How old is too old?

Senior pros can often come and haunt their managers with some horrendous blunders, but there is of course always the exception, writes Brian Glanville.

An English sports columnist recently wrote a scathing attack on veteran players. It had become the fashion, he declared, at a time when clubs were running out of money, to enlist footballers whose best years were far behind them. Presumably on economic grounds, though since one of his two chief examples, Patrick Vieira — the other being Sol Campell — has gone to Manchester City at the ripe old football age of 35 — that is, to by far the richest club in the Premiership — the argument seems somewhat paradoxical from the first.

Vieira is reportedly on a massive 155,000 pounds a week, so City can scarcely have enlisted him in the cause of economy. Why they should have signed him, from Inter — where he had lost his place — at all is another matter. In his impressive prime, with Arsenal, he was a hugely powerful figure, driving through from midfield, though with a dreadful disciplinary record. Of the various occasions when he saw a red card, one was followed by his spitting in the face of a West Ham opponent, at Upton Park.

His Manager, Arsene Wenger, whose ideal half back line seemed sometimes to be The Three Wise Monkeys, endlessly and evasively defended him. On one occasion, at the end of a game when Vieira attempted to punch and kick an opponent, Wenger opined that in each case, Vieira had missed! It took no time at all after his arrival at City, who had already seemed to have an abundance of costly midfield players, for Vieira to commit a serious foul and to be suspended for three matches.

As for Sol Campbell, his saga this season has been a strange one indeed. It will be remembered that he made his name with Tottenham but that when his contract ran out, he incensed Spurs fans by walking out and joining their detested rivals, Arsenal. There, an England defender, he did well enough till one bizarre evening at Highbury — I was there — he gave away two lamentable goals then, at half time, walked not only off the pitch but out of the stadium.

Arsenal took him back at the end of the season; he actually headed their goal against Barcelona in the European Cup final, when they were undone by the wiles of another veteran, the irrepressible Swede, Henrik Larsson.

Subsequently, Campbell joined Portsmouth, but appeared to retire from the game, last summer. I say appeared because, in a curious move, he suddenly, at the start of this season, signed for Notts County, a struggling club in the lowest division, played once and then retied again. Only for Wenger, in midseason to persuade him, to return to Arsenal.

Pitched somewhat ruthlessly into an ill starred FA Cup tie at Stoke, where Wenger packed his team with untried reserves, he came through that pretty well, though it had long been clear that his pace had gone. Subsequently, at Porto, in the European Cup, he was involved in the fiasco with the shaky Arsenal second choice goalkeeper, the young Pole, Lukasz Fabianski, who thoughtlessly picked up the ball in his box, when Campell prodded it back to him, thereby facilitating the goal via an indirect free kick whereby Porto won.

There is of course always the exception. Not least in the shape of Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, who at 36 was having a magnificent season either on his habitual left wing or, with supreme confidence and effect, in attacking midfield; till a wretched injury put him out of action.

I remember being introduced to Giggs, now 36, then a shy 16 year old, on my way out of the Old Trafford Stadium, by Joe Brown, who was then the United chief scout. He promised me that Giggs would be a star and how right he has been proved. Both with Wales, for whom he has played somewhat less often than might be hoped, and with United — not least when he scored a sensational semi-final goal with an irresistible solo in an FA Cup semi-final — Giggs has been one of the finest British players of his day.

Goalkeepers, of course, now seem to go on forever. Dino Zoff, who holds the record number of appearances for Italy — just as Peter Shiton with 125 caps does for England — won a World Cup medal for the Azzuri in Spain in 1982 as a 40 year old. Today, Manchester United have just given a new contract to the 39 year old Dutch international Edwin Van der Sar, who has seen off the challenge of such as Ben Foster, not long ago looked on as a future, regular England keeper — he had in fact been capped when on loan at Watford, but latterly, confidence has seemed to slip.

Watching at Wembley the recent England vs Egypt game, one was impressed with the showing of another distinguished veteran, the Egyptian captain and central midfielder, Ahmed Hassan, 35 years old in May, the years seem to have done no harm to his mobility and influence. When, at Wembley, he was substituted in the second half along with other team members — wearied, we were told by the assistant coach, by recent efforts in the African Nations Cup, which they won, and the World Cup play offs when they surprisingly lost to Algeria — you could see the difference it made to his team’s display.

He has now amassed the astonishing total of 173 caps, bringing 31 goals, two of them in the quarter and semi-finals of the recent African Nations Cup. And he still stays in Egypt, like the bulk of his team, playing for its leading club, Al Ahly.

Perhaps the most astonishing veteran star of all times, not least on the Wembley pitch, was England’s Stanley Matthews. First capped in 1934 as a 19 year old Stoke City right winger, he was still good enough in May 1956 at the age of 41 to run rings at Wembley round Brazil’s Nilton Santos who was then reckoned to be the best left back in the world. And he continued playing for Stoke, having rejoined them from Blackpool, till he was nearly 50. “You must have butterflies!” he once told me. And in Stoke’s dressing room before his return to the side, he told me, experienced as he was, “I’m not really with you now, Brian!!” Running across the sands he had his own regime of fitness and how it worked! Plus the fact that every game so keenly mattered to him.