three. His strong presence on the field was crucial to these league victories and to Arsenal’s continuing success, providing the backbone that many critics claim the side lacks now.

Luca Toni: This may initially seem like an unwarranted choice given his recent uninspiring form at Bayern Munich. At 32 though, the towering forward has only really enjoyed four years of stellar football. Before which he had only enjoyed a brief flirtation with Serie A with minnows Vicenza. He broke onto the world football scene at the ripe age of 28, scoring nearly 50 goals in 67 games for Fiorentina between 2005-2007.

His golden era fell within these seasons, wherein he also triumphed with Italy at the 2006 World Cup. Although his most recent season with Bayern has been a shadow of his previous form, his debut period with Munich’s premier team saw him aid the sleeping giants to regain their Bundesliga crown, scoring 24 goals in 31 games in the league.

Miroslav Klose: Toni’s current striking partner in the Bundesliga has had a remarkable football career. Born in Poland, Klose now forms a rift of Polish-based players currently plying their trade for the German national outfit. This poacher’s background was not groomed in the traditional mould of professional footballer though. The tried and trusted method of nurturing a teenager until the age of 18 before giving them a trial run in the first team could not be further from Klose’s upbringing.

He worked as a builder and brick-layer before starting football, and while playing at FC Homburg in 1999. After this initial phase of developing his foundations, his talents were fully fledged and demonstrated suddenly and dramatically on the world stage at the World Cup 2002, where he claimed the Golden Boot. He is the only player competing under the flag of united Germany to have scored over five goals in successive World Cups. Klose’s scoring ratio is enviable with a goal every two games for the national side.

Ferenc “Puskás” Purczeld Biró: This Hungarian legend; an epithet misused regularly, but in this case deserved, was already 31 before he even moved to Real Madrid, where he went on to win five Ligas and three European Cups. He played in arguably the most successful Madrid side ever, and along with Alfredo Di Stefano, formed the most formidable and potent striking partnership in football history. Although this was undeniably a different era for the game: one that demanded far less physically, and Madrid were backed by Franco’s heavies, there is no arguing with the 7-3 mauling of Frankfurt. He was instrumental in England’s first ever Wembley defeat; battering the international heavy-weights 6-3 with his native Hungary.

Sir Stanley Matthews: A player of the same era, who has taken on equally heightened status in his home nation, is Stanley Matthews. Born in 1915, he did not win his first major football honours until 1953, when he won the FA Cup. His record of personal honours is pithy, being granted higher awards by means of his loyalty to the clubs he played for. He played for only two clubs in a career spanning 34 years: Stoke City, and Blackpool. Although his greatness is difficult to transmit through material gains, his personal honour and graceful sportsmanship have been recognised since.

In 1948 he was awarded the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, in 1956 he was given the Ballon d’Or, and in 1992 the FIFA Gold Medal Order. In an age where loyalty is confused with pragmatism by deluded fans, Matthews shines as a beacon of devotion. However much you grow tired of reading newspaper sports journalists bang on about Matthews, it is important to realize their motives. Not only was he an incredibly skillful footballer, but he was, more importantly, a sincere and graceful player of the beautiful game.


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