Age is more than a figure
Age is not just a number. To some, it's a death sentence, a sign of their footballing mortality, a statistic that can override objective assessments of their capabilities. For others, it is something to be advertised, lending a promise of exponential improvement and a brighter future. For the ageing footballer, it is a curse; for the emerging one, a blessing.
Age figures prominently in the game's narrative and analysis alike. Mundane descriptions ("the 23-year-old shot wide") and more pertinent predictions ("at 32, his best days are behind him") are allied in the sport's vocabulary. Yet a number should be a guide, not a fact. There is a sense that a footballing age can differ from real age; this is not just a matter of months and days.
It is not merely because goalkeepers tend to display greater longevity than their outfield counterparts, or even a reference to the rumours about the actual dates of birth of various African players. It is because it is not just as simple as arguing, as some have done, that footballers peak between 28 and 31. Injuries and lifestyle can dictate otherwise; so, too, a style of play that can go into or out of fashion.
An extreme example is supplied by Michael Owen. A striker with 40 international goals by the time he was 27 has none since. It is a career trajectory that makes more sense when it is factored in that Owen peaked between the ages of 18 and 22 and has been in decline since. Something similar, though for very different reasons, may be said of a former Manchester United No. 7, George Best.
A contrast is supplied by a forward Fabio Capello did pick this season; Kevin Davies made his England debut when nearer his 34th birthday than his 33rd. Highly rated at 21, seemingly on the scrapheap at 26 and rehabilitated in his thirties, the Bolton captain is proof that players can reach a personal pinnacle both before and after their supposed prime.
The late developers can confound orthodox logic about players' best years. Improbably, Tony Book made his Football League bow at 29 and first appeared in the top flight two years later. Nevertheless, at 34, the Manchester City captain shared the Footballer of the Year award. It is a faster game now, but others still take the long road to join the elite. Burnley's Graham Alexander made his Premier League debut just short of his 38th birthday, at a time when the majority of his contemporaries had retired, but acquitted himself well.
His was a slow-burner of a career. Others went unnoticed in their formative years, but rose faster. A non-league upbringing is cited as a reason for the durability of Stuart Pearce, who turned professional at 21 and played his final game at 40, and Ian Wright, almost 22 when signed by Crystal Palace and nearly 37 when he retired.
A taste of the real world may provide greater motivation, but the equation is more complicated. Owen was approaching 250 career games for club and country at the stage when Wright started; wear and tear is a factor, too. A footballer who breaks through at 17 may reach the midway mark in his career at 25; one who first appears at 22 might arrive at the equivalent point when 30.
There is a trend which, though he is a more complete player, bodes badly for Wayne Rooney, one of Merseyside's striking icons peaking early. Robbie Fowler was at his most prolific between 19 and 22; Chelsea must hope Fernando Torres is not another with a long decline. But like Owen, the Spaniard's speed prompted his rise. Fowler's rise was more a case of quick thoughts and instincts than any resemblance to Usain Bolt but pace accounts for the early exploits of some, a lack of it for the late blooming of others.
For Teddy Sheringham, a rarity among forwards with his prowess in his pensionable years, the first yard was famously in his head. While there are other attacking exceptions, like Dean Windass, the experience that lends greater positional sense and understanding of the game tends to benefit midfielders and defenders more. Hence the age-defying feats of men such as Alexander and David Weir and the excellence in their autumn years of intelligent footballers like Claude Makelele, Gary McAllister, Gary Speed and Gordon Strachan.
The same applies, too, to physiological freaks like Ryan Giggs and Paolo Maldini, though theirs is a triumph of body as well as of mind. Giggs should remain a role model, if only to wingers and forwards who are reliant on speed. The Welshman has lasted because he has developed other elements of his game. He is 37 in fact, but, as a footballer, looks 33; in contrast, Owen, at 31, is in the position of many a 35-year-old.
An expertise in assessing players' effective age is profitable. Arsene Wenger has long displayed an expertise in selling before decline becomes apparent, a judgment made not merely with a glance at the birth certificate. Freddie Ljungberg left when officially 30, though he soon looked much older. By extending the careers of George Graham's back four and then arranging the lucrative sales of Ljungberg, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry before others were aware their powers were waning, Wenger has proved an expert in determining footballers' unofficial ages and thus, their lifespans. In a sport where opinions are often presented as facts, even the most basic detail is open to ever greater interpretation. Age is far more than a figure.