Over the Hill – can 30+ players compete at the very top? Matt Kleinman takes a look

In the football world there seems to be a massive stigma attached to players in their 30s. Sidekick’s Matt Kleinman takes a closer look.

In the football world there seems to be a massive stigma attached to players in their 30s. There seems to be an unwritten rule that, as soon as a player turns from 29 to 30, his ability to perform at the same levels as he had done previously drops off and thus his earning potential drops exponentially too.  So I thought it might be useful to see where this theory’s origins are born out of and whether they are still pertenant today.  Is it a reality or merely a myth that the modern day footballer becomes so much less valuable in his 30s than he was in his 20s?

I encounter the same frustrations from season to season, transfer window to transfer window as our players age and enter the twilight of their careers.  The same feedback is received when trying to promote the benefits of signing our Sidekick Management clients who have been playing out of their skin but who are now in their 30s – “he’s not for us thanks, he’s a bit too old.” Or maybe, “if he was a few years younger then we’d take him all day long.”  It doesn’t seem to matter that the striker has scored 13 goals for his struggling club before the end of January. The clubs can’t or perhaps, more to the point, don’t want to look beyond his age. What’s age got to do with it?  In football it seems the answer to that question is… everything!

Let’s look at why clubs may have this view. There two dominant reasons for this:

  1. Not the same player they once were: Historically and this is more rule of thumb than it is scientifically proven, players’ form dipped off a little once they entered their 30s. Perhaps this was due to over-playing at a young age and maybe on less well kept surfaces than we find today. As a result, by the time they had reached their late twenties and early thirties they were either a bit burned out or had endured a number of injuries that had led to them losing their pace. Concerns by clubs over paying good money to players that they might not be able to get the best out of anymore or even get out on the pitch are fully justified in this case.  Michael Owen is perhaps the perfect example of this.
  2. No re-sale value: With the stigma attached to being ‘past their prime’ many clubs view taking players over the age of 30 as being a loss of income. In their minds they have to pay wages to players of this age that they will never recoup in the future and that they may otherwise do by having players that are younger and who may have a ‘re-sale’ value attached to them. In their view, all wages that are invested into players in their 30s is lost the minute they sign them as they are highly unlikely to be able to sell these players on at a later date and reimburse their outlay or make money from their association with the club. This is not so much the case when the player in question has a large commercial value attached to them whereby the club can monetise that investment by offsetting it against selling club shirts and other paraphernalia, as in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. That said, Ronaldo is a massive exception to the over-30s rule as he still remains one of the best players in the world.
Craig Davies
Craig Davies has lead from the front this season with 13 goals (come the end of February) at struggling League 1 side, Oldham Athletic.

Perhaps the ‘over 30s theory’ was more accurate in the days when pitches were less well kept and the rules on tackling were less stringent. Anyone who has seen footage of games in the 1960s where the likes of ‘Chopper Harris’ (Chelsea) and Nobby Stiles (Manchester United) were involved will see exactly what I mean.  Football then took ‘physical contact’ to a whole new level by comparison to today’s game which has become almost a non-contact sport.  One funny story that sums up nicely the extreme side of the game in those days was when Stiles was allegedly asked during the 1966 World Cup Finals by England Manager, Sir Alf Ramsey to take one of the best player’s in the world, Eusebeo (of Portugal) out of the game.  Stiles’s  response was, “what boss, you mean today or forever?!”  Also, in those times, certain injuries that are highly prevalent today such as knee ligament tears were career ending injuries while, with the advance in medical treatment, today such injuries can be a major set-back to a player’s career but certainly don’t mean having to quit the game.

“You don’t have to look too far to find examples throughout the leagues in England of players that have played some of their best football in their 30’s and/ or are still doing the business today”

Medical advances and a better knowledge of diet and nutrition are possibly the two main factors that have prolonged players’ careers in recent years and seen many performing at their best in their 30’s.  Also, the advent of more sophisticated sportswear has undoubtedly aided in helping players train and perform better for longer.  A strong argument can be made for suggesting that older footballers, with greater levels of experience (both training and match time), develop a greater appreciation for the game – a heightened understanding of positional sense, when to expend energy and when not –  making them more efficient and effective.

There are no less number of games per season today than there were in the 70s, 80s or 90s nor is there less intensity in the fixture schedule, with league and cup ties coming thick and fast.  However, players’ training schedules seem to be better managed due to the physical demands placed on them being understood and appreciated further. Clubs today are adopting a sensible philosophy of prevention being better than cure by making players complete pre-hab work prior to training and recovery work following game days.  The likes of Nobby Styles and Norman Hunter would have laughed in your face if you’d have presented them with a protein shake after a tough game instead of a pint of lager!

Ian Henderson
Like a fine wine getting better with age, Henderson scored 19 goals last season for Rochdale at the age of 32 and at 33 years of age has 15 goals already this season for the Dale.

Perhaps another significant reason as to why players are managing to prolong their careers today is due to the financial returns that it offers.  The money in football has risen rapidly in recent years and this has filtered down the leagues into players’ wages.  While there is still a massive disparity between what players in the Premier League can earn compared to their counterparts in the lower leagues of the professional game, there is still a very good income to be earned as a footballer. Beyond their playing days there are few footballers who will ever match their income from the game through other sources of work.  This being the case, footballers are doing their upmost to maintain high levels of fitness and skill to play for as long as possible.

You don’t have to look too far to find examples throughout the leagues in England of players that have played some of their best football in their 30s and/ or are still doing the business today.  These are the likes of: David Silva (Manchester City), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United), Glenn Murray and Bruno Saltor (Brighton & Hove Albion), Sol Bamba (Cardiff City), Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp (Sheffield United), Charlie Mulgrew and Danny Graham (Blackburn Rovers), Brett Pitman (Portsmouth), Craig Davies (Oldham Athletic), Ian Henderson (Rochdale), John Stead (Notts County), Kevin Ellison (Morecambe), Adebeyo Akinfenwa (Wycombe Wanderers) to name just some.