The usual path of an England career is youth teams, under 21s (or Under 23s as it used to be) and then to the seniors at around 23. But some take a much longer route to the England team. In honour of the retiring Jamie Vardy who took the scenic route to an England career here are England’s top 10 late bloomers, players who came late to the party.
10. Peter Withe (Debut Aged 29, 11 Caps, 1 Goal)
Peter Withe took the long way around to footballing success, both in years and air miles. The Liverpudlian started with Southport and spent 6 years bouncing around clubs including a brief spell at Wolves. But in 1975 at the age of 24 he made the unusual move to the NASL with the Portland Timbers. The target-man earned the nickname ‘The Wizard of Nod’ in the States and grabbed the attention of English clubs, going on to spells with Birmingham, Notts Forest and Newcastle.
But the big move came in the summer of 1980, now aged 28 he signed for Ron Saunders’ Aston Villa for £500,000. It proved a masterstroke as Withe bagged 20 league goals as Villa stormed to the First Division title. England unsurprisingly got interested and in May 1981 just 3 months shy of his 30th birthday the big man got his England debut. Things got even better a year later as Withe scored the winner in the European Cup Final, making himself a Villa legend. His heroics guaranteed a place in Greenwood’s World Cup squad, although surprisingly he was the only Villa player to make it, why on earth did Greenwood overlook Denis Mortimer?! But Withe never quite replicated his Villa heroics with England. He did however carry his England career on until 1984, making his final appearance at the age of 33.
9. Rickie Lambert (Debut Aged 31- 11 Caps, 3 Goals)
A classic Roy of the Rovers story Lambert rose from none league to World Cup football. He started with a trial at None League Marine and worked in a beetroot bottling factory, but quickly found his way to Blackpool where he made his debut as an 18-year-old in 1998. He spent 8 relatively uneventful seasons in the lower divisions. But his career got a shot in the arm via a move to Bristol Rovers in 2006 and in 2008-09 bagged 29 goals in League One. A year later he was signed for £1million by the new owners of freshly relegated Southampton. Lambert was the symbol of the clubs rebirth and he rewarded them with 88 goals over the next three seasons as The Saints moved from League One back to the Premier League.
Soon he was under the stewardship of Mauricio Pochettino and Southampton settled well in the Premier League with Lambert bagging another 15 in 2012-13. It convinced Roy Hodgson to give him a shock call up in August 2013 at the age of 31. Lambert literally made an immediate impact, scoring with his first touch within 3 minutes of making his debut from the bench and he was quickly a national hero as his goal gave England a 3-2 win over Scotland. Lambert was no flash in the pan and a second goal in qualifying convinced Hodgson to take him to the World Cup as England’s target man option. Of course England’s tournament was quickly over and Lambert never got to show off his famed penalty kick prowess. But Lambert’s briefly successful England career illustrated the virtues of an in form striker getting a cap in mid-season. The likable Lambert retired from football in 2017.
8. Joe Corrigan (Debut aged 27- 9 Caps)
Goalkeeper’s often come later to the England party and caps can be hard to come by, Manchester City legend Joe Corrigan was a case in point
Corrigan found himself in the bronze medal position in the Shilton/ Clemence contest to be number 1. Corrigan graduated from Manchester City’s juniors in 1967 and by 1970 at the age of 22 had replaced veteran Harry Dowd. He immediately won the 1970 European Cup Winners Cup & League Cup. With Shilton the preferred successor to Banks, Corrigan wasn’t on Sir Alf Ramsey’s radar.
Don Revie preferred Clemence but needed a third choice and Corrigan finally made his debut aged 27, in 1976. Corrigan stayed within the set up after Revie’s departure the following year. But he was only used in friendlies and Home Nations Internationals. Corrigan played in total 9 times for England and made it to the World Cup in Ron’s 22 in 1982 at the age of 33. He didn’t play a minute but presumably handled the third choice ‘keeper role of organising the darts tournament very well. Corrigan didn’t play for England after the World Cup and finally left City the following year after 602 appearances in all competitions. He headed to NASL to top up the pension plan, but in all he won 3 major cup competitions for City and is still highly regarded by the club.
7. Mick Mills (Debut Aged 23- 42 Caps)
The Ipswich Town legend and former England captain made an early debut with England in 1972 but must have wondered what he’d done wrong as it took him another 3 and half years to get a second cap at the age of 27 in 1976. By that time Ipswich were emerging as serious contenders for major honours and the fullback became an increasingly regular presence under first Don Revie and then Ron Greenwood.
Mills later admitted he thought his World Cup dream was over when England failed to qualify for Argentina ’78 aged 29. But Greenwood switched Mills from right back to the left where he competed with Kenny Sansom, meanwhile at club level he captained Ipswich to the ’78 FA Cup. Mills played at Euro ’80 and was a key figure in the rollercoaster World Cup qualification campaign. Ipswich sandwiched back to back runners-up campaigns in the league with Mills leading the club to the 1981 UEFA Cup and with qualification secured Mills got an even bigger honour. With Kevin Keegan injured Mills found himself England captain at the World Cup, the fullback becoming the first man to carry the distinction since Bobby Moore, at the age of 33. In all he won 42 caps.
6. Jamie Vardy (Debut Aged 28- 26 Caps, 7 Goals)
Another classic rags to riches story, back in 2010 Vardy at the age of 23 was playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels. Vardy pressed on with his football and a hugely successful spell at Fleetwood Town (31 goals in 36 games) convinced Leicester City’s Nigel Pearson to sign him to for a none league record £1million.
But things started poorly and Vardy was considering giving up football to become a holiday rep- a natural career choice for a man with such a welcoming face! But Vardy persisted and by 2014 Leicester were promoted with Vardy bagging 14 goals, aged 27 he was now a Premier League footballer. Things again started slowly with Leicester beginning the season run in at the bottom of the league. But an inspired run of form saw Vardy grab key goals as Leicester stayed up. That summer he finally got an England call, although few pundits expected it to last.
What happened next has gone down on sporting folklore, under Claudio Ranieri Leicester won the 2016 Premier League title having started the season relegation favorites. Vardy scored an astonishing 24 league goals including the goal of the season volley against Liverpool. That March Vardy scored the equalizer in England’s come from behind 3-2 win over Germany in Berlin, the best performance of the Hodgson era. His form got him into the Euro 2016 squad where he scored the critical equaliser in England’s win over Wales, although the tournament proved another Hodgson dud. But Vardy remained a key figure under Gareth Southgate and finally played in a World Cup aged 31. He scored 7 England goals in all, and his ‘soft retirement’ announcement suggest we may not have seen the last of him yet.
In part 2: North London legends, hardmen and World Cup winners!
Picture Credit: Getty