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What the Accelerated Lifecycle of Elite Footballers Taught Me About Aging

At 24 most footballers are seen as entering their prime years; for a normal person, simply having a sense of direction will suffice.

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Perhaps the biggest story to emerge from the opening weekend of the new football season was the standout debut performance of West Ham's Reece Oxford. The 16-year-old became the second youngest Premier League starter of all time and delivered a supremely mature display as his side beat Arsenal at the Emirates — and all this before even receiving his GCSE results.


Youth and football go hand in hand; though Oxford is an extreme example, there is no denying that it is a young man's game. Towards the end of each season, alongside routine questions of fatigue, fixture congestion and the importance of taking each game as it comes, Premier League footballers are tasked with answering something altogether more troubling, philosophical even: when does one of their number stop being young?

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The shortlist for the PFA Young Player of the Year award always yields some interesting responses. The last batch of nominees ranged from 20 to 24. So, at the end of his eighth year as a professional, previous winner Eden Hazard was still deemed fit to contest the crown again.

The comfort I drew from this was short-lived. Being 14 days older than the Belgian international, it seems that my last chance at earning such recognition has now gone. By any measure, including football's own collective wisdom, I'm no longer a wonderkid.

You could say I'm reading too much into these things, but then I always have done. As a self-confessed obsessive from an early age, I can't help but contextualise everything in relation to football.

My very perception of the ageing process has been shaped by the accelerated lifecycle of elite footballers, who evolve from fresh-faced hopefuls to grizzled veterans at an ungodly speed.


The author in his long-lost youth, sporting a personalised Birmingham City shirt.

That's why this summer's departures of Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard (either to retirement or the MLS, arguably much the same thing) felt so significant. It was the last of England's ill-fated 'Golden Generation' – players I'd grown up with, whose careers my football-supporting life had spanned – being ushered off stage.

Michael Owen was the most remarkable of the group in that respect, burning so brightly but not for long. My generation's boy wonder exploded onto the scene, all blistering pace and boundless promise, at France '98. Ever since 'that' goal against Argentina, the highlight of my first World Cup, Owen's trajectory has felt tied with my own.

From Sporties cereal (replete with sugary 'Power Zone' filling), to Michael Owen Total Action Football (a Subbuteo rip-off where the players had magnetic bases), via Hero to Zero (a short-lived children's drama where a poster of Owen came to life to dispense wisdom on football and family matters), he was the bright-eyed mascot of my youth.

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Once an inescapable, athletic presence, Owen lost his way, limited by injuries and a seeming lack of enthusiasm. Bearing witness to his inbuilt obsolescence was hard. A one-time world-beater reduced to benchwarming duties for Tony Pulis' Stoke City. It wasn't supposed to end in such undignified fashion.

Those players I first latched onto in the late '90s are now all but gone. Although the reign of eternal youth will be preserved by a new cast of prodigies, it can never be quite the same again. That childhood connection has been lost. Football, ever the young man's game, is starting to make me feel old.


My devotion to the Championship/Football Manager series is partly to blame. Success is essentially predicated on child trafficking of Chelsea-style proportions, bulk-buying the best prospects from less prosperous regions in the hope that a handful will make the cut. By their late 20s a player has served his purpose and is ready to discard in favour of the next big thing. It's a ruthless business.

Michael Owen is something of a footballing Peter Pan, still eerily boyish at age 35, even if the lines are setting in | Photo: EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

With the release of each edition I also get a little closer to an age where it would no longer seem utterly absurd to be entrusted with telling grown men – many with settled lives, facial hair and deeply unimaginative nicknames – what to do. Yet even in a virtual world I'm not ready for that kind of responsibility.

Turning 24 had a big effect on my outlook. Although far from a landmark birthday in its own right, it has hidden significance. I perceive it as the tipping point, the start of a playing career's second act. Thereafter, it's no longer enough to hang about uncertainly on the fringes, occasionally useful but largely not, mistakes excused as the folly of youth.

That restless period of transition – turmoil and uncertainty – is supposed to be over. The time has come to be serious, productive even. Misplaced passions must be converted into concrete achievement. At least that's the idea.

My reality is rather different. While today's young players are often accused of being cossetted manchildren, for the most part they seem like fully-functioning adults to me. Many are married, have children and a sense of purpose, all scary and distant prospects. More than the trophies, acclaim, and unseemly wealth, it's the clear direction of a Premier League footballer that I lack. The rest can come later.


For now, I'll continue to hold Nathan Redmond personally responsible for shattering my illusions. Back in 2010, in the second half of a League Cup tie with Rochdale, he came off the bench aged 16 years and 173 days to become Birmingham City's youngest debutant since Trevor Francis.

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It had undoubtedly happened before but this was the first time I became aware of cheering on someone substantially younger than me. A mere whelp – no doubt unfamiliar with children's classics like Playdays, Oakie Doke and Tots TV – living the dream. My dream.

There were very few others in attendance that evening. Redmond played with the individual spark of the playground footballer, heedless of the emotional trauma he was inflicting. Two years on and we faced Burnley in the midst of an injury crisis, fielding seven teenagers, including Redmond, in the starting lineup. It was painful to watch, and not just because a Lee Clark team always is.

Last season Josh Martin, then just 15, was given a squad number. The next big things like Oxford are all much younger than me now and it's only going to get worse. Soon there will be professional players with no recollection of the previous century.

This simply shouldn't be allowed, and yet there is nothing we can do about it. Time and football wait for no man.