The top flight forwards proving that age is just a number

Who knows when your next big chance may come in football. For the aspiring young talent languishing in the reserves waiting for the right moment to arrive, a mere taste of first team action can be all they need to acquire the necessary hunger to again want to go out and represent their club at the highest level. Similarly for the veteran seemingly counting down the days until calling time on their playing career, the sport itself becomes more about opportunities than it does anything else. Unlike the early days of their career, as time passes each goal, assist and even minute on the pitch is golden with experienced top flight players often treating rare appearances off the substitute bench or inclusion in a starting line-up gifted through one of the many cup competitions, as if it could be their last.

After standing uncontested for almost double the number of years that the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and a whole host of other top flight strikers have lived on planet earth, Sir Stanley Matthews’ 52 year record as being the oldest goalscorer in a professional top flight match was beaten to the surprise of many a football fan. As unlikely as it may now be in any of the major European leagues, the Japanese J-League 2 and more specifically Yokohama FC is home to Kazuyoshi Miura; most certainly both the most veteran of the veterans out in Japan applying their trade and perhaps now the most well known after making history a matter of weeks ago. Kazuyoshi Miura, more commonly known as King Kazu continues to prove that you are only the age of your heart as his footballing career shows no signs of drawing to a halt any time soon. Albeit limited to rare substitute appearances, that’s all it took for Kazu at 50 years and 14 days old (9 days older than Sir Stanley Matthews) to break the previous record set by the Englishman to become the oldest ever top flight goalscorer after netting the winner in a 1-0 victory over Thespa Kusatsu. Quite an achievement no matter what level of football I’m sure we can all agree.

Yet despite Miura’s recent record-breaking feats and a career that has spanned over three decades and has even taken the Japanese forward to both Italy and Brazil during his time as a professional footballer, he remains one of the best Japanese players to never appear at a World Cup. With 55 international goals in 89 appearances for his country, his record for his national side certainly stands up for itself, however due to a mixture of both his and his country’s own misfortune, King Kazu for all his achievements may look back on his illustrious career when he one day hangs up his boots and perhaps think of what could have been – not that he’d surely be that bothered given the privilege that he’s enjoyed where many others have fallen short. Nonetheless clearly deserving of the worldwide media attention that his unlikely and incredibly surprising, record-breaking goal received earlier this month, it does just go to show that with the right work ethic, preparation and positive attitude to working to whatever age in numerous different fields, truly anything is possible.

Across world football in recent times, although a modern day approach to recruiting players capable of scoring twenty holds a season is to either buy strikers in their prime often at the peak of their playing careers or to alternatively place your trust in a promising young forward that shows all the signs and possesses all the quality and early potential of being the next big thing in the sport, you need only look across the continent to see more and more experienced forwards at some of the biggest top flight clubs having success on the pitch with their respective teams.

Take France, Germany and Italy for example, whilst the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Marco Reus and Ciro Immobile continue to score goals in their respective countries as well as shining for their country on the international stage, Andre Pierre Gignac, Mario Gomez and the irreplaceable Francesco Totti continue to defy the odds even when it may have seemed that their best years were well and truly behind them. Even in spite of the need for youthful squads and players in their prime, sometimes experience can be equally as important when it comes to scoring goals and in what looks increasingly like a growing trend in football, signing promising young attacking talent can be just as valuable as acquiring or keeping hold of the wise old owls who still know where the back of the net is.

Performing at the highest level as a goalkeeper is and will always be much easier than sustaining performances at the highest level as a forward. Nonetheless a growing number of strikers, this season at least, are showing their older predecessors just how’s it done at an older age and more importantly proving that age is simply a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, age doesn’t matter. This certainly seems to be the case in the English Premier League with the little and large pairing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jermain Defoe perhaps the two most potent flag bearers for the modern day success of the experienced forward.

At 35 years of age, the charismatic Zlatan continues to dare and dream; evident in his numerous individual and match-winning performances for Manchester United this season. Likewise it’s a difficult task for anybody to stand out in a struggling side fighting for their league survival but the 34 year old Defoe has repeatedly done just that – even earning the veteran England international a recall to the national team in recent weeks. Not bad for somebody that everyone thought had passed it after moving to MLS side Toronto FC. Therefore at no matter what, being a scorer of great goals may be one thing but being a great scorer of goals is another and a facet that can be often overlooked when it comes to parting with experience in favour of the most promising and best flavour of any given month.

It is truly only when you delve into the lists of top goal scorers across Europe that you realise that aside from the select few you may expect, a large percentage of the highest scoring players are those forwards heading into the final years of their top flight playing careers. In the English Premier League, Swansea City’s decision in turning to the experienced Fernando Llorente looks to have paid off after the 32 year old’s look likely to save the Swans from relegation this season. In the Spanish La Liga, at a similar age to Ibrahimovic, a strike pairing of Rubén Castro (35 years) and Aritz Aduriz (36) have a scored a combined total that would surely lead any club to a more than respectable league position in any top flight competition. Similarly Edin Dzeko, Fernando Torres and Radamel Falcao of AS Roma, Atlético Madrid and AS Monaco respectively, three players you feel have personal points to prove all at the age of 31 years old have impressed this season at club level and without their vital goals, each team would be considerably worse off in their respective league and cup competitions.

Elsewhere when you see Stoke City’s Peter Crouch, experienced Scotsman Kris Boyd and journeyman Emmanuel Adebayor refinding their goalscoring touch and still producing the goals at the highest level, you really do have to sit up and take note at just how many veteran forwards have made themselves count as reliable goal scorers this season and much more than just older, experienced squad fillers for their club sides. Perhaps once banished from their previous club’s citing their age as reason for parting company with them, given their many goals and continued drive to perform as if they were several years younger, the rebirth of the experienced out and out striker has certainly been, well, striking this season.

And as Lukas Podolski waved goodbye to the international stage in what appeared to be more of a personal testimonial than a conventional international friendly, his trademark left footed strike not only rolled back the years to a Podolski of old but perhaps stands as a metaphor for the wider regeneration of the older, more experienced striker. Whilst they’ve always been around the modern game in some proximity having some part to play albeit minor, now more so than ever older forwards are taking back control and reaping the rewards in the process.

Whilst you’d think it may be hampering the long-term development of club sides across the continent in giving older individuals the platform in place of much younger raw talent, you’re not telling me the likes of Sunderland or Manchester United will be complaining if it’s Defoe or Zlatan’s goals which respectively help steer them to safety or lost the Europa League this season. As it always has been, for top flight clubs it is about finding the right balance between young and old and not simply rejecting the notion that space remains for the older forward at the highest level. After all, whilst age is just a number, as experienced forwards continue to defy the odds by scoring goals on a regular basis at the highest level, they illustrate both an alertness and awareness to recognise their prime at no matter what time it surfaces – if only more of Europe’s biggest clubs could do the same…

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