They’re few and far between, old players still at the top of their game. Especially in the Premier League, with its overly physical nature and higher than average tempo. Few outfield players last past their 32nd birthday at the very top; a select elite extend past 35; the very truly super-human past 37.
This is not in reference to ‘good’ players who lasted late into their thirties – but more in reference to the truly exceptional. Teddy Sheringham was remarkable in playing until he was 41, but ultimately wound up at Colchester in the Championship – a level far below his peak.
Giggs, Scholes, Seedorf, Stam, Zanetti, Cafu, Maldini, Raul – all these players were still pivotal for their respective teams in Europe late into their thirties. They’re the elite who could still influence the biggest games.
There should be more of them knocking about, too. Of course, there’s an element of fortune to being able to compete at the highest level for so long. One bad injury can be career-ending when you get to that age, making physical conditioning on a daily basis a complex and integral task.
Football’s fickle nature also plays its part in their scarceness. In an age of knee-jerk reactions and hugely pressurised jobs, ageing players can often be cast aside unfairly as a manager assumes that they can find younger, fitter alternatives who can make a faster impact.
And it just that, fitness, that is often the catalyst in manager’s looking for replacements.
‘They understand the club and it’s purpose, they will march with you and defend the principles on which we operate’, Sir Alex Ferguson explains of his old players in his autobiography. In the 2009 Champions League Final, Anderson managed just 3 passes in the first half. Paul Scholes managed 25 in the last 20 minutes. ‘You forget how good they are’, Ferguson ponders, regrettably.
Those who last, do so because they can fall back primarily on their technical ability. Frank Lampard was cast aside at Chelsea because his physical regression rendered him incapable of conforming to Jose Mourinho’s intense midfield pressing game. Ryan Giggs finished his career in the centre of midfield, as did Javier Zanetti, away from the physical demands of wide play.
Andrea Pirlo, 35, still remains an integral cog at Juventus because his game has never been based around mobility. Cafu, of course, remains the exception to the rule, but that’s due to his abnormal physical stamina.
Complete dedication is still required. ‘Ryan had to develop a meticulous fitness program,’ Ferguson explained with regard to Giggs. ‘Yoga and his preparation routines were at the route of longevity. Ryan was religious about yoga’.
Player management is integral, too. The impression you get is that these old players are still capable of playing for 90 minutes, but it’s the recovery post-game that takes significantly longer. Retiring from international football is usually the first step that most take to prolong their club careers, especially in an age of 60 game seasons.
But efficient management is fundamentally key, as summarised by the heavy scrutiny of Steven Gerrard’s sporadic appearances under Brendan Rodgers at the moment.
Ultimately, Frank Lampard’s unexpected revival at Manchester City shows that you can never write off someone for being too old – Drogba too. Old players’ experience shines through to add a irreplaceable quality to their respective dressing rooms. That’s something that cannot be purchased or coached; it’s somewhat unattainable and perpetually unique.
Lampard could well be sitting on a beach somewhere, waiting for the MLS season to start up again. Instead, he’s still making a big impact in the title race. For the very elite, age really is just a number.