Aritz Aduriz recently announced his retirement from the game, the Athletic Bilbao forward calling time on a career that saw the 39-year-old only fulfil his potential into his latter years.
The Spaniard is amongst a rare group of players widely referred to in footballing circles as late bloomers, players whose careers take a while to get started before flourishing later than what is perceived as ‘normal’.
Each of the players on this list showed precious few signs of being top players in the infancy of their careers, before bursting into life to establish themselves as genuine stars.
Here are five of football’s best later bloomers:
We’ll start with the recently retired Aduriz, a striker who established himself as a legend at Athletic Bilbao over three separate spells with the Basque side, each delivering more than the last.
The Spanish star began his career with Bilbao but made little impact, spending most of his time in the club’s reserve side before dropping into the second tier with modest spells at Burgos and Valladolid.
A 16-goal campaign for the latter was enough for Bilbao to give the forward a second chance, but in three seasons he failed to reach double figures for goals and was soon moved on to Mallorca.
Improved – if hardly spectacular – spells followed at both Mallorca and Valencia before he returned for a third stint at Bilbao, his former side providing him with another opportunity at the age of 31.
The move proved a smart acquisition after 18 goal campaigns in each of his first two seasons, before incredibly bursting into life well into his thirties. Aduriz scored a phenomenal 106 goals over the next four seasons, including a prolific 36-goal season and twice finishing as the leading scorer in the Europa League.
Aduriz’s exploits late in his career saw him win back-to-back Zarra trophies as the leading Spanish scorer in La Liga, in addition to becoming the oldest ever goalscorer for the Spain national side.
He announced his retirement having scored 285 goals in his club career, more than half coming after his 30th birthday.
World Cup winner and a Serie A champion with both Inter Milan and Juventus, it may surprise to learn that Grosso’s career was not always one at the very highest level.
The former full-back spent much of his formative years in Italy’s lower leagues, initially starting as an attacking talent before dropping into his long-term role at left-back. Grosso made his top-flight debut at 24-years-old with Perugia, but three years later dropped back into the second tier to join Palermo.
After helping the club earn promotion during his three seasons with the club, Grosso forced his way into the national side and formed part of the side which were crowned World champions in 2006, memorably scoring a semi-final winner against Germany and the decisive spot-kick in the final shoot-out victory over France.
Grosso’s performances earned him a first big career move at the age of 29 as he signed for Inter Milan, winning the Serie A title during his time at the San Siro before adding further league titles during spells with both Lyon and Juventus.
Antonio Di Natale
Another Italian who enjoyed the best period of his career into his thirties, Antonio Di Natale became the record appearance holder and goalscorer in Udinese’s history during a memorable Serie A career.
Di Natale had enjoyed an average-at-best career during six-year stint with Empoli, breaking into the first-team at 23-years-old and spending much of that time in the second tier of Italian football.
After helping the club to promotion he later signed for Udinese aged 27, where his initial seasons saw him become an important player – if not a prolific goalscorer.
That all changed at the grand old footballing age of 32, however, as Di Natale burst into life with a 29 goal season to finish as the leading scorer in Serie A and be named as the league’s Italian Footballer of the Year.
He followed up that campaign by again outscoring the rest of Italy’s top flight, securing a second successive Capocannoniere trophy after scoring 28 league goals to fire the club to a top four finish.
Di Natale continued to score prolifically, scoring 23 goals in each of the next two seasons and playing well into his late thirties.
Somewhat incredibly for a player who only began playing top-flight football in their mid-twenties, he finished his career as the sixth-highest scorer in the history of Serie A – his 209 goals higher than players such as Roberto Baggio and Alessandro del Piero.
Vardy’s meteoric rise has been well documented, the Leicester forward having enjoyed a rags-to-riches rise from part-time football to Premier League winner and record-breaker.
Released by boyhood club Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, Vardy would turn out for non-league Stocksbridge Park Steels and F.C. Halifax Town before earning a move to ambitious Fleetwood Town.
Just one prolific season with the seaside club attracted Leicester’s interest, who signed the 25-year-old forward to boost their hopes of promotion from the Championship.
Vardy would help the Foxes secure a return to the top flight, though his goalscoring was hardly prolific until playing his part in arguably the greatest sporting story of all-time. Having narrowly avoided relegation the previous season, rank outsiders Leicester would shock world football by winning the Premier League, with Vardy scoring 24 goals.
That total included a Premier League record of scoring in 11 consecutive games, the forward being named as the FWA Footballer of the Year and Premier League Player of the Season at the age of 29.
Four years on from that triumph he remains one of the league’s very best, the 33-year-old currently leading the race for the Premier League’s Golden Boot.
There must be something in the Italian waters when it comes to late bloomers, with former Italy international Luca Toni perhaps one of the greatest examples of a rare breed.
The powerful forward spent his early years in the country’s lower tiers, boasting an indifferent goalscoring record before his fortunes changed during a stint at Palermo. Toni had enjoyed a brief taste of top level football with Brescia, before dropping back into the second tier at 26-years-old.
Toni scored prolifically to fire Palermo into Serie A, before maintaining his fine record with a brilliant season in Italy’s top division, scoring 20 league goals to fire the club to UEFA Cup qualification.
Toni’s exploits attracted the attention of the division’s leading sides and he headed to Fiorentina, finishing as the leading scorer in Serie A during a record-breaking season with La Viola, becoming the first player in half a century to break the 30-goal barrier.
After helping Italy to World Cup success, Bayern Munich came calling to sign the 30-year-old hit-man, Toni hitting 39 goals in all competitions to help the German giants to a domestic double in 2007/08.
Injuries began to take their toll on the towering target-man and he flittered between a succession of clubs, only to enjoy what can only be described as an Indian summer at Verona.
Toni scored 51 goals in just 100 appearances for Verona over a three-year spell at the end of his career, including finishing as the leading scorer in Serie A after a 22-goal campaign in 2014/15.
That season saw Toni finish ahead of both Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain in the scoring charts, winning a second Capocannoniere at 38-years-old.