Five Premier League idols who arrived late

Where have you been all this time, Dimitri Payet, with your likeably chubby frame and your magic feet? At the age of 28, the unheralded Frenchman has appeared on these shores with no silverware in his bag and just 15 French caps (by way of comparison, Jermaine Jenas has retired with 21 England caps).

“I don’t know why people are that surprised because he came from Marseille, and Marseille is one of the biggest clubs in Europe and he was doing similar things there,” said Bilic, forgetting that almost nobody in England gives a shiny sh*te about French football. “Maybe we give him more responsibility and more confidence and he is enjoying it and we are enjoying him big time.”

So are we, Slaven, so are we. We are a little bit in love. The stats: West Ham average two goals per game with Payet on the pitch and managed to score just five times in seven games in his absence. He creates more chances per game than anybody in the Premier League barring that German nicking a living at Arsenal.

In tribute, we bring you five other rather good foreigners who came to these shores aged 28 or above and thrived. Not a bad five-a-side side, this. Though you would be asking Gus Poyet to do an awful lot of defensive work.


Gus Poyet – When the 28-year-old Uruguayan midfielder signed for Chelsea in the summer of 1997, his transfer made fewer headlines than the £5m signing of left-back Graeme le Saux and marginally more than the arrival of Bernard Lambourde. Poyet left four years later having scored 49 goals in 145 appearances for Chelsea. From midfield. More importantly, he worked like a man who knew he was lucky to be playing in a changing Chelsea side who won the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the FA Cup. And were happy with that haul.

“Chelsea means a lot to me,” said Poyet long after his exit. “I won plenty of trophies there. When you win trophies you get close to the club. My time at Chelsea was before Abramovich. It was more of a family back them. It was still an old fashioned family club. We knew everybody.”

And the Chelsea fans’ admiration for Poyet was such that they didn’t even begrudge him joining Tottenham. Now that’s love.


Gianfranco Zola – The ultimate late bloomer, Sir Alex Ferguson famously called him “a clever little so-and-so”; Daniel Storey used rather more words here. As Claudio Ranieri – and we are officially allowed to quote him again, now we can all agree he is not a buffoon – said: “Gianfranco tries everything because he is a wizard and the wizard must try.”

The shame for us is that the wizard did not arrive on these shores until he was 30, but he still scored 59 Premier League goals, won four major trophies and was utterly, utterly wonderful. No Chelsea player has dared to wear the No. 25 shirt since his exit. We suspect they never will.


Edwin van der Sar – “It might seem like a step down from Ajax and Juventus, but I am hoping this will be a good step forward for me,” said the Dutchman when arriving unexpectedly at Fulham in the summer of 2001. He described Mohammed Al Fayed as a “persuasive man”; he talked about how he felt “appreciated” after being summarily cast aside by Juventus after they signed Gianluigi Buffon for rather a lot of money. When you hit 30, these things become important.

Fulham and the Premier League gained one of the best goalkeepers in the world; four years later Manchester United finally gained their belated successor to Peter Schmeichel. For the record: Four Premier Leagues, one Champions League and two League Cups. “I just wish we had signed him earlier, to be honest,” said Alex Ferguson when his man had turned 40 having graced us for ten years with his quiet, gentlemanly ways.


Jurgen Klinsmann – Has any foreign player had such an impact on the Premier League in just one season? From loathed diving German to everybody’s guilty (and then not-so-guilty) pleasure in just one campaign from the 30-year-old that reaped 21 goals, one Footballer of the Year trophy from besotted journalists and over 150,000 shirts sold. Famously, one Guardian journalist wrote ‘Why I Hate Jürgen Klinsmann’ and ‘Why I Love Jürgen Klinsmann’ articles barely two months apart.

That he then insouciantly returned to save Tottenham from relegation – at the age of 33 – to score nine goals in 15 league games, is an irresistible postcript.

“As a little boy I watched a lot of English football on television and loved the atmosphere, so I took a decision to try something new and ended up in London,” said Klinsmann, explaining his late lurch towards England. Three cheers for that rather early mid-life crisis.


David Ginola – There is a wonderful line on Ginola’s Wikipedia page: ‘In the summer of 1995, Ginola decided to leave France. Known to be a Spanish football enthusiast, he was expected to be snapped up by Barcelona. Furthermore, between 1992 and 1995, his stellar displays in European competitions against the Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona had attracted media attention in Spain, with local media dubbing him ‘El Magnifico’. However, he ended up with English club Newcastle United F.C., then managed by Kevin Keegan.’

Oh. That’s quite a ‘however’.

Ginola never got that move to one of football’s “big clubs” (though this was a different Newcastle – then-chief executive Freddie Fletcher said they were “only interested in signing world class players”) but he did do the next best thing: Become a hero at two different Premier League clubs. He may have only accidentally ended up in England, but the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year of 1998/99 was a very welcome visitor. The sexy b***ard.


Sarah Winterburn