The theoretical predictability limit of El Niño–Southern Oscillation has been shown to be on the order of years, but long-lead predictions of El Niño (EN) and La Niña (LN) are still lacking. State-of-the-art forecasting schemes traditionally do not predict beyond the spring barrier. Recent efforts have been dedicated to the improvement of dynamical models, while statistical schemes still need to take full advantage of the availability of ocean subsurface variables, provided regularly for the last few decades as a result of the Tropical Ocean–Global Atmosphere Program (TOGA). Here we use a number of predictor variables, including temperature at different depths and regions of the equatorial ocean, in a flexible statistical dynamic components model to make skillful long-lead retrospective predictions (hindcasts) of the Niño-3.4 index in the period 1970–2016. The model hindcasts the major EN episodes up to 2.5 years in advance, including the recent extreme 2015/16 EN. The analysis demonstrates that events are predicted more accurately after the completion of the observational array in the tropical Pacific in 1994, as a result of the improved data quality and coverage achieved by TOGA. Therefore, there is potential to issue long-lead predictions of this climatic phenomenon at a low computational cost.