It is arguably the most overused word in football. Ranking alongside phrases in common football parlance such as; “pay-as-you play,” “breath of fresh air” and “Arsenal surrender a late lead”, the term ‘veteran’ is fast becoming a frustratingly permanent fixture in the lexicon of the football community.
The obsession with age across top-level football is, to my mind, wildly counter-productive. The general perception has long been that once a player reaches a certain point, commonly 30, they are debited with a mythical status that supposedly stops injuries from healing, decreases general ability and dulls a player’s desire for the game.
The term, once upon time a compliment reflecting experience has quickly become a thinly-veiled insult, simply describing any such player as being ‘old’.
This summer has seen a particular increase in the aversion to give players falling into such a category a chance to prove them self at the top level. However, it would appear, the cliché is applied indiscriminately.
Owen Hargreaves, crippled by the effects of long-standing tendinitis, is understandably deemed a risky acquisition at 30, however an injury-free Frank Lampard should not be suddenly deemed over the hill simply because he has reached 33. Whereas football may not buy into the principle of being as old as you feel- if your knees, head and heart are all still game, age need not be a deciding factor.
Whereas the age of players such as Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs is only made as a reference to their remarkable longevity- for many, the tag is a millstone around their neck.
David Weir, still plying his trade in the SPL at 41 is undoubtedly a veteran and to borrow a man from another sport, Bernard Hopkins- the current WBC light-heavyweight champion is at 46, irrefutably deserving of a more senior tag.
It is almost as if a basic equation runs through the head of many when it comes to evaluating a player; Young > Old. It explains why when Josh McEachran prepares to make a substitute appearance for the Chelsea first team, numerous commentators, having never seen the midfielder play more than ten minutes of first team football decree the youngster as being; “the future of England.” Older players, Kevin Phillips making his Championship debut for Blackpool last night springs to mind, are subject to equally damaging generalisations.
However, a 30 or 35 year old footballer is not the same as the average man who has spent 18 sedentary years drinking 10 pints of beer a week- this point is regularly missed. As a result, the usual “veteran” tag is often misconstrued and misused.
Players that started their careers during the booze culture that enveloped a number of clubs during the 1990’s, somewhat inevitably, saw their careers nose-dive after they blew out the candles on their 30th birthday cake. Individuals such as Paul Merson, Paul Gascoigne and Tony Adams were undoubtedly ‘old’ at that age in comparison to players that have seen four shots of tequila and a stripper replaced by an isotonic drink and an ice bath.
Changing perceptions has taken too long.
Football is and will continue to increasingly be a young man’s game- and by flagging up this obsession, I am not suggesting that all of a sudden Joe Cole will be able to re-discover that lost yard of pace taken away by his crippling knee injury of three years ago, or that Gary Neville prematurely hung up his boots when he announced his exit from Old Trafford. Age and continual wear and tear is an inevitable factor.
However, it is remarkable how quickly the buzz words ‘youth’ ‘promise’ and ‘future’ are used to describe players for such a long time before they are, suddenly, consigned the scrapheap.
We are, of course, not consistent with our approach to age. Andy Carroll is supposedly the future of England and Liverpool at 22, however by general consensus, Darron Gibson is, at 23, running out of time despite playing for the most successful club in the country and has seen first team chances limited accordingly.
One aspect that has always amused me is the way a number of journalists- the vast majority north of the age barrier of no return- are so scathing of any age issue.
Michael Owen was supposedly a spent force at 29 as he signed for Manchester United in 2009. Fernando Torres, with an equally chequered record of hamstring and groin injuries, was considered a striking option for ‘the future’ at Chelsea earlier this year, despite only being two years younger than the former England striker had been yet £50 million more expensive.
The examples are numerous. The long-term concern is that this short sighted approach to our playing personnel will begin to cripple sides as they field younger players simply because they feel they ought to- the currentEnglandsituation immediately springs to mind.
But from the Premier League’s point of view, the obsession with youngsters will end up annexing a number of established top performers. Obviously, when the time comes, any player be they released by their club at 16 or score their final World Cup goal at 42, knows that their race has been run. Age, however, need not be the definitive measurement.
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