"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield..."
They say you’re only as old as you feel. Except in football, it seems, where you’re perceived to be on your last legs at about 30 and pensioned off a few years later. Being young is beautiful and experience can often be undervalued. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United look to offer one-year contracts for players in their early thirties, other clubs try to recruit only professionals between 23 and 28, while some teams revel in picking up what are seen to be the scraps and showing that there is life in the old dog yet. "People write off players too soon," David Sullivan, the West Ham United co-owner, recently told Times journalist Gary Jacobs. "I wouldn’t write off players at all. That is our strategy and generally it works. Lots of players go on a lot longer than you think."
Sullivan should know. His teams have been built on a mixture of cheaper, experienced players, free transfers, others who have lost their way and the odd expensive recruit. This summer, he committed £15.5 million on Andy Carroll and the rest of the signings are likely to amount to a modest sum. He argues that knowing which players are entering the final year of their contracts or are free agents is valuable. It was a similar picture at Upton Park a year ago and West Ham finished in tenth place; Queens Park Rangers, heavy spenders on wages, were relegated. Sullivan has largely been constrained by the financial positions that he inherited at Birmingham City and West Ham, but chances are he might not to do too much differently if he was in a position to spend more.
He’s not alone. The Sam Allardyce-helmed Bolton Wanderers upset the odds in the top flight with a similar policy more than a decade ago, Sunderland looked to take advantage of Manchester United cast-offs recently - although they overspent in fees - while QPR tried but got it badly wrong because they overpaid in wages and that distorted the type player they attracted and, as a consequence, the squad. Sullivan looks at fact, not opinion, and relies heavily on a player’s statistics. Last year he signed Jussi Jääskeläinen, then 37, who had lost his place at Bolton. "His form improved," Sullivan said. "If you buy a 30-year-old compared to a 21-year-old for a lot less money, you can get the same ability on the field. We are interested in the ability we have on the field for this season, not for two or three years’ time. We see the player they are rather than what they might be. Because of the age, shorter contract and no-resale value, the player is cheaper."
Jääskeläinen has since earned a year-long extension to his contract at West Ham after so successfully filling the boots of England international Robert Green. The Finland international had achieved 55 international caps and 474 league appearances for Bolton Wanderers, and Allardyce insists he had no doubts about the value of signing his reliable number one. "When I signed him my fear was not about his ability, as I knew he had ability after working with him at Bolton," he admits. "But I wasn’t sure if he still had the drive and determination to put that back into this league again. He’d been bombed out by Owen Coyle and not selected for most of that season. So that was my fear, was he past his best? But since getting himself back into the groove he’s been an excellent acquisition for us." You just have to look at him, thinks Allardyce. "His wife Tess says he doesn’t look 38 – especially when he has a shave. He’s a young 38. He’s never suffered many injuries or operations and that is always a really good sign. The goalkeeper and goalscorer are the two biggest positions to fill. Having one at one end scoring the goals and the person at the other end saving them are the most important and he did a great job this season."
Rio Ferdinand, 34, is expected to sign a new deal at Manchester United soon and players such as Teddy Sheringham and Ryan Giggs have defied age, notes Jacobs. Ruud van Nistelrooy was 30 when he scored 25 goals to help Real Madrid to the title in 2007. AC Milan lifted the 2007 Champions League with an average age of 30.2. As Sullivan says, the best youngsters do not necessarily become the best players. The top clubs can all cite expensive prodigies who failed to make the grade. Arsenal signed Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Upson at high cost, Tottenham recruited John Bostock - they released him this summer - and Fabian Delph and Connor Wickham have struggled to make an impact. "There is no guarantee that youngsters will come good," Sullivan said. "We have seen some clubs buy the best crop of youngsters believing that they will be able to sell them on and it doesn’t work out. What Southampton have done to bring through players is incredible."
In Allardyce, Sullivan has a manager who has never shied away from fielding older and/or disenfranchised players. When at Bolton he pioneered an approach that was at once novel and ingenious. He went to football’s equivalent of Oxfam and searched for designer labels cast off by the well-off. Unwanted, they didn’t have a price tag but they came with baggage. Fredi Bobic, Youri Djorkaeff, Bruno N’Gotty, Okocha, Emerson Thome, Ivan Campo, Ibrahim Ba and Fernando Hierro were among those persuaded by Allardyce to enjoy the twilight of their careers in wintry Lancashire. "The financial devastation suffered by that club meant that the players who were willing to join us were mostly players discarded by their previous club," explains Allardyce. "They were written off because their attitude wasn’t right, their motivation had gone, they were disruptive, the coach couldn’t work with them, or some other reason. Our job was to assess whether that player wanted to rediscover his old self."
An assiduous accumulator of football's dispossessed, the key tools of Allardyce's trade have always been his honesty and unbridled force of personality. Invariably the difficulty that he confronts is the motivation of these players. How, for example, could a man perform for Bolton after spending most of his career at Real Madrid? "It wasn't just Campo and Hierro," recalls Allardyce. "Take Stylianos Giannakopoulos, who came from Olympiakos having won seven Greek championships on the trot. This sounds really bad on the club, but the reality is that it is not quite big enough to demand the best out of these players. So I had to drag it out of them. Because of what they had achieved elsewhere, we knew they were capable of taking Bolton to where it hadn't been. My job was to make sure they did that and it was a difficult job. But my strength is my DNA; with Sam Allardyce, what you see is what you get. My desire to be successful is very strong and I am good at infecting others and inspiring them to strive for the same thing."
"He believes that whatever age a player is, he can still improve him if they have the right attitude and come to perform rather than just for a payday," Sullivan added. "He sits them down, looks them in the eye and sees if they have fire in their belly." As was the case with newly recruited Romania captain Razvan Rat; picked up on a free transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk and signing a three-year deal worth around £35,000. The 31-year-old left-back spent ten years with the Ukrainian champions and enjoyed great success, winning a total of 12 trophies during his time at the club. "I am hugely happy that we have got a player of his experience and his character," said Allardyce of the 88-capped Rat. "He has been playing Champions League football this year and at the highest level for many years. Shakhtar had offered him a very good contract, but his ambition was to come and try his abilities and skills in England. When you hear somebody speak so positively about that, then you know they have got the mental character that is needed to do well in this division."
Rat will slot into a defence that already features 32-year-old Ivorian Guy Demel and glabrous Welshman James Collins, who joins the "30 club" next month; the age that supposedly promises the onset of loneliness, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm and even thinner hair. Collins, a bargain bin victim of Paul Lambert's youthful revolution at Aston Villa, recovered from costly early season blunders against Swansea and Reading to produce his best ever football in the autumn of his career. It included arguably the greatest individual performance of any Hammers player last season in a man-of-the-match display to mark Luis Suarez out of the game against Liverpool in April. "I feel like I am producing the best form of my career," agrees Collins. "I had a couple of mistakes which I needed to get out of my game. But I have put in some good performances and I was delighted with how I played. I’m happy with my form and hopefully it can continue." In truth, Collins has slotted in so successfully it is like he has never been away; although if it had been down to him he would never have left the club in the first place. "As soon as I knew the interest was there from West Ham I couldn't wait to get down and sign," he admits. "I had a great affinity with the club and the fans when I was here the first time and I enjoyed my time here so much last time that it wasn't a hard decision to make, to be honest. I've come back and I'm a much better player this time around so I couldn't wait to get cracking and show the fans that I am a better player and can put in the performances on the pitch."
The similarly marginalized Demel was discarded by Hamburg at the expiry of his contract having clocked up over 150 Bundesliga appearances. Originally signing a two-year deal with West Ham in August 2011, an injury-hit start to his Upton Park career meant he didn't actually make his debut until the November of that year. Yet by the time West Ham's Premier League return reached it's successful conclusion the following season, the ever improving Demel had featured in 31 of the 38 games and impressed enough to extend his contract until 2015. "I have some friends here already and London is a great city. I am very happy to be here," smiles Demel. "I had 10 years in Germany and I won the title. But it was time for a change and to show what I can do in another country. I am looking forward to the future and I would like to go to the new stadium with West Ham. Something big is happening here and I want to be part of an exciting time in the club's history. Last year was kind of difficult because when I signed, I had pre-season, and then unfortunately I got injured really quickly and it was hard to come back afterwards. But right now I feel good. I had a pre-season, we worked hard and I have to thank the medical staff for the job they have done with me. I feel good and I'm quite happy with what I'm doing right now, but I know that I can do even more."
Retooled, repurposed, remotivated. Whether at Bolton or now West Ham the story of Allardyce's tarnished acquisitions have a familiar refrain. When prodigal son Joe Cole pitched up in January he received an inevitable hero's welcome although it was hard to disguise the sense of foreboding. A miserable spell at Liverpool – which included a year on loan at Lille – had seen the Merseysiders so desperate to get the 31-year-old off their wage bill that they were willing to write off the rest of his contract. He had looked out of shape and out of puff and had featured only 10 times. As Jacob Steinberg noted at the time, the busted flush look of a boy wonder who had become yesterday's man. While six months is too short a time to judge the Allardyce effect, the early indications seem positive. An apparently impressive goal-laden pre-season has seen Cole enthusing about "being in the best shape of my life." Speaking after the recent 3-0 friendly win against Boreham Wood, he was talking animatedly about taking West Ham to Wembley and challenging for silverware. In the aftermath of yesterday's latest victory on the club's German tour Cole spoke of catching Roy Hodgson's eye, despite the fact the last of his 56 England caps came in the 4-1 World Cup defeat to Germany in South Africa three years ago. "The main thing for me is to get in the West Ham team, play as many games as I can, play well and we'll see what happens from there," he said. "But I think any Englishman will be looking at the World Cup. It's the pinnacle of a career to go to a World Cup and play for your country."
Substitute one aging, increasingly out-of-favour but once revered former midfield star for another and it wouldn't be hard to imagine those same quotes coming out of the mouth of Scott Parker should he make a return this summer. As recent newspaper reports continue to hint at West Ham interest in the player, Sullivan freely admits he "would love to have him back if there is room on the wage bill". The midfielder is one of a number of players that Spurs deem surplus to requirements but the biggest hitch remains his current £70,000-a-week. At 32 years of age but still motivated by lingering international ambitions it is easy to see why Allardyce and Sullivan would be interested. Likewise with 31-year-old Peter Odemwingie, reports the Times, after his proposed moves to Crystal Palace and Fulham fell through. It is thought that a bid in the region of £1.5 million could be enough to tempt West Brom into letting the want-a-way striker leave after relations soured between the player and club following the January transfer window fiasco. When questioned about the controversial Nigerian, Allardyce would only concede that he is aware of the player's availabilty but remains otherwise non-committal.
Whatever the truth of these latest rumours- and swathes of Hammers support have expressed concern- solace can be taken in the fact that nobody in the game gets a tune out of an old fiddle quite like Big Sam. Far better, he cajoles, to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. It is no secret, concludes Jacobs, that Allardyce would instinctively want the Hammers to replicate the model of his successful eight-year Bolton reign of paying high wages to entice big-name stars. Although the newly implemented UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations brings tighter restrictions in that regard, the West Ham boss knows that the club, as it stands, still cannot match the transfer budgets and salary offers of the elite to sign top talent in their prime - with the Andy Carroll deal proving a notable exception - but remains more convinced than ever that they can still take advantage in the seasoned players' market.
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