The Frank Lampard affair which seems all too likely to spill over into the John Terry and Ashley Cole contretemps brings into focus again the whole complex matter of age. Who is too old and who too young for success in a football team? It is that once elegant centre back for Scotland and Liverpool Alan Hansen who has told us on television “You’ll win nothing with kids.”
The recent disasters of the young Aston Villa team thrashed horribly 8—0 at Chelsea, its average age despite a veteran keeper being a mere 22 seems to add support to his argument. Yet at the other extreme, how great a risk are Chelsea running if they not only got rid of a 34-year-old Frank Lampard who has lately been in such effervescent form but also of the England defenders John Terry and Ashley Cole who are a couple of years younger than Lampard.
For Chelsea and Lampard fans who are pretty much interchangeable the idea of jettisoning Lampard has fuelled as much hostility as the arrival of Rafa Benitez as a supposedly stop-gap manager. Torrents of abuse descended on him when the team lost so catastrophically to Swansea – though what could anybody on the bench do about the two appalling errors both leading to goals by the usually reliable Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic?
It is an open secret that behind these demands for radical change in the club is billionaire oligarch Russian owner Roman Abramovich. Yet this is the man evidently responsible for bringing to the club two vastly expensive and sadly ineffectual centre forwards: first Andrei Shevchenko of Ukraine for £30 million mis spent, then £50 million for poor Fernando Torres who has been largely firing blanks ever since he came to the club. The Spaniard was still kept on when Didier Drogba, that dreadnought spearhead and surely the fulcrum of that amazing conquest of the European Cup, was refused the two year contract he wanted and allowed to leave on a free transfer. In parenthesis the closest player Chelsea had when he went was the powerful 19-year-old Lukaku but he was lent to West Bromwich Albion and wants to stay there.
But when is too old automatically the case? Recently on two successive Saturdays I was at Craven Cottage to watch the 35-year-old Greek international Giorgos Karagounis score a spectacular goal both against Blackpool, forcing a cup draw dangerously close to the finish – with a superbly powerful right footed half volley; then with another fierce right footer from outside the box scoring off a post to put his team temporarily ahead against Wigan. When Fulham signed Karagounis in the summer it may have seemed a retrograde step. Why import such a veteran? But now it seems a coup indeed.
Just before the Second World War we had the Buckley Babes of Wolves; just after it we had the Busby Babes of Manchester United. Major Frank Buckley’s youngsters blew up at the FA Cup final of 1939 which they were expected to win. When the ritual autograph book appeared in the Pompey dressing room it would seem that the signatures of the Wolves players were incomprehensible nervous squiggles. Thus encouraged, Portsmouth went out to win 4-1.
Years after a 6-5 win at Chelsea Matt Busby, who launched Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and George Best, said that if you don’t put them in you can’t know what you’ve got. Which still seems to make sense, Wisdom surely lies in an even age-youth balance.
By Brian Glanville