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Oct 29, 2012

Golden oldies

When I was approaching my 30s, I played for an expatriate team in Lima, Peru, called the Kiteflyers. I believe they are still playing. It was a happy experience and was the last time, for any sustained period, that I played football. When I went back to England after four years to study for a master's degree at Essex University, I decided, at the age of 31, to go in for trials for the university team. I got my 'blue' as an undergraduate, and thought that, 12 years on, I might still cut the mustard. The university league standard was high, and still is, with lots of fit young bucks scattered across the country who might have made it as pros had they not been so academically inclined.

I thought I did okay in the trials, despite being the oldest on show, but the two unfeasibly young coaches who gave us their verdict after the game decided otherwise. Throwing yellow bibs in turn to the chosen few, they barked out orders for the potential first-teamers to play another wheat-chaff sorting game, whilst explaining to the bib-less, one by one, why they hadn't chosen us. The verdict on me was respectful but slightly withering. "You did okay," the young alpha-male coach barked, "but your pace has gone. You'd struggle at this level." He offered me a place in the second XI, which I politely turned down. It was a difficult moment, but not half as difficult as the one about four years ago, when I finally realised during a five-a-side fest that my brain was saying one thing but that my body was incapable of carrying out the orders. Time to take up tennis, which is okay, but it ain't the same. And I never played football professionally. It must be very tough for pros when they retire, and even tougher when they can no longer kick a ball in anger.

Whatever, I still reckon those two guys at Essex were wrong, but it might just be my ego talking. You don't necessarily need pace to be a midfielder, and age doth not weary certain positions as quickly as it doth others. But I was quite glad to be able to concentrate solely on my studies, or so I told myself. Kids, eh? As Alan Hansen said, you don't win anything with them - or at least, not with too many of them. As we know, it's all about balance, and teams who maintain a healthy production line of talented youngsters, and who can blood them in the knowledge that the oldies are still around to look after them, often taste success. Hansen's famous mistake - he was referring to the Manchester United side of 1995 - was in preferring the old 'balance' cliché to the obvious potential of that emerging Beckham-Giggs-Scholes team, but he was not wrong in his conviction that a buttress of experience wins you titles or, these days at least, keeps you in the top flight.

But how old is too old? Looking at La Liga at the weekend, and some of its more prominent happenings, you couldn't help but notice the amount of golden oldies who are still doing the business. There aren't too many of them in the top four - even though the splendid Joaquin (31) seems to have been around for ever - but the mere presence of a 37-year-old in the starting line-up of a top-flight side in La Liga is worthy of some reflection, and what it might mean. That's because 37 is pretty old, in physical terms. It's even a strange-sounding age, as though it doesn't quite belong in the zone of elite sport, unlike 36, which our instincts will just about tolerate. The twilight zone for top footballers seems to occupy the 33-to-36-year range, excepting goalkeepers, who are different of course. Thirty seems to be a peak, after which a player is felt to be in decline, not only for physical reasons but also because of contractual vagaries. For a commercial venture such as a football club, the post-31 product is no longer positive equity. The Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka syndrome may represent a particular type of asset, despite the years, but in general, ageing footballers who are put out to stud are no longer purchased to win titles but to put bums on seats in some far-flung corner of the footballing cosmos.

However, if you accept a certain position in life, in La Liga's middle zone for example, then a veteran or two might help you stay there, or in the case of Levante, get you into Europe. Not only that, but the old men of Levante are actually winning games in the Europa League and are back in sixth place in the domestic competition after beating Granada 3-1. Sergio Ballesteros (37) didn't play, but Juanfran Garcia (36) did. So did the goalie Gustavo Munua (34), and Jose Javier Barkero too, who at 33 is still a relative youngster. Centre-backs, for obvious reasons, can perhaps aspire with reasonable confidence to reach the twilight zone and then perhaps continue, since their enemy is injury rather than age. Ask Carles Puyol and Ricardo Carvalho - although they're still around, remarkably. Maybe in the Premier League, for example, ageing centre-backs such as John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, excellent though they were in their prime, are found out more easily in the biff-bash context of England, whereas the nature of the game in Spain enables a singularly unremarkable defender such as Ballesteros to continue into his dotage.

The Celta v Deportivo game on Saturday night was witness to quite another aspect of the age question. First of all, it was nice to see this game played again at the top level for the first time since 2007. The rainy Gallego scene lends a flavour to La Liga that is difficult to define but is nevertheless a crucial ingredient in the overall dish. So too is the continued presence of Juan Carlos Valeron, who at 37 should really be watching from his sofa, especially given his record of injuries and the fact that he is a media punta, a position that may not require fleet of foot but certainly demands you be swift of thought.

Ah, Valeron! The player whom Andres Iniesta, in many ways his successor, said he would pay an entrance fee to see perform (I guess Iniesta has never actually paid to see a game... interesting thought), and who in his prime (2000-2006) was probably the best player in Spain, is still around after all these years and continuing to do the business. A little shimmy and change of feet in the 28th minute set up Juan Dominguez for the equaliser over in Vigo. Maybe he's lasted so long because he's such a nice bloke. Sid Lowe once memorably described him as "having a voice like a kid sucking on a helium balloon", and Valeron is indeed the opposite of the usual footballer type, a kind man liked by all and sundry - a sort of Omega male with an almost elegant, dainty sort of gait, as if he lost his direction on the way to the ballet class and somehow ended up on a grassy field. Long may he prosper.

There are others in Deportivo who are hardly spring chickens either. Carlos Marchena (33) is still around, after deciding to jump from the Villarreal submarine as it briefly bobbed to the surface in summer, as is full-back Manuel Pablo (36), another Deportivo legend whose international career was cut cruelly short by injury - interestingly enough in the Gallego derby in 2001. Celta de Vigo themselves seem to have decided that the best way to stay up this season is to bulk out the squad with older heads, with Mario Bermejo (33) opening the scoring on Saturday and Quique de Lucas (34) still active as an attacking midfielder.

Elsewhere, Jose Luis Marti (37) was playing in midfield for Mallorca in their home defeat (0-5) to Real Madrid, and is a similar player to Valeron, using guile as opposed to pace as his magical ingredient. Also a nice bloke, he used to hang out in my local coffee bar when he was loaned out to Real Sociedad a few seasons back, and I had a couple of chats with him, as you do. He paid for my tortilla one morning, I recall, so he must be alright. Whatever - maybe it's the proximity to 40 that determines whether we think it's normal to be playing at these ages. The ages of 35 and 36 still seem far enough away, but 37 begins to sound more like walking-stick territory.

Other members of this club include Jose Maria Movilla (37), a defensive midfielder who made his debut back in the Pleistocene Period in 1995 for Numancia but who has returned in the dusk of his career to Zaragoza to help them stay in the top flight. A different creature altogether from Valeron and Marti, his busy-bee style of play makes his longevity perhaps more surprising. He's very good at what he does though, and is something of a cult hero at Rayo Vallecano, where he stayed up to the end of last season. And last but not least, Patxi Punal of Osasuna is also a member of the 37 club, having set a record number of appearances (351) last week for the club, in a similarly defensive midfield role - a position that seems to figure prominently on the longevity scale.

Anyway, talking of golden oldies, whilst out for dinner with my wife on Saturday night in a fairly posh restaurant, I excused myself as nature called and wandered to the small room, whereupon I encountered one of the waiters watching Rayo v Barcelona on a small TV above the reception counter. The score was 0-2. Quite soon after, as old age tends to work its inevitable magic on the bladder, I retraced my steps only to discover that the score was 0-5. I must add, to conclude this little reflection on age, that the event was the 25th anniversary of meeting my wife, on that same course at Essex University in 1987. Had those guys picked me to play, I might have concentrated too much on the football, never have noticed her, never have followed her to Spain and never written this column. Funny old thing, destiny.

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