Football Features

Former ‘flops’ who went on to earn club records, Ballon d’Ors or even statues

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 16:45, 9 January 2024

For some footballers, the journey to the top can be a long and arduous one.

It often takes a spell of struggle and strife to become one of the best around, whether caused by mismanagement, competition for starting places or a predisposition to developing late.

Whatever the cause, criticism is never far in football, especially in the modern day following the rise of social media. But it’s always important to remember that some of the world’s top players were once deemed disappointments. Here are 10 notable examples who made their critics look silly.

1. Thierry Henry (Arsenal)

A promising talent at boyhood club AS Monaco, where his goalscoring prowess attracted the attention of Italian giants Juventus, the man who would become Arsenal’s greatest footballer began life at Highbury slowly. So much so, some even questioned Arsene Wenger’s wisdom in signing a footballer who didn’t exactly pull up any trees while representing the Old Lady.

Henry, who Wenger converted into a centre-forward, would not look back once bagging his first goal, and today the Frenchman remains their greatest-ever scorer, having registered 228 strikes across 376 matches. But according to the man himself, after four difficult months in English football’s top flight, Henry “literally had to go back to school and be re-taught everything about the art of striking.”

2. Luka Modric (Real Madrid)

An impressive showing for Croatia at Euro 2012, particularly against Spain, convinced Real Madrid to nab the controlling midfielder from Spurs, which set them back a reported £30m transfer fee.

His tentative start saw Marca readers vote him the worst signing of that year, which is amazing to think now considering what Modric has since achieved and the important role he’s played for both club and country. Such has been the Croat’s influence in the Spanish capital, that he has helped Los Blancos clinch five Champions League titles, three La Ligas and two Copa del Rey crowns – while his exploits over the summer of 2018 saw Croatia reach the World Cup final. He also managed to cap off a memorable 2018 by winning the highly-coveted Ballon d’Or accolade.

3. David de Gea (Man Utd)

Eyebrows were raised when Manchester United made David de Gea the successor to Edwin van der Sar and his early performances, notably a vulnerability in dealing with crosses, appeared to justify all criticism.

“His first six months were horrendous,” said his former goalkeeping coach Eric Steele in an interview with United We Stand, a Manchester United fanzine, in 2014.

“We worked with him on and off the field to make him more powerful. We changed his lifestyle. He would finish training and want to go home. When I told him to come back in the afternoon he’d ask, ‘Why?’

“There were lifestyle issues. He’d sleep two or three times a day. He’d have his main meal late at night. We pushed protein drinks on him straight after training. We physically made him drink. We had him in the gym a lot. He hated it. They don’t do the gym in Spain as much. We needed to build his core strength.”

But you can’t keep a good man down. De Gea would beef up and, once assimilated into English football, quickly established himself as the Premier League’s best goalkeeper over several seasons as well as one of Europe’s finest. The end of his Man Utd stay saw mistakes creep back in, but he’ll be remembered very fondly.

4. Xavi (Barcelona)

A graduate of Barcelona’s academy system, Xavi looked like the odd one out in his early playing days as he was surrounded by a host of international names, the majority of whom were not sourced locally.

It would be some time before he cemented a regular starting berth in Barca’s midfield. Before then, question marks surrounded his ability to replace former midfielder Pep Guardiola at the heart of the team, question marks that seem now laughable. Literally, according to the man himself.

“I didn’t get recognition until 2008 when I’d been in the team for ten years,” said Xavi told El Periodico in 2015. “If I leaf through papers from years gone by, it makes me laugh: they said I was obsolete, that Edgar Davids made me look good, that I only moved the ball from side to side, they called me ‘the windscreen wiper’…”

5. Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal)

Bergkamp’s talent was never in question. After all, he finished behind Roberto Baggio for the 1993 Ballon d’Or.

However, a miserable spell at Inter Milan dented his confidence and even when he joined Arsenal, the Dutch No.10 didn’t exactly hit the ground running, failing to score in his first seven league games. This led to some describing his acquisition as a waste of money. But he who laughs last laughs longest. Bergkamp’s first goals for Arsenal came in a 4-2 win over Southampton in late September 1995 and compelled one journalist to lead with the line, ‘THIS was the day the doubters of Dennis Bergkamp’s worth were routed,’ in his post-match report.

With a statue outside the Emirates Stadium, many consider the Amsterdammer one of the Gunners’ most important signings ever given the role he played in Wenger’s glory years.

6. Gareth Bale (Tottenham)

Although he was considered a talented young full-back upon his arrival at Tottenham, no one predicted Bale would go on to become one of the Premier League’s most lethal finishers and eventually move to Real Madrid, where he has won four Champions League titles, scoring in two finals.

That’s mainly because the Welshman didn’t look as though he would fulfil his potential at Spurs. It took an injury to Benoit Assou-Ekotto during the 2009/10 season for Bale to reclaim his place in the team at left-back. It has even been claimed Harry Redknapp tried to sell Bale, though the former Spurs boss denies this.

Bale was eventually pushed into a more advanced role, and the rest is history.

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7. Harry Kane (Tottenham)

It’s unbelievable to think Kane was once a genuine meme, a subject of ridicule. Even among Tottenham fans.

“When Kane scores, Spurs fans post silly pictures of Harry Kane,” read one 2015 article from Cartilage Free Captain, a Spurs blog, highlighting this trend.

“When Spurs fans are bored, they post silly pictures of Harry Kane. When other teams’ fans try to take the wind out of their sails with claims that Kane sucks or that he’s off to Real Madrid, Spurs fans continue to post silly pictures of Harry Kane.”

Since then, Kane has developed into one of the world’s best strikers, which says a lot about his unyielding endeavour to improve every aspect of his game. The 30-year-old has won numerous individual awards, including the World Cup Golden Boot, but is still waiting for the trophy his ability is worthy of. Could he get it at Bayern Munich? The start to life in the Bundesliga has been fantastic, with Kane scoring 21 goals in his first 15 games.

8. Casemiro (Real Madrid)

Real Madrid rated Casemiro enough to trigger a buy-back clause and bring him back from Porto in the summer of 2015. However, despite Rafael Benitez’s decision to recall him, it appears unnamed influential figures at the Bernabeu wanted Casemiro nowhere near the team.

“But wanting [Casemiro] was one thing, playing him was another,” wrote the Guardian‘s Sid Lowe in 2016. “Casemiro played a key role as the season developed, a regular starter in the weeks leading up to the Clasico but when the game against Barcelona came around, the manager listened to ‘suggestions’ as to who he should start.” Madrid lost that particular Clasico 4-0.

His regular-starter status was consolidated when Zinedine Zidane took over from Benitez midway through the season. Zidane made Casemiro a crucial part of his side and he remained a regular for the Spanish giants before leaving for Man Utd.

9. Jamie Vardy (Leicester)

Vardy scored just four goals in 26 Championship appearances during his first season at Leicester City after joining from Fleetwood Town in a £1m deal that famously set a Non-League record. Such were his struggles in his debut Leicester campaign, he even considered leaving the club.

“Yes I did [nearly give up] to be honest with you,” Vardy told the BBC in 2014.

“But I had a few chats with the gaffer and they constantly told me I was good enough and they believed in me and stuck by me.”

When the Foxes were promoted to the top flight, Vardy’s first-team opportunities were limited. But he came good towards the end of 2014/15, scoring five times to help Leicester stay up.

We all know what happened next. Leicester took everyone by surprise by storming to the most unlikely of Premier League titles. Vardy scored 24 goals, breaking long-held records along the way. He also bagged 20 goals in 2017/18, proving his earlier success wasn’t just a fluke. And in 2019/20, Vardy scored 23 goals, enough to secure the Premier League’s Golden Boot – becoming the oldest player to win the accolade.

10. Edin Dzeko (Roma)

This one is particularly hard to imagine given what has since transpired. Dzeko, a marksman of the highest order, made his name at Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg (playing a pivotal role in their 2008/09 Bundesliga triumph) but never really set the Premier League on fire with Manchester City, despite boasting respectable figures.

Only twice across his five seasons at the Etihad did Dzeko fail to reach double figures in the league. Moving to Roma, initially on a season-long loan, was expected to reinvigorate him. Instead, the Bosnian striker somewhat regressed. Many observers questioned him, some even going as far as to suggest Dzeko was a lame duck.

Early on he was nicknamed ‘Cieco’, an Italian word which means ‘blind’ in English. Supporters even unfurled a banner that read “L’Amore è Dzeko”, a play on the saying “Love is Blind.” His first campaign with the Giallorossi resulted in eight goals across 31 league outings. Considering he had only scored four times in his final season with City, you can understand why some folk were sweating bricks.

But, as the saying goes, form is temporary, and Dzeko bounced back in style, going on to set a new club record by scoring 39 goals the following season (2016/17). That figure is the most scored in all competitions by any Roma player, surpassing the 32 shared by golden boy Francesco Totti, Rodolfo Volk and Pedro Manfredini.