Football: Viv strides into the Wembley sunset: Jasper Rees on the veteran defender who will lead Sheffield Wednesday into today's Coca-Cola Cup final

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The Independent Online
VIV ANDERSON'S story is one of long legs and longevity. When he first played in a League Cup final he marked Steve Heighway. That's how many years he has been around. Nottingham Forest were practically running the competition in those days, and Anderson got an early feel for Wembley which has never stood him in better stead than now, 15 years later.

By the end of this season no one will be quite so used to leading out his side at the home of football as Anderson, what with the FA Cup semi-final, the Cup Final itself and this afternoon's Coca-Cola Cup final. No one, that is, apart from Tony Adams, his former colleague at Arsenal: like twin towers, the cool, commanding captains and centre-backs have much in common, including an ability to score important goals and shared memories of winning this competition in 1987. The only difference between them is 10 years: one is in his prime; the other is playing on borrowed time.

For several years Anderson has been signing short-term contracts in the knowledge that each one might be the last. Last August, as he was turning 36, he might have counted himself lucky still to be wanted by a club where in front of him in the centre-backs' queue were the captain, Nigel Pearson, Peter Shirtliff and Paul Warhurst. The first two are at present out through injury, we know what happened to Warhurst, and Anderson has taken his chance with an alacrity that one old team- mate recognises and understands.

Frank Clark is now the managing director at Leyton Orient but back then was Forest's other full- back when they won the League and European Cup. Anderson was the lippy fledgling of that side, Clark the 35-year-old codger who remembers how 'every game was a bonus, especially the big games. I'm sure Viv will be looking upon it in the same way. He couldn't have expected to be facing two Wembley finals. Sometimes these things happen and you've just got to go out there and make the best of the opportunity because you know there might not be too many more coming along.'

In 1978 Anderson missed the League Cup final against Southampton, but was back the year after, when Forest lost to Wolves. By then one of his team-mates was Trevor Francis, one of the few people around whose playing career has been going on for longer than his own. At this stage Anderson could scarcely hope to have a boss more attuned to his attributes. 'I think Trevor, because of his own situation and his European experience,' Clark says, 'is not as obsessed with age as a lot of people in English football seem to be. The key to going on is to get into a good side, and Viv's playing with some good players. It helps you keep going, you know.'

The road from Nottingham to Sheffield took Anderson to Arsenal and Manchester United, both of which clubs he left when success was about to happen. If it was felt both times that he was too old to be part of a glorious future, it was hardly in hope of great things to come that Wednesday took him on. 'We hadn't got too much cover at full-back,' says Francis's predecessor Ron Atkinson, 'and so we took him in view of the fact that he had experience and we knew he would be a big dressing- room influence. He surprised us all by the way he kept it going.'

More surprising, though, was the manner in which he moved to central defence, not least to Frank Clark, who never thought he had the attitude for it. 'He was a bit of a daft lad when he was younger but he always had great athleticism. At times I used to feel perhaps he wasn't serious enough about his profession. He just used to go and play. He didn't seem to think about the game a lot, but his natural ability used to carry him through. His knowledge of the game certainly wasn't good enough at centre-back. He could always play there and get away with it because of his price, but he's gained experience and insight as he's gone along. He's probably lost a little bit of pace but he still looks pretty sharp.'

It was Atkinson who made the switch permanent. 'He had played there once or twice for other clubs: it wasn't entirely new. But I think it suited him better because he wasn't so mobile as he had been. In a flank position he could get exposed a bit.'

By then Anderson had won the last of his 30 caps. That these were gained over a nine-year period tells its own story: he never quite made England's right-back position his own. 'I don't know why,' says Clark. 'Perhaps it was his own fault. He's a bit laid-back sometimes, Viv, not wanting to push himself forward.'

All the same, he earned a special niche in the record books when he became the first black footballer to play for England. And there is no reason to suppose that he won't break another barrier by becoming England's first black manager in the top flight, if Cyrille Regis doesn't get there first. 'They're both of a type,' says Atkinson, who has been manager to both, 'and I wouldn't be surprised to see either of them get an opportunity. They're enthusiastic, they set good examples, and the fact that they're still playing shows they're good pros.'

Clark's last match was a European Cup Final, which isn't a bad way to go out, but he has advised Anderson to carry on, perhaps all the way to a European final in a year's time. 'I recommend to everybody to play as long as they can, because playing without question is far and away the best part of the game.' And did Viv also listen to what the old man said? 'I think so.' Clark laughs at the memory. 'We were good friends in spite of the age gap. I was never conscious of that age gap anyway. I used to talk to Viv a lot and he would seem as though he was listening, but whether he was or not I'm not sure.'

(Photograph omitted)