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.
5. Ray Wilson (Debut Aged 25- 63 Caps)
There was of course one more famous example of a ’66 hero who found glory later in his career, but Ray Wilson still took a longtime to get into the England set up. Wilson never represented England at youth level, but in May 1960 aged 25 he won his first senior cap. Wilson wasn’t an instant success and the Huddersfield Town left back wouldn’t become a regular until October 1961 when he played in England’s final World Cup qualifier. England made it to Chile in 1962 and Wilson now 27 would play all 4 of England’s World Cup games, alongside another new defender Bobby Moore.
By 1963 Alf Ramsey had taken over as England manager and Wilson remained his first choice left-back with Ramsey only occasionally turning to Liverpool’s Gerry Byrne. Wilson was never the greatest defender, often given a torrid time by Jimmy Johnstone in the Home Nations Championship but was an excellent crosser of the ball. In 1964 he moved to Everton and continued as England first choice as England started the countdown to 1966. But first came the FA Cup Final and at the age of 31, Wilson finally had his first winners medal. He was ever-present at the World Cup and got his hands on the Jules Rimet Trophy. Wilson didn’t stop there, he continued as England first choice all the way through to the European Championships of 1968 making his 63rd and final England appearance in the third placed playoff, he was 33. Wilson was a fine man and World Cup winner, English football mourned his passing in May of this year.
4. Ian Wright (Debut Aged 27- 33 Caps, 9 Goals)
Ian Wright was another who came relatively late to professional football. After struggling to get a contract and even spending 2 weeks in prison for unpaid fines Wright started to put a career together in semi-professional football and was spotted and eventually signed by Crystal Palace manager Steve Coppell just three months shy of his 22nd birthday in 1985. Within 3 years Wright had become a star player in the Second Division notching back to back 20 goal seasons in a deadly strike partnership with Mark Bright as Palace won promotion in 1989. His first season in the top flight was injury interrupted but he still came back for the FA Cup Final and came off the bench to score twice as Palace got agonizingly close to their first major trophy.
But the Cup Final made him star, a 25 goal season followed and in February 1991 he was handed his England debut aged 27. In September he signed for Arsenal and struck 29 league goals in the 91-92 season, but incredibly Graham Taylor excluded him from his Euro ’92 squad, in favour of Alan Smith the player he’d relegated to the bench at Arsenal. But Wright’s club career was hitting the stratosphere, scoring 30 or more all competition goals in 4 of the next 5 seasons. His England struggles continued and he failed to score in his first 8 England appearances. But on the ninth he came of the bench to score a crucial late equaliser as England escaped a World Cup qualifier in Poland with a 1-1 draw. But England’s World Cup qualifying campaign ended in disaster and now aged 30 he seemed Wright had missed his chance to play at a World Cup. New manager Terry Venables dropped Wright a year later and he would be absent through England’s Euro ’96 run.
But he was recalled by new manager Glenn Hoddle and in September 1997 he broke Arsenal’s scoring record. Two months later came his finest hour with England, when in place of the injured Alan Shearer he produced a masterclass in hold up play as England secured World Cup qualification against Italy in Rome. It seemed Wright, now aged 34 would get to a World Cup. But hamstring injuries dogged his season and although he finally became a Premier League Champion, a recurrence of that injury saw him miss the World Cup. He did continue to play for England even after departing Arsenal, making his finally appearance at 35. Only Mick Channon played more England games without representing them in a major tournament. All that being said his music career was pap.
3. Stuart Pearce (Debut Aged 25- 78 Caps, 5 Goals)
‘Pyscho’ didn’t just start out in semi professional football, he spent 5 years and played almost 200 games there. In 1983 he finally moved to the big time when he signed for First Division Coventry City. Two years on Brian Clough brought him to Nottingham Forest and suddenly the powerful defender was playing for one of the best pure footballing sides in the country. Bobby Robson gave him his England debut in 1987 but injury saw him mis Euro ’88. As World Cup qualifying commenced, Pearce became automatic first choice at left back. England secured qualification for Italia ’90 and in a pre tournament friendly Pearce grabbed his first England goal. Pearce would play a key role as an ever-present as England made it to the semi-finals but then had his spot kick saved as England went out on penalties.
Pearce went on to play at Euro ’92 where he was infamously head butted by Basile Bolt and came inches from exacting instant revenge with his thunderous free kick smashing the frame of the France goal, but England exited at the group stage. England endured a miserable World Cup qualifying campaign although Pearce’s free kicks provided occasional respite. Pearce continued with England, but faced a new challenger for the left back slot in Greame Le Saux. But Le Saux was injured before Euro ’96 and aged 34 Pearce wore the England number 3 shirt for the tournament. Hew as again ever-present and in the quarter-final got to exorcise his penalty demon by smashing home as England made the last 4.
To the surprise of many the veteran was retained by Glenn Hoddle who favoured Pearce on the left of the reshaped back 3. But injury put paid to his World Cup hopes and in 1997 he finally left Forest. He continued his career in the Premier League with Newcastle and then West Ham and made his final England appearance in September 1999 aged 37. In all he won 78 caps and is regarded by many England’s greatest left back.
2. Teddy Sheringham (Debut Aged 27- 51 Caps, 11 Goals)
Like many on this list Sheringham started in none league football but he turned professional aged 16 with Millwall in 1982. Sheringham’s early career was unremarkable as Millwall bounced around the lower leagues. But he announced himself with a stunning 22 goal campaign in 1987/88 as Millwall won promotion to the First Division. Sheringham had struck up a lethal partnership with Tony Cascarino and his deft touch and finishing combined perfectly with Cascarino’s strength and aerial presence. The Den hosted 2 top flight seasons with the strike pairing the key to keeping them in the division before relegation in 1990. Sheringham’s return to the second tier was brief as his 37 goal season in 1990/91 secured him a move to Nottingham Forest.
Sheringham scored 20 goals for Clough’s side but his sale to Tottenham at the start of following season was seen by many as the fatal mistake that relegated Forest. Sheringham was quickly amongst the goals at White Hart Lane notching 91 goals in his first four seasons with Spurs. England recognition became inevitable and in May 1993 aged 27 he made his England debut. But it was an unhappy start for Sheringham, deployed as an out an out striker by Graham Taylor in a side struggling for form. Sheringham faded from the picture for a while but in September 1994 new England boss Terry Venables hit on the idea of pairing Sheringham with Alan Shearer. It was an instant hit and one of England’s greatest ever pairings was born with Shearer the complete number 9 and Sheringham the perfect foil playing in behind the main striker with his touch and cleverness around the box. Sheringham was an ever-present at Euro ’96 and bagged 2 goals in the 4-1 rout of Holland, whilst Shearer claimed the golden boot.
Sheringham’s club career also reached higher with a move to Manchester United in 1997. But Sheringham found himself rotated in Alex Ferguson’s side and in the build up to the 1998 World Cup his England place was threatened by a new talent, Michael Owen. Sheringham started the World Cup but by the end of the group phase was benched in favour of the dynamic Owen. After the World Cup Sheringham dropped down the England pecking order and was then ditched by new boss Kevin Keegan, missing out on the Euro 2000 squad.
His Manchester United career however was reaching a high point, he finally claimed a League title in 1999 and famously came off the bench to equalize in the Champions League Final as United won the treble. The following year he was a regular starter and in 2001 was voted both the FWA and PFA Player of the Year. New England manager Sven Goran-Eriksson recalled Sheringham, with Shearer retired he now forged an understanding with Owen. Whilst England’s final World Cup qualifier against Greece is mostly remembered for Beckham’s last gasp free-kick, it was Sheringham’s deft header with his first touch of the game that initially dragged England back level. Sheringham was selected for the 2002 World Cup aged 36 and played England’s last 4 games of the tournament. Sheringham won 51 caps and notched 11 goals, playing in 2 World Cups and England’s near miss at Euro 96, he also won 3 League titles, 1 FA Cup and the Champions League.
1. Jack Charlton (Debut Aged 29- 35 Caps, 6 Goals)
The ultimate later in life footballer is Jack Charlton. Whilst younger brother Bobby’s dynamic talents quickly saw him into Manchester United’s youth system, Jack found himself with the seemingly perennial second tier Leeds United. He made his debut in 1953 and after completing national service returned to Leeds where he appeared to be going in circles. But the appointment of his former teammate Don Revie as manager changed everything. Revie initially dropped Charlton and he was almost sold to join brother Bobby in Manchester. But the deal never came off and Revie promised Charlton he could make him an England cenre half. Charlton knuckled down and Revie slowly turned Leeds around, gaining promotion in 1964.
Leeds’ uncompromising style wasn’t without its critics but few would deny Charlton was an imposing, dominant centre back and he was leading the toughest defence in England. By 1965 he was added to England’s defence, ironically Jack found out about his call up after Leeds’ FA Cup semi final win Manchester United, he walked into the home dressing room to find his brother and told everyone his news. As he recalls Pat Crerand greeted him by saying “Yes Jack, we’re all very pleased for you, now please fuck off!’ But from now on it would be the Charlton brother for England. Ramsey’s logic for calling up the 29-year-old was simple, in Bobby Moore he had a natural sweeper who could bring the ball out of defence and he needed someone to keep the defence clean should he lose it. It proved a masterstroke, Charlton and Moore became a brilliant pairing each complementing the others skill set. The World Cup followed and England conceded just once en route to the final. Then together the Charlton brothers stood on top of the sporting world, it was the first winners medal Jack had received but it wouldn’t be his last.
In 1967 he was named Footballer of the Year and a year later his first Leeds medals came with the Fairs Cup and League Cup. In 1969 a League title followed but he was facing increased pressure for his place in the England side from Brian Labone and Leeds teammate Norman Hunter. He was a regular through the ’69 season but in Mexico ’70 Ramsey plumped for Labone. Neither Charlton brother played for England beyond that World Cup, and after picking up an FA Cup winners medal in 1972 he retired from playing in 1973, at the age of 38. He went on to a succesful career in management and after the FA snubbed him for the England’s manager’s job he guided Ireland to the quarter finals of Italia ’90 and knockout rounds of USA ’94. When he retired in 1996 he’d truly proved all his doubter wrong. Jack Charlton may not have been England’s most gifted player, but ask yourself this- how many footballers can you name who won a World Cup, Footballer of the Year, a League Title and an FA Cup?