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The Generation Game: Does Anyone Play It Better Than Alex Ferguson?

by Rob Dore | March 3, 2012

Alan Hansen has been brought to book many a time (old man speak) for the assertion he made back in 1995 after a young Manchester United side lost the season opener to Aston Villa.
“You’ll never win anything with kids,” he gruffly spat out with that familiar tinge of distaste which not even Gary Lineker’s saccharine cheeriness has been able to sweeten over the years.

If the point Hansen was making is you can’t win anything with just kids then he was and is right. Arsenal’s current struggles are often linked to the lack of experience in their squad. The cornerstone of Alex Ferguson’s prolonged success is his insistence on keeping experienced players at the club to provide guidance t the next generatin. Up to now it was simply their calm heads and wise words which were needed but now Ferguson is relying on his golden oldies to keep them in the title race.

Ryan Giggs (38) and Paul Scholes (37) should, at most, be performing cameo roles, coming on at the end of tight games to help guide the kids safely to the final whistle. Instead, they’re picking the kids up to drag them over the finishing line. Last weekend against Norwich Scholes opened the scoring and played the entire game. Giggs was only taken off in injury time, after he scored the winner. It was his 900th game for United. It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of those hiding in the wings. Something Ferguson has finally had to admit about the likes of Darren Gibson.

It now looks almost certain that both Giggs, who is already signed up for another, and Scholes will still be at Old Trafford next season. The question is how much longer can they be expected to carry the burden of quality, unsupported by young players capable of stepping in to their shoes? There’s only so long the yoga, dieticians and physios can keep them ticking over.

The oldest player to ever play a professional game of football was Salvador Reyes. He kicked off a game between Chivas and Pumas in 2008 at the age of 71. It may have been a nostalgic publicity stunt but he could still tackle better than Scholes. More significantly the great Stanley Matthews played his final league game at the age of 50 in 1965. Rather than a nostalgic comeback, Matthews had played every season from 1931 up to his retirement. The Ryan Giggs of his day, without the (sex)yoga.

Given the physical demands of the modern game, seeing someone in their 50s legitimately playing in the first or second tier of English football seems impossible. When it comes to football, 40 is the new 50.

Paolo Maldini, one of the all-time great defenders, played 30 league games in his final season for AC Milan before retiring at the age of 40. Filippo Inzhagi (38) is still on the books and contributing at the San Siro. The culture and pace of Italian football has long accomodated the prolonging of a player’s career.

David Beckham will turn 37 in May and though he’s certainly not as spritely as he once was, his services, or perhaps his image rights, are still much sought after in top leagues around the world. With the excessive drinking culture being weeded out of the game, in large part due to the ease with which indiscretions can be exposed through technology, and the advancements in medical treatment, players continuing at the top level in to their late 30s could become common place.

Right now though the likes of Giggs and Scholes are near medical marvels but all the yoga in the world isn’t going to keep them going much longer. At least not at the level which Alex Ferguson needs them to be at between now and the end of the season. For the short-term their bodies can still be relied upon but this is a faster, more physically demanding game than the one which Stanley Matthew played in to his 50s. The end is surely nigh for both.

What Alex Ferguson has demonstrated is the importance of having experienced players in your squad. What Giggs and Scholes have proven is that taking care of your body can prolong your career closer to the 40 mark. Fergie’s problem is that right now he’s relying on them too much. An issue he’ll need to address in the summer. For now he can but hope that he can keep both players fit and healthy enough to maintain their title challenge. Continuing against outside title challengers Spurs. What Harry Redknapp wouldn’t give to have Ledley King as chipper as Giggsy.

Regardless of how right Alan Hansen was with his assertion about kids, you’ll never build a great team without a few oldies.

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