Dean Windass, who turned forty-one earlier this year, has signed up to play for Scarborough Athletic in the Northern Counties East League and should be playing for them on a game-by-game contract soon. Some might regard this as a fall from grace, but the urge to keep playing is obvious and it is to be hoped that Windass can do a job for The Seadogs this season. Hopes that he can do this are raised by the fact that Windass hasn’t been away from the game for that long. He scored the winning goal in the Championship play-off final for Hull City in 2008, and stayed in their squad for much of their first season in the Premier League.
Windass is one of the modern generation of players. Training techniques, diet and injury treatment should, at least in theory, have extended the shelf-life of a modern footballer and, whilst there are many that will retire from the game as soon as they think that they have got enough money to never have to work again, there will be others that can’t give up that addiction. For Windass, one suspects that it will be all about that surge of adrenaline as he steps over the touchline and onto a pitch and as the ball hits the back of the net. It’s a feeling that doesn’t fade away with age, and he’s not the only one. Barry Hayles might be described as a spritely thirty-eight year old in comparison with Windass, but he’s still thirty-eight years old and has recently signed for Truro City of the Southern League Premier Division.
As mentioned above, training, diet and injury treatment are the three key reasons for this. Training methods are so much more intensive than they were three decades ago that a player from the late 1970s would scarcely recognise those used by most teams now. At the top end of the game, every heartbeat is monitored, every breath examined. The modern footballer is fitter than his late 1970s counterpart. It is astonishing to think that as recently as twenty years ago, diet wasn’t considered a crucial part of a player’s regime but it wasn’t, and it has become drilled into players that they have to eat properly if they want to stay fit. For all that we read of the drinking culture that still exists within the game, it is nothing like it was two decades ago – modern players have nothing on the likes of Paul McGrath and Paul Gascoigne, while they were still playing. There’s just more about it in the papers than there ever used to be.
The drop into the lower divisions at the end of a playing career has always been there as a safety net for those unsure of what to do when coming towards the end of their careers. In the 1950s, players often had little choice or were given considerable financial inducements to do so. The maximum wage ensured that they would need a job when they retired, and smaller clubs would pay a reasonable age to bring a “big” name in, if for no other reason then to boost attendances at a time when even the most famous players were seldom seen on the television. After eighteen years with Middlesbrough and twenty-six England caps, for example, Wilf Mannion ended his playing career in the Southern League with Cambridge United, whilst a contemporary of his, Stan Mortensen, continued his playing career past the age of forty with Lancaster City and Tom Finney came out of retirement at the age of forty-one to play for the Northern Irish club Distillery against Benfica and Eusebio in the 1963 European Cup.
Modern players, on the whole, have less need to extend their careers for the sake of their livelihoods, but even so extending a career could, for an average Premier League player be worth a sizeable sum. For some, though, the desire to keep playing is plenty enough. For supporters, though, keeping an eye out for names from the dustier corners of our collective consciousness can be a rewarding lastime. A quick look through some non-league club squads reveal some fascinating blasts from the past. In the Blue Square South, the former Yugoslavia striker Dejan Stefanovic plays for Havant & Waterlooville, whilst the former Nottingham Forest striker Jason Lee plays for Boston United in the Blue Square North and the former Blackburn Rovers player Matt Jansen plays for Chorley FC of the Evostik League Division One North.
We also have the odd pleasure of seeing players in the most unexpected of circumstances. Nick Hornby noted in his chapter on Cambridge United in the anthology “My Favourite Year” that, during the 1983/84 season at The Abbey Stadium, he saw Peter Lorimer play for Leeds United against a young Andy Sinton for Cambridge. Lorimer was coming to the end of his lengthy career with Leeds United, while Sinton was a seventeen year old trainee thrust into the Cambridge team in a desperate situation. Perhaps having learnt something from Lorimer’s longevity, Sinton himself couldn’t quite shake off the desire to play until past the age of forty-one, spending five years in the non-league game with Burton Albion, Bromsgrove Rovers and Fleet Town.
Finally, there is one last furtive pleasure for those of us above a certain age. As the years pass by like the turning pages of a book, the older player comes to act as a beacon of hope to us all. We are (mostly) old enough to now understand that we are not going to be picked up as the next new talent by a passing scout while we are kicking clods of mud about on a park pitch on a Sunday morning, but we can at least look at Barry Hayles and think, “Well, Barry Hayles is still playing and he’s thirty-eight, so if he can still haul his backside out of bed for a game, then so can I”. It is entirely possible that a whole generation of men heaved a sigh of disappointment when Stanley Matthews retired from the game at the age of 50 in 1965. How many men suddenly felt their age that bit more when it became apparent that Matthews had pulled on a red and white striped shirt for the first time? If nothing else, Dean Windass may just keep the playing aspirations of men of a certain age and mentality, however humble or remote they may seem, alive for a few more years, and that in itself could even be described as a public service.