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5 December 2017

What to do with all those pensioner footballers, washed up at 35?

A soccer stud farm!

By Hunter Davies

Until I was 80, I never mentioned my age. I had always been taken for younger. Harold Wilson in 1947, aged 31, grew a moustache to make himself look older when he became a cabinet minister. I grew one in my twenties to look like a proper journalist. When I arrived to interview someone famous, I still often got shown the tradesman’s door.

Now, I endlessly drag my age into the conversation.

“I was talking first, don’t you know how old I am?”

“Yes, certainly I will have another glass of Beaujolais. I am 81.”

“That was my seat by the way, so gerrup. You do know how old I am…”

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There are certain professions in which people are scared to reveal their age. Acting is one, which is why so many actors lie. If you are good enough and big enough, though, you can still be in work.

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Pity the poor footballers. Age defines them, then very quickly limits them. They are hardly into their career before it starts to get mentioned. Towards the end, they are constantly stigmatised by their age, as if they have caught some awful disease.

“Peter Crouch, at the age of 36, is still able to get up in the air…” That was the Sky commentator when Crouchy came on as a sub to head a vital goal for Stoke against Leicester.

Mr Crouch is 6ft 7in – of course he can still get up in the air. From my long observation of the human race, I can reveal that men do not shrink in their thirties. That happens later.

Did I mention I was 81? I was well over 6ft when I was young – oh, yes – and have my passport to prove it. (A fiddle, of course. It was the period when you filled in your own height on your passport form, so you could write anything.)

There are quite a few players performing well in the Prem despite being in their mid-thirties, such as the 36-year-old Gareth Barry at West Brom. Petr Cech, the Arsenal goalie, is 35 (Buffon at Juventus is 39 – but goalies tend to last longer).

Ryan Giggs got to 40 still playing for Man United, but no modern player in a top division anywhere is likely to beat Stanley Matthews, who was playing in the First Division when he was 50.

Footballers can last a bit longer than they used to, thanks to modern diets, fitness regimes, medical treatment and the fact that they hardly ever drink ten pints after a game, as English players used to do.

But what has happened with the enormous increase in transfer fees is that once you get into your late twenties, your age becomes a label, especially if you are in a young team such as Spurs – or, now, England – with so many teenagers or 20-year-olds coming through. In your early thirties, you are suddenly washed up, knackered, as far as financial value is concerned.

Clubs regularly pay £50m for only moderately decent players – if they are the right age. The suits see them as an investment. If the manager goes off them in a couple of years, they will still be young enough to have a good resale value.

I can’t think of many occupations in which, once you enter your thirties, your career trajectory is as good as over. Wayne Rooney has got dumped by England and given away for free by Man United – yet he is only 32, nobbut a lad.

A top club is rarely going to buy you when, like poor old Crouchy, you get to 36 – but at least Stoke has signed him for another year. Yet you could still be playing some of your best football.

Instead, you are considered worthless – time to be put out to grass like an old nag, or sent to stud.

That could well be perfect for old footballers wondering what to do next. A soccer stud farm! Shagging all day! Help to produce the next generation of players. I would quite fancy that myself, but I’m not sure my sperm would be up to it.

Do you know how old I am? 

“Diary of an Ordinary Schoolgirl” by Margaret Forster, with an introduction by Hunter Davies, is published by Chatto & Windus on 7 December

This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world