A common question we hear from young footballers playing in local or semi-professional leagues is ‘I’ve not not signed to a pro academy, is it too late for me to become a professional footballer?’
Of course, in answering this question it depends on your own perspective. Are you talking about playing in the big international leagues like English Premier League, Serie A, or Bundesliga? Or do you just want to get paid to play football every week?
In any case, just because you haven’t signed to a pro academy as a teenager, doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on a career as a professional footballer.
While it’s true it does get harder to break through into the professional football scene as you get older, there are thousands of clubs around the world which play in semi-professional or professional football leagues, meaning there’s plenty of opportunities for players like you to sign a contract.
What’s more, there are numerous examples of players who didn’t sign their first professional contract, or play their first professional game of football until they were in their twenties.
Consider these famous footballers who started late, and became great.
Before he was setting goal-scoring records at Arsenal, Ian Wright was still plying his trade in Sunday league football until his early twenties. It was just three months before his 22nd birthday that Wright signed his first professional contract, after being scouted by Crystal Palace, which were at that time competing in the second division. The striker enjoyed a six-season stint at the London club before he made the move to Arsenal where he truly made a name for himself.
Despite joining the Premier League giants at 27 years old, Wright’s prolific goal-scoring record has made him one of the club’s greats. During his time at the club Wright scored 11 hat-tricks, including one on his league debut, and by the time he moved on to West Ham in 1998 he held the record for the most goals scored in an Arsenal shirt. Since then, only Thierry Henry has surpassed his total of 185 goals scored for the club.
Wright has since remained a prominent figure in English football beyond his playing career, regularly appearing as a pundit on gameday broadcasts.
Though he’s now considered one of the greatest African players of the modern era – arguably even ever – Didier Drogba didn’t sign his first professional contract until he was 21
Though born in Ivory Coast, Drogba moved to France as a child with his family. When he was older, Drogba moved to Le Mans to study accounting at university, and though he pursued a senior contract for Ligue 2 side Le Mans, much of his early time at the club was marred by injury. Ultimately, he made his way to Marseille where an impressive season caught the eye of Chelsea who signed him on for a record fee (at the time) of £24 million. He was 26 at the time.
Over two separate stints at Chelsea, Drogba has won four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, and a UEFA Champions League trophy. At an individual level, he’s twice been the Premier League’s top-scorer, and has also been crowned African Player of the Year in 2006, and 2009.
There are few more famous stories in modern football than that of Jamie Vardy. Now 34 years old, Vardy has amassed an impressive honours list – including an English Premier League title, English Premier League Player of the Season, English Premier League Golden Boot – when he was 24 years old, Vardy was playing in the 7th-tier league in England.
Vardy was 25 when he made the move to Leicester City, at that time competing in England’s second division, and even then he had a rocky start at the club he has now become a legend at. Reportedly, he would often turn up to training late, or even intoxicated from drinking the night before. Eventually, he committed to taking his career as a professional footballer more seriously and in the 2015/16 season played a pivotal role in Leicester City’s historic Premier League title triumph.
Since then he has also claimed the golden boot in the 2019/20 Premier League season, and has also represented his country, including being part of England’s 2018 World Cup squad in which they reached the semi-finals.
Strengths and weaknesses
Not all tactics are created equal. When analysing football games, it’s important to be critical, even of those professionals playing at the highest level.
Pay close attention to key moments in the game and consider some key points. Did chances or goals come from individual errors, or were there gaps in the team’s structure which were easily exploited? If a defensive player is forced to commit to a challenge or wander out of position, how do their teammates provide effective cover?
Most importantly, as the game progresses, consider how coaches and teams respond to their side’s position. Whether through tactical tweaks or bringing on fresh legs off the bench, coaches will continually demand change if they feel their team is on the back foot. The players that can most comfortably adapt to their coach’s demands as tactics change will ensure continuous selection in the starting eleven each week.