How old is too old?

Speed of legs is hugely important, but so, surely, is speed of thought. Ageing players still have a lot to offer to their respective clubs. By Brian Glanville.

How old, in football, is too old? The question seems especially germane as the 34-year-old Didier Drogba prepared to leave his seemingly beloved Chelsea on a free transfer with the possibility of earning if he wishes £250,000 a week in Shanghai. Drogba, with a kind word for almost everyone connected with the Chelsea hierarchy, for the billionaire oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich and even for the deposed manager Andres Villas-Boas, scored priceless and spectacular goals for Chelsea. In the FA Cup final when, with Spurs on top till that moment, he simply brushed aside the struggling Tottenham centre back William Gallas to give his team the lead. More dramatic still was the glorious piece of powerful opportunism with which he put Chelsea level in the European Cup final against Bayern Munich.

Drogba says, somewhat bewilderingly, that he would have stayed at Stamford Bridge, had Chelsea actually lost that European final, The truth, however, seems to be that Chelsea were ill advised and foolish enough to reject his request for a two-year contract extension when his actual deal fell in at the end of the season, parsimoniously and self defeatingly offering him just one more year.

Apart from the fact that under Villas-Boas and his mistaken, risky tactics, with a defensive line deployed much too far up-field, Drogba was apparently seen with other senior members of the side such as Frank Lampard, 33, as too elderly. There was no logical reason to write Drogba off. A manager must surely cut his coat according to his cloth and given the players he had available, Villas-Boas tactics were never likely to work: nor did they.

If that, so it is rumoured, is what Abramovich wanted, he was essentially pressing Villas-Boas to run before he could walk. When Roberto De Matteo, twice a Chelsea Cup final star, took over with the somewhat demeaning title of interim coach, he immediately and successfully changed the strategy, pulling the back four deeper and concentrating on the breakaway; as so devastatingly used at the Camp Nou, against Barcelona. So Drogba with his dynamic opportunism could flourish, as could the recalled Frank Lampard, whose two fine passes, one a return ball to Ramires at Camp Nou, the other a perfectly judged through ball at The Bridge for Ramires, then on the left, when Lampard had snapped up the ball after Lionel Messi had failed in a misguided attempt to “nutmeg” him.

We are constantly told that top class football today, especially in England, is based on pace, stamina and by implication, youth. Certainly the game gets quicker all the time, yet I am reminded of the wise words of George Raynor, the little Yorkshire man who took Sweden to the World Cup final in 1948, ten years after he had won with them the Olympic title in London. No one, he'd say, runs faster than the ball.

Manchester United, in the 2011-2012 season, under the formidably successful Alex Ferguson, failed to win the Premiership only on goal difference. And this is a team which successfully and profitably used two players in their late 30s, Ryan Giggs at 38, Paul Scholes at 37. The remarkable thing about Giggs, who has even had his sights set as an overage player in the British Olympic team, is that he has been functioning and with such success not on the left-wing, where he made his name and where, notionally at least, a player can take the odd time out, but in central midfield where the traffic flows nonstop. This has seemed no burden to him; he lasts a game as well and as effectively as any of his younger teammates. As for Scholes, he had actually retired from active game at the end of the previous season but just a year younger than Giggs, he was persuaded to return in midseason by Alex Ferguson evidently desperate to reinforce his midfield.

It seemed hardly logical or even fair to throw Paul on to the field as a sudden wholly unexpected substitute in the derby match against Manchester City and it hardly paid off, Scholes promptly giving away a ball which led to a City goal. But in the next game, Scholes seemed reinvigorated. And even scored a fine goal.

One thinks also of that splendid veteran Dutch international Clarence Seedorf now 35 years old and still a salient and influential figure with Milan, often drifting into dangerous attacking position on the left flank. He shows no signs of losing form, whatever his years.

But perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of comparatively recent years was Stanley Matthews, alias ‘The Wizard of Dribble', an outside right with an almost magical swerve, an England player from the age of 19 and an England winger again in May 1956 then at the age of 41, he played havoc with his opposing Brazil left back Nilton Santos, supposedly the best in his position in the world.

How well I, who had idolised him like millions of others from my school, recall going down into the Wembley dressing room after England had beaten Brazil where Stanley, in an unphysically irate moment, said he was sick of reading accusation that he was too old. “There's time,” he said, “When I want to tear the paper across.”

Fast toward to 1961, when, at the age of 46, Stanley had just left Blackpool, where he had played in the War Years and from 1947 onwards, to return to his original local club, Stoke City. There, yet again, he would excel. Another vivid memory. Standing beside him in the Stoke dressing room just before he made his first reappearance, you might call it, for City, when I said something to him, he, this man of infinite experience and global admiration, replied, “I'm not really with you at the moment, Brian.” Or as he had also put it to me, eluding to how he felt before a game, “You must have butterflies.”

In that 1958 World Cup Swedish side, both the inside forwards, Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm, ten years after they had starred in that Olympic triumph, were into their late thirties and each of them played a formidable part in Sweden's progress to the final. “We're the slowest team in the competition.” I heard him say after his team had beaten Hungary. “If there was a relay race between all the teams in the competition, Sweden would finish last. But we'll still reach the final.” Which, indeed, they did.

Speed of legs is hugely important, but so, surely, is speed of thought. As for Matthews, he never lost that miraculous, mystifying body swerve.