17 Premier League players who defied their age: Ibra, Zola, Sheringham…
The Premier League might just be the most physically demanding competition in football. So fair play to these guys, all of whom were brilliant well into their thirties.
There’s something both entertaining and reassuring about old footballers. Whether it’s Paolo Maldini ageing like a fine wine or Peter Crouch greasing the joints for one last robot, football veterans are a continuous source of pleasure.
Maybe it’s because we’ve known them for longer. It’s hard to keep up with every new player, so the old familiar faces keep us feeling connected and relevant. (Just knowing that Gareth Barry is picking up pay cheques somewhere is comforting).
But old players are great even if you didn’t know or appreciate them when they were young. In fact, a thirty-something coming from nowhere to enjoy a career-best season is one of the finest sights in the game.
Case in point: most fans outside of Spain hadn’t heard of Aritz Aduriz until he was approaching retirement age; in Italy, it took a 30th birthday to transform Antonio Di Natale from a middling striker into a world-class one. Both are now genuine cult heroes.
And while Serie A may be the greatest environment for 30-something players wishing to defy age, the Premier League has had its fair share too.
From Alexander to Zola, these are some of the PL’s most exceptional golden oldies.
Points are given for age, talent and — ideally though not crucially — being better in old age than in youth. Goalkeepers are excluded, just because.
Peter Crouch was never much of a runner, so it made sense that his brand of football — heading, gently toppling over to catch a volley — would work well into old age.
And it really did: Crouch scored consistently throughout his long career, finally reaching 100 Premier League goals at the age of 36.
Now 38, he retires as a top-flight player, having spent half a season with Burnley.
The always delightful Gianfranco Zola spent seven years with Chelsea between 1996 and 2003.
To everyone’s surprise, the Italian saved his very best until last, scoring 14 league goals in the 2002-03 campaign at the age of 36.
The incoming Roman Abramovich tried to keep the forward at Stamford Bridge, but Zola departed for Cagliari, playing two further seasons there.
Nigel Winterburn & Lee Dixon
Before Arsenal’s double-winning season of 1997-98 had even started, full-backs Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon were both 33 years old.
Winterburn stuck around until the age of 36, while Dixon — seemingly on the brink of baldness for two decades — made it to 38, winning another league title in his final year.
Though he exaggerates quite how good he was, Zlatan’s late-career cameo for Man United was bloody impressive.
In his first (and only real) season, the Swede scored 17 league goals and helped José’s side win the Europa League.
Former Burnley defender Graham Alexander is far from a household name, but his age-defying season in 2009-10 was a memorable one.
The Scotsman perfected the art of outside-foot penalties, a trick that helped him to seven Premier League goals in a single season.
He couldn’t keep Burnley up, but, in his defence, he was 38 at the time.
In 1997, a 31-year-old Teddy Sheringham seemed a fairly underwhelming replacement for Eric Cantona, whose retirement left a huge void at Man United.
It took a while for the ex-Millwall striker to prove otherwise.
Although his first three seasons were punctuated with great moments (some especially so), it wasn’t until the 2000-01 campaign that Sheringham truly found his shooting boots, scoring 15 league goals and winning both the PFA and FWA Footballer of the Year awards.
That was followed by successful spells with Tottenham, Portsmouth and West Ham, and Sheringham remains the oldest player to score in the Premier League (40 years and 268 days).
Gary Megson did a lot of crap things as Bolton manager, but one of the worst was selling the legendary Gary Speed — still a force at 38 — for £250,000.
The same day Speed left, Bolton paid £650,000 for midfielder Tamir Cohen, who would retire at 30.
A specialist in wonder goals, Tugay Kerimoğlu was a hero for Blackburn until his retirement aged 38.
When Tugay was 36, Blackburn boss Mark Hughes suggested age was the only thing keeping him at a mid-table club.
Hughes said, “People say to me, ‘Don’t you wish he was 10 years younger?’ My answer is, ‘No,’ because if he was he would be at Barcelona.”
One of several big-name, big-age signings of the Sam Allardyce era at Bolton, Youri Djorkaeff was perhaps the most glamorous.
He was also bloody good. In three seasons with the Trotters, the Frenchman scored 20 league goals, departing after a brilliant final campaign at the age of 36.
England’s Pearce may have peaked at Nottingham Forest, but his late-career longevity was a sight to behold.
‘Psycho’ was named West Ham’s Player of the Year in 2001, aged 39.
Scottish midfielder Gary McAllister was 35 by the time he joined Liverpool on a free transfer from Coventry.
Reds boss Gérard Houllier would later boast about his shrewdness.
And for good reason, too: in his first season, McAllister played a huge role in Liverpool’s historic treble win, taking over penalty and free-kick duties to excellent effect. He was also named Man of the Match in the 2001 UEFA Cup final.
At 33 years old, penalty-taking full-back Denis Irwin was the oldest outfield player when Man United won the treble in 1999.
He stuck around for another three seasons and didn’t retire until the age of 38.
Bolton’s capture of a 36-year-old Fernando Hierro was seen as a massive coup, despite the Spaniard’s advancing years.
During his only season in England, the 2004-05 campaign, Bolton finished sixth — their best performance since 1959-60.
Hierro played a big part, controlling games from defensive midfield.
Contrary to what the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award suggests, Ryan Giggs was better in his twenties than his thirties.
Nonetheless, the Welshman’s conversion into a playmaker during his later years was highly impressive.
Giggs was 34 when he scored the decisive penalty in the 2008 Champions League final and somehow continued for six years beyond that.
Northern Ireland’s Gareth McAuley didn’t play in the top flight until he was 31, but it didn’t take him long to become a solid defender and — for one glorious season — a goalscoring sensation.
McAuley’s six goals for West Brom in 2016-17, when he was 36 going on 37, made him a cult hero (and an FPL must-have).
A real late bloomer, Glenn Murray appeared destined for a life in the Championship after failing to cope with top-flight football at both Crystal Palace and Bournemouth.
It turned out he was just biding his time.
Murray kicked into action at the age of 34, scoring 25 PL goals in two seasons with Brighton.
Long may his reign continue.