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Age is just a number

(FIFA.com)
England goalkeeper Peter Shilton
© Getty Images

The famous idiom tells us that life begins at 40 and, for some footballers, playing beyond that age shows a true dedication to their profession. Maintaining their fitness levels beyond that particular milestone is very much an exception to the accepted norm that players should be winding down their career in their 30s.

Ryan Giggs hung up his boots at the age of 40 last season after a remarkable career with Manchester United, Mark Schwarzer has turned out for Leicester City in the English Premier League aged 42 this season, while 48-year-old Kazuyoshi Miura is still breaking records with his goal-scoring in Japan. *FIFA.com *spoke exclusively to several players who have broken through that particular age barrier to discover exactly what it takes to prolong your playing career, the change in attitude to an older professional and the responsibilities that come with being a similar age to the coaching staff.

“With some people, their bodies can take the training which you need to keep a level for so long,” England’s most capped player Peter Shilton told FIFA.com “Obviously some people can't, but if you’re lucky enough to be born with the ability to keep going, then it’s great that you can do what you love doing for as long as possible.”

Shilton certainly did that, playing at the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ at the age of 40 and retiring aged 47 after reaching 1005 English league games. At those finals in Italy, Shilton says his was a bespoke training regime, partly because of his age and partly because of his status as a goalkeeper.

“Bobby Robson brought Mike Kelly [a goalkeeping coach] in, and he’d occasionally give us a bit of a session, which I quite enjoyed,” Shilton recalled. “A lot of the time though he’d just ask: ‘What do you want?’ And I’d just tell him. I was experienced. In the World Cup I prepared 100 per cent, I was right on top of my game and was ready for everything.

“My body is a little bit like my mum’s. Physically she’s brilliant. She broke her hip and was out of hospital in two days. She’s 93. I think it’s in the genes! You need to have that.”

Kevin Phillips must have good genes too, having played his final English Premier League game for Crystal Palace aged 40 years, two months and scoring his final professional goal for Blackpool five months later. His testimony reveals a similar feeling to Shilton, of a different approach later in his career.

“Obviously as you get older you tend to find things a little bit harder,” Phillips said to FIFA.com. “You have to work twice as hard as the others to keep up with them. I’ve never done yoga, but I’ve heard Ryan [Giggs] say that [he did that]. It’s similar to yoga but I am a believer in stretching an awful lot. Stretching every day, every opportunity I get, watching telly or whatever.”

One player’s personal fitness regime helped him make a landmark appearance on the biggest stage of all. Faryd Mondragon set the record for the oldest player to play at a World Cup at Brazil 2014, aged 43 years and three days.

“It's an honour for me,” Mondragon said, speaking after claiming the record with a substitute appearance against Japan. “In claiming this record I'm a person who embodies Colombian football and Colombian football history. It was unbelievable.”

For Brad Friedel, it was actually retiring from international football in his 30s that was key to keeping fresh. Friedel, who starred at the 2002 World Cup for USA, signed for Tottenham Hotspur in 2011, aged 40, and went on to play every Premier League game that season. That campaign contributed to Friedel setting a remarkable record of 310 consecutive appearances in the top flight, spread over eight years.

“[Retiring from international football] massively helped,” Friedel said in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com. “It all helped prolong my club career. But it doesn’t mean people have to stop in order to have a long career in club football. It’s mentality as well. Do you want to keep doing the travelling, going back and forth?”

The mental side of the game, when playing past the age of 40, seems to take a rather difficult turn. Press scrutiny, with pundits wondering whether you are as effective at 40 as you were a decade ago, takes its toll. Shilton recalls conceding a goal against Uruguay in a friendly ahead of the 1990 World Cup.

“One thing I always prided myself with England was I didn’t make many mistakes,” Shilton recalled. “It wasn’t an easy shot to save, it wasn’t what I’d term ‘a mistake’. I picked up the paper the next day and one of the headlines was 'Sack him' for the World Cup, ‘he’s too old’. You leave yourself open, every time you make a mistake, to people saying: ‘What’s he doing playing now? He’s too old.’ Although you could probably still do a really good job, you wonder whether you want to belittle yourself in that way.”

When it comes to media scrutiny for over-40s, not much has changed in two decades since Shilton’s experience.

“If you let in a goal and you hear pundits say: ‘His legs looked a little like he was going; that must be because he’s over 40’,” Friedel said. “It absolutely does my head in when I hear that. You’re watching goalkeepers in their 20s make worse mistakes and they never say anything about it. 99 times out of 100, why the goal went in has nothing to do with your age.”

Friedel’s analysis comes from the perspective of a burgeoning coach, with the former USA man part-way through his UEFA Pro Licence, one of the top coaching badges in the professional game. He is, in fact, almost a year older than current manager Mauricio Pochettino, and was a full six years older than previous coach Andre Villas-Boas. What is that relationship like, as the oldest man in the dressing room?

“What I did with Andre when he came in, I wanted to make it known to him that there wouldn’t be a threat, so I always tried to help him at any time,” Friedel said. “While Andre was the coach I was also doing some coaching with Tottenham’s academy. If the lines of communication are open, there’s no issue. The same now with Mauricio. He’s a very organised and outstanding manager, I find it easy to talk with him and the entire staff because we’re the same age. I do my training bits the best I can and he knows that I’m not out there trying to trip him up, I’m trying to help him.”

Shilton actually became a player-manager during his time at Plymouth Argyle, but his ideas on working with managers struck a chord with Friedel’s.

“People always asked me, why didn’t you play for a bigger club?” Shilton said. “A couple of times I nearly joined Manchester United and Arsenal, but a lot of the time I went for clubs where I respected the managers. I was quite a strong character myself, and I needed to be with managers that I could respect.”

And it seems that a reciprocation of respect is exactly what is required from managers, fans and pundits for those remarkable players that break through the 40 barrier. Shilton himself sums it up perfectly.

“To me, age is not a barrier to anything in life,” he concluded. “If you’ve got the mental attitude and you’re physically capable of doing it. People get to a point where they think they should be getting old. It’s down to the individual. A lot of people are very young at heart.”

Peter Shilton is a patron of the Rainbows Charity.
You can find regular updates from Brad Friedel on his website, 310friedel.com.
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