9 Champions League winners that we can’t believe also played in the Championship

There is an elite club of footballers who’ve plied their trade in the most underrated league in football, before going on to lift the game’s most coveted club honour.

Everybody loves a zero-to-hero story and while you can go much lower than the Championship, going from the English second tier to winning the Champions League is still an extremely unique achievement.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the X players who’ve experienced both the Tuesday nights in Rotherham and the finals under the floodlights in some of Europe’s biggest stadiums, while lifting perhaps the most iconic trophy in the game.

Gareth Bale

The Welshman started his professional career in England’s second tier with Southampton, breaking into the side in 2006-07 but getting injured in the play-off semi-final. That would be the last time the Championship witnessed his magic, as he moved to Tottenham that summer.

Bale’s move to Real Madrid in 2013 was nothing short of iconic, signing for a then world-record fee before spending the next decade sweeping up Champions Leagues and bagging iconic goals for fun, while being the Bernabeu’s pantomime villain.

History ought to look back much more kindly on his time in the Spanish capital.

John Terry

After that extraordinary semi-final comeback against Barcelona, Terry wore the armband as Chelsea beat Bayern Munich on penalties to become champions of Europe for the first time in 2012, four years on from final heartbreak in Moscow against Manchester United.

It’s easy to forget, though, that Mr. ‘Proper Chels’ himself actually played in the Championship with Nottingham Forest on loan in 2000 and finished his career with a season in the second tier at Aston Villa. Champions League meltdowns featuring Roy Keane, Didier Drogba and Jurgen Klopp emotional outbursts

READ: 8 of the biggest meltdowns in Champions League history: Drogba, Keane, Klopp…

Wayne Rooney

The greatest English player of all time spent time in the Championship. That tells you everything you need to know about the second tier.

Rooney somehow only lifted one Champions League in his illustrious career despite reaching the final three times and scoring at Wembley in Manchester United’s second final defeat to Barcelona.

After leaving DC United in 2019, he returned to English football in the second tier with Derby County as a player-coach, before eventually becoming the manager.

Eidur Gudjohnsen

A proper Barclays hero, Gudjohnsen first lit up the Championship (then the First Division) with Bolton from 1998 to 2000 before moving to Chelsea, and eventually to Barcelona in 2006.

It’s quite bizarre to think that the Icelandic centre-forward would play under Pep Guardiola at La Blaugrana, but alas, it happened. Not only did it happen, but he won the Champions League with Pep in his final season at the club as Barca schooled United in 2009.

Gudjohnsen returned to Bolton in late 2014 for a second spell with the club and – crucially – a second spell in the Championship. A Champions League winner with 23 Championship goals to his name. Class.

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Andy Cole

Remembered for being one half of perhaps the Premier League’s most lethal strike partnership of all time, Cole peaked alongside Dwight Yorke at United and lifted the Champions League as the club became the first English side to win a treble in 1999.

His career took him around the houses, though, playing for Bristol City in the new First Division in 1992-93 and returning to the second tier in the final years of his career with Birmingham and Sunderland.

Ashley Cole

Like Terry, Cole’s only Champions League title came as Chelsea beat Bayern on penalties in 2012, scoring from the spot himself on the night.

He’d already spent a brief period in the second tier on loan at Crystal Palace in 1999-00, but returned to the Championship in January 2019 after coming back to England from LA Galaxy, playing under former teammate Frank Lampard at Derby County. Jack Clarke of Sunderland celebrates

READ: An XI of Championship players that are destined for Premier League stardom


John Obi Mikel

It’s easy to forget that Mikel actually only called time on his career in 2021 having played in various leagues around the world.

The Nigerian midfielder could’ve won the Champions League had he signed for Manchester United as planned, but instead signed for Chelsea in 2006 and would eventually become a key player by the time they were European champions in 2012.

In 2019, Mikel returned to England from China to sign for Championship side Middlesbrough, then left to spend a season in Turkey before returning again for another slice of Championship action, this time with Stoke. Can’t fault him.


From the Champions League to the Championship, Bojan looked every bit destined to take over the footballing world when he broke through at Barcelona at a record age, younger than Lionel Messi when he made his own debut.

He was an unused substitute in 2009 as Barcelona beat United in the first of two finals in three years and was still at the club as they repeated the feat in 2011, but left for Roma that summer.

By 2014, Bojan found himself signing for Premier League side Stoke and left for Mainz in the midst of their decline, but found himself back at the Bet 365 Stadium in 2018-19 after a loan spell, becoming a fan favourite with the Potters now in the Championship. He retired in 2023.

Gary Cahill

Finishing up with the ultimate zero to hero story, Cahill lived out all of our dreams when he won the Champions League with Chelsea in 2012, having started his career at 15 when he was picked up by Aston Villa from Sunday League level.

A late bloomer, the defender honed his craft on loan in the Championship with Burnley and Sheffield United before signing for Premier League side Bolton, where he began an ascent to the top of the mountain.

Cahill’s EFL exploits didn’t end there, finishing up his career in the Championship with Bournemouth and helping them back to the Premier League, before being released and retiring in 2022.