In Praise Of The Older Footballer
As you get older, one of the many things that you start to realise that you hadn’t done before is that there comes a point when you start to become older than the footballers that you watch kicking a ball around of a Saturday afternoon. It shouldn’t surprise you to realise that by the time you hit your mid-thirties you’re older than ninety-five per cent of those appearing on Match Of The Day of a Saturday night, but it does, and from that moment on it isn’t long before that ninety-five per cent has become more or less one hundred per cent, and those few years really do not take very long to pass.
Last night, apropos nothing in particular, I was reminded of the continuing playing career of goalkeeper Paul Bastock, who, at some time before eleven o’clock, tweeted that he had to be up early in the morning to play football for St Albans City in the Southern League Premier Division. Bastock reached his fortieth birthday in May 2010, and to still be playing semi-professional football more than three years later is a rare achievement and, moreover, as soon as I noted this particular achievement on Twitter myself, a couple of people replied to me to suggest that his ongoing place in the first team is no fluke. Bastock “is like a fine wine, if anything he has got better and better with age,” noted one, whilst another commented that “if it wasn’t for him, St Albans would be in “the drop zone” already.”
None of this came as a particular surprise to me. Bastock was a fine goalkeeper during his salad days, which is borne out by high esteem in which he is held at St Albans City, where, having first joined the club in 2004, he is now in his third spell, and also at Boston United, where he spent the majority of his career, playing more than six hundred games over a period which lasted from 1992 until 2004. And in addition to this, he always seemed quite keen on keeping his fitness levels as high as possible, so the idea of being able to eke an extra few years out at a time when most of the rest of us are starting to focus our physical exertions on the notion of being able to get up from the sofa without routinely making a noise that resembles that which an angry walrus might make under similar circumstances was hardly a hue leap of imagination to have to make.
Bastock is assisted in his quest for footballing longevity by the position in which he plays. A quick look at the roll of honour of players who lasted into their forties indicates that being a goalkeeper definitely helps. Dino Zoff of Italy and Peter Shilton of England were both forty years old when they won a World Cup in 1982 and reached a penalty shoot-out in a semi-final in 1990 respectively, whilst John Burridge continued to play as an emergency goalkeeper for hire until he was in the middle of his fifth decade and Kevin Poole of Burton Albion made an appearance as a forty seven year-old in a Football League Trophy match for the club against Rotherham United in October 2010. Poole, astonishingly, had made his Football League debut twenty-six years earlier, for Northampton Town in 1984.
That goalkeepers should monopolise the senior players’ role of honour doesn’t come as any great surprise. After all, playing in goal is easier on those increasingly fragile knee joints than chasing around the pitch for ninety minutes every week, and playing in this position most likely also makes it more difficult to spot when the reflexes aren’t quite as sharp as they used to be. Even so, however, there are a handful of players who have survived well beyond what we might have thought their life expectancy on the pitch might be. The most obvious is Stanley Matthews, who went twenty years without a medal between winning the Second Division championship with Stoke City at eighteen years of age in 1933 and winning the FA Cup with Blackpool exactly two decades later. Few would have believed even then that Matthews had a further twelve years in him as a player, finally ending his career shortly after his fiftieth birthday with an appearance for Stoke City against Fulham in the First Division in February 1965.
Times have changed a lot since the middle of the 1960s, though. Fitness levels are such that there are fewer places for an outfield player whose best days may be behind them to hide on the pitch these days. In view of this, a special mention should offered to Kazu Miura, who is still known to occasionally turn out in the J2 league in Japan for Yokohama FC at forty-six years of age, a mere twenty-seven years after signing his first professional contract for Santos, in Brazil. On the whole, however, a player who is lucky and manages to avoid a career-ending early injury or being unable to earn themselves a new contract will do well to survive beyond his mid-thirties.
As we get older, time makes fools of us all, but the footballer who ignores their expiry date and carries on playing serves as a reminder that, if even it can’t happen forever, the gravity of aging can at least be defied for a while. So, as the rest of us start to appreciate the benefits of a sit down and a cup of tea more and feel the creeping hand of middle-age appear on our shoulder, those players who do manage to keep on rolling back the years offer a small reminder that, no matter how grey our hair may be turning, no matter how many times we may wander into a room on the house and promptly forget the reason why we went there in the first place and no matter how many times we may curse the moment that we bought sofas with low, comfy seating… we’re not quite completely over the hill just yet. Soon, perhaps, but not quite just yet.
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