Eyres and graceful: the man who put the old in Oldham

Fitness regime that fortified a fortysomething
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The Independent Football

David Eyres, the oldest kid on the park, was considering just who may be the oldest player ever in professional football. "It could have been Sir Stanley Matthews," he says in splendidly deadpan Scouse tones. "In fact, some of the lads here at Oldham say I made my debut in the same side as him at Blackpool. I tell them it was true and it was a great combination, too. Stan was pretty useful on the right wing, and I wasn't half-decent on the left..."

David Eyres, the oldest kid on the park, was considering just who may be the oldest player ever in professional football. "It could have been Sir Stanley Matthews," he says in splendidly deadpan Scouse tones. "In fact, some of the lads here at Oldham say I made my debut in the same side as him at Blackpool. I tell them it was true and it was a great combination, too. Stan was pretty useful on the right wing, and I wasn't half-decent on the left..."

Just as you are tempted to do the mathematics, and establish that their Bloomfield Road careers were actually separated by a good 28 years, he beams the impudent smile of a player who has undergone his share of banter on the subject of longevity. It's one of life's inevitable occurrences when you're the League's oldest outfield player.

His appearances these days, it must be stressed, are not mere occasional cameo roles for old time's sake, either. Eyres, whose 41st birthday looms, has barely missed an Oldham Athletic match all season, and after the third-round FA Cup defeat of Manchester City he was widely viewed as man of the match.

Today, Bolton Wanderers may just provide sterner opposition in a BBC-televised fourth-round tie, although it will require a lot for the experience to improve upon his memories of the eclipse of City.

"That moment at the final whistle, when the crowd came on the pitch, will live with me for ever," he says. "After the mire Athletic have been in, it was great to bring a bit of happiness back into the club. All the emotion of the fans and the players were like one, and spilled out on to the pitch. Mind you, it was a little bit embarrassing getting kissed on the lips by grown men - although I could understand their feelings!"

Eyres adds: "There had been a few words reported in the media before the City game. I had said that I was going to have to turbocharge my zimmer frame. I was playing a few little mind-games with them. On the day, I thought we kept them pretty quiet. City can beat anyone in the Premiership, but they're pretty inconsis-tent, and we caught them on an off- moment. Bolton, under big Sam [Allar-dyce], are a different proposition. I feel this will be a lot tougher than City, because they're a little bit more streetwise."

At a time when the League One side are once again in the ascendancy, it should not be forgotten that last season financial problems meant their players were not paid for just under eight weeks. Then, a year ago, they were deprived of one of the game's most able young managers, Iain Dowie.

If there is one particular legacy of the Dowie era that has benefited the left-sided midfielder Eyres, it is the fitness regime undertaken by the former rugby league man John Harbin.

"His ideas were a bit of a shock at first," admits Eyres. "We were swimming at eight o'clock in the morning, then we went boxing and that was followed by aerobics. But to be honest, those two years training under John have made me as fit as I've been in my career. I don't think Brian Talbot has got me in the side for sentimental reasons. The only allowance I get is an extra day off in the week as recovery time."

Against Kevin Keegan's City side, Eyres fashioned Scott Vernon's winner and then cleared the England hopeful Shaun Wright-Phillips's effort off the line. "I gave Shaun a little warning in the tunnel beforehand, not to be running too fast because I might have to give him a kick - as you do, but only in jest. I did catch him a couple of times, but he was OK. He was a pleasure to play against. After-wards he was nice enough to give me his shirt, which was probably as near as I got to it all afternoon."

Whether he will be so enthusiastically seeking the shirt off the back of the enigmatic El Hadji Diouf, whose act of simulation in contriving a penalty against Blackburn Rovers on Monday will not be easily erased from the archives of football's black arts, is another matter. "I don't want to slaughter him because I'm not that type of lad," says Eyres. "But having said that, to blatantly just dive when nobody's touched you is a bit naughty. I just hope he hasn't saved another one for Sunday."

Eyres was already in his mid-twenties when he was signed by Blackpool. He had been playing part-time for Rhyl while working at Ford's Halewood Plant on Merseyside. "I was on the production line, fitting door pads and bumpers. We turned out 30 to 40 Ford Escorts or Orions an hour. Then Blackpool offered me a trial, against Oldham funnily enough, and signed me straight after the game. I took a wage drop, but I thought if I could get six or seven years of professional football, I probably wouldn't regret it. Now I'm looking at my 17th year."

The man with no apparent Boundaries, so to speak, sees no immediate end to a playing career which has also encompassed Burnley and Preston North End, under David Moyes, whom Eyres rates extremely highly. And not just because Eyres and his family are all devoted Evertonians.

"I just feel as good as I have in the last 10 years. Most mornings, I still love going to training, and then playing on a Saturday. People have to pay 50 quid a month to use a gym for something I'm getting paid for. When that feeling goes I'll hang up my boots. When you go down the road on the team coach, going to a match, and there'll be a pensioner walking down the road, they'll all shout out, 'Eyresy, get back on the bus'.

"But I know they respect me as a player and as a person, and the feeling's mutual. We've got a great rapport, and the team spirit's probably one of the best I've experienced at a football club."

When Dowie left for Palace, John Sheridan and Eyres were asked to take over as caretaker manager and assistant respectively. Talbot was appointed, but having made Sheridan his No 2, he asked Eyres to join the coaching side. "But I realised that I still wanted to give 100 per cent to playing football, so I said 'No'. Hopefully management and coaching will come along later," says Eyres, who is part-way through his Uefa "B" badge.

The portents today are auspicious for Eyres. He made his FA Cup debut in 1989 against Bolton, for Blackpool. "It was on Match of the Day. We beat them 2-1, and I scored."

And, no, Stanley Matthews didn't score the other.

The men for all seasons

Kevin Poole (Bolton goalkeeper, 41)

Signed for Aston Villa at 17. Has played for seven clubs, with over 350 appearances.

John Taylor (Dagenham & Redbridge striker, 40)

Began at Colchester in 1982; 10 clubs and over 150 goals later, the striker is now in non-League football.

Stuart McCall (Sheffield United midfielder, 40)

Started at Bradford 23 years ago. The Scotland international also won six League titles with Rangers.

Alec Chamberlain (Watford keeper, 40)

Seven clubs (including Chelsea and Everton), and over 400 appearances. He joined Watford in 1996.

The 39ers: Andy Dibble (Wrexham), Neil Redfearn (Scarborough), Des Walker (Nottingham Forest), Andy Hessenthaler (Hull City), Peter Beagrie (Scunthorpe United).

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