Why age is not always a barrier to sporting greatness

Stanley Matthews laces up his boots for what would be his final match at the age of 50 on February 6, 1965. (PA Wire).
Stanley Matthews laces up his boots for what would be his final match at the age of 50 on February 6, 1965. (PA Wire).
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It’s half a century since Sir Stanley Matthews played his final top flight football match at the age of 50. Chris Bond wonders whether sports stars could do the same today.

IT’S exactly 50 years since Stoke City played Fulham in the old First Division.

So what, you might say? Ordinarily you’d be right (sorry Stoke and Fulham fans), but this happened to be Stanley Matthews’ final match before he retired at the age of 50.

Even today, when athletes can stay fitter for longer, most sports stars have long since hung up their boots, bats, or rackets by the time they reach this venerable sporting age.

But the man they called “The Wizard of Dribble” enjoyed a remarkable career – he played 701 league and cup games, scoring 71 goals, and was capped 84 times for England. The fact he did so in an era when pitches often resembled ploughed fields and referees had a laissez-faire attitude when it came to hard tackling, makes his longevity all the more astonishing.

Pele once said that Matthews “taught us the way football should be played”, but skill alone wasn’t the sole reason why he was able to last as long as he did (he played his last match for England when he was 42).

He was one of the first footballers to appreciate the benefits of a healthy diet, eating plenty of fruit and salads and even fasting once a week, while many other players washed down their pie and chips with a few pints of beer.

These days it’s usually only goalkeepers who are able to keep playing at the highest level, which is why such a fuss was made about the fact Ryan Giggs was still playing in the Premier League when he was 40, something he put down to yoga.

But football has changed beyond all recognition from the days when Matthews was playing.

The high tempo and physical pressures on players’ bodies mean we’re unlikely to see Lionel Messi or Ronaldo playing Champions League football when they’re 40, never mind 50. It’s also fair to say that if Stanley Matthews was around today he wouldn’t still be playing in the Premier League at that age.

Even so, there are still sportsmen and women who seem to defy the ageing process. The record-breaking AP McCoy, the only jump jockey to have ridden more than 4,000 races, is still riding at the peak of his powers in his 41st year and on the brink of a 20th successive title.

Advances in human fitness, medical science and jockey safety are all said to be contributory factors in helping them prolong their careers. Age certainly proved no barrier to the legendary Lester Piggott when he began the most improbable of sporting comebacks in 1990 on the eve of his 55th birthday. Within days, a nerveless Piggott had won the Breeders’ Cup Mile in America – one of the world’s most prestigious races – on Royal Academy and he continued to accumulate big race winners, only retiring shortly before his 60th birthday.

Tennis, too, has seen players written off only to triumph against the odds, like the indomitable Martina Navratilova who capped a glorious career by winning the US Open mixed doubles final in 2006 – at the age of 49.

Then there’s the boxer George Foreman. Not long after his defeat to Muhammad Ali in the famous “Rumble in the jungle” in 1974 he retired to become a preacher. But a decade later he launched a sensational comeback and in 1994, at the age of 45, he won the heavyweight title for the second time.

And what about Jack Nicklaus? When he arrived at Augusta in 1986 for the US Masters no one gave the former champion much of a chance. The man they called “The Golden Bear” was 46 and hadn’t won one of the majors in six years. But he fired an incredible final round to win and don the coveted green jacket.

“I’m not going to quit, guys,” Nicklaus told reporters after his momentous win. “Maybe I should. Maybe I should say goodbye. Maybe that’d be the smart thing to do. But I’m not that smart.”

It just goes to show that you’re never too old.