Nowadays, clubs seem reluctant to sign a player beyond the age of twenty-nine, fearing the inexorable decline of nature and quizzical glances from the terraces. The footballing idealists would have you believe that, more than ever, ours is a game for young men with precocious futures mapped out ahead of them; that, soon enough, the thirty-year old footballer will become obsolete. The recent spate of festive fixtures, however, would attest to the contrary; 'aging' veterans stealing the show and proving once again why such a fixation with age instigates a false economy.
Nowhere did this sentiment resonate more purposefully than at Villa Park. In among the swathe of Christmas fixtures, Roberto Martinez' mercurial Wigan Athletic arrived to bludgeon Lambert's youngsters to a comprehensive 0-3 reverse. At the centre of a splendid Wigan performance was one mild-mannered, understated utility man. Emmerson Boyce. At thirty-three years of age, Boyce is rarely considered a Premier League star but, to the footballing purists, his recent performances have highlighted him as thus; a ferocious energy matched only be abundant enthusiasm and endeavor from the Barbados international. It is because Boyce is thirty-three that he plays for Wigan Athletic; other, more established clubs overlooking him merely because he has passed over that hill marked "THIRTY!" Rather like baseball's Oakland Atheltics, Wigan must play 'Moneyball,' and forge what they can from an island of misfit toys. Emmerson Boyce is to Roberto Martinez what Scott Hatteberg was to Billy Beane. The full-backs fantastic individual goal at Villa Park was a microcosm of the prevailing age-bias in football; the young, impish upstarts of Villa outwitted and outmaneuvered by the sensation of experience.
Paul Lambert was not alone in witnessing his side fall to the superior influence of veteran experience; Reading's Brian McDermott ruing the fact that a thirty-one year old Gareth Barry possessed the hunger and appetite with which to out-leap a novice defence and nod home a crushing ninety-third minute winner for Manchester City prior to Christmas. Barry, too, is a player who has been increasingly chastised in the media and on the terraces for little known reason other than 'he's getting old.' One wonders whether Manchester City fans, quick to criticise Barry at times this campaign, will remember his crucial goal if their team eventually go on to nick the league Title by a mere point in May?
Across Manchester, of course, Sir Alex Ferguson is still reveling in the wake of his greatest coup: the summer signing of Robin Van Persie. Though many will publicly deny it, managers were more than a little discouraged to pursue RVP in the summer because of his advancing age. At twenty-nine, many saw a player with little upside past the next couple of seasons, and thus relented from negotiations. Ferguson, on the other hand, went forth and signed the player, not the age category. Many fans ask how Manchester United so routinely enrich their winning mentality; the answer, more often than not, comes in sagacious, age-blind recruitment from the top brass.
Of age-blind recruitment, Fulham's Martin Jol does a similarly splendid job. His signing of Dimitar Berbatov this summer is almost comparable to the great Johnny King luring John Aldridge back from the beach in the mid-nineties; the charismatic Bulgarian responsible for a vast proportion of the Cottagers goals this campaign. The languid forward floats lyrically around the field, inspiring awe and frustration in equal measure, yet rarely fails to produce the magic in an hour of need. Again, such a talisman only arrives at a club such as Fulham because of his age, and the perception of others. The fact that Berbatov would have been more effective than Adebayor at Tottenham, Torres at Chelsea, and Giroud at Arsenal remains indisputable, but supposed big clubs have restricted themselves with narrow-mindedness.
Incredibly, this narrow-mindedness still pervades at Stamford Bridge despite the heroics of Frank Lampard at Goodison Park over the festive season. Rolling back the years with a virtuoso two-goal performance, Lampard proved again why he is considered one of the greatest players in Premier League history. Averaging fifteen goals from midfield for as many seasons as all care to remember, it is somewhat stupendous that Lampard still attracts criticism. The only reason why Frank has detractors, why Frank has trouble, why Frank has to contemplate moving to Los Angeles to continue a fantastic career, is because he is thirty-four years of age, in a sport which no longer desires such dinosaurs.
However, the Christmas revival of phenomenal veterans such as Boyce, Barry, Berbatov and Lampard show that, beyond the ever-judging eye of age austerity, there is life in the old dog yet.