One of the pleasures of following a lower league club used to be the occasional visit of a one-time top-billing star now slumming it, the football equivalent of an Oscar winner doing weekly repertory in the provinces. A 25-year-old Rothmans reveals that among those plying their trade in the Third Division were Gerry Francis (ex-England captain), Joe Jordan (Scotland's centre-forward at two World Cups), Gerry Armstrong (ex-Tottenham, Northern Ireland's 1982 World Cup hero), Brian Flynn (Leeds and Wales), Alan Taylor (West Ham's 1975 FA Cup match-winner) and Kenny Hibbett (500-plus games for Wolves).
The Fourth Division was graced by such luminaries as Asa Hartford (ex-Manchester City, Everton and Scotland), Sammy McIlroy (Manchester United and Northern Ireland), Alan Curtis (Leeds, Swansea and Wales), Leighton James (Burnley, Derby and Wales) and Evertonian legend Andy King. Evocative names all, and each happy to turn out in the mud of The Shay, or make the long bus trip to Plainmoor. If player-managers are added Phil Neal and Steve Perryman can be included. There were many others; that list was compiled just by checking clubs from A to B.
A similar exercise in the present day, even when extended to clubs from Aldershot to Yeovil, reveals a rather less stellar selection. Jason Euell (Charlton), Gary Naysmith (Huddersfield), Graham Alexander (Preston), Luke Chadwick (MK Dons), Shefki Kuqi (Oldham), Clinton Morrison (Sheffield Wednesday) and Darren Moore (Burton) have all had decent careers but, with due respect, none is likely to increase the gate. Indeed, two of the best-known players, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Lee Hughes, have name-recognition for, respectively, famous relatives and being in prison.
What has changed in 25 years? The money. Leading players now earn enough not to have to keep playing for economic reasons. In addition, clubs such as Manchester United can afford to carry larger staffs, and are happy to keep senior pros, assuming they are good role models, in the fold for their experience around the dressing room. There are also more alternative media opportunities.
So while Ian Rush and Martin Peters dropped down the leagues, the likes of Alan Shearer, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes simply stop playing. Injury is a factor, the constant battle to be fit – and a desire to be able to walk without pain in later life – certainly contributed to the retirements of Graeme Le Saux and Jamie Redknapp. For some, like Robbie Fowler, there are more attractive opportunities overseas. For most, though, prolonging the pleasure of playing football, and its dressing-room camaraderie, are insufficient to motivate themselves to play at a lower standard, with lesser team-mates, worse refs, poorer facilities and for smaller honours than they have become accustomed to.
"I don't think players love the game in the same way now and I do think the money has done that. That doesn't apply to all of them, but the attitude is different now."
That is the view of Clive Walker, the former Chelsea winger who continued into his forties, playing in the third tier with Fulham and Brighton, and even dropping into the Conference to play for Woking and Cheltenham. "I just loved playing the game," he said. "In those days you still had to get a job after playing and it was a handy way of earning money, but that wasn't very much and the main reason was I enjoyed playing. I was lucky in that I stayed fit enough to do so.
"It was a huge shock, especially when I went into the Conference. Even Brighton and Fulham were. The Goldstone was falling down by then and Craven Cottage hadn't been done up the way it is now."
Then there were the cloggers. Walker recalled: "All some opponents wanted to do was kick me. Players don't have to put themselves through all that now."
There is one shining exception: Nolberto Solano. The trumpet-playing Peruvian, once a wing wizard for Newcastle and Aston Villa, briefly a team-mate of Diego Maradona at Boca Juniors, is now at Hartlepool. The 36-year-old was involved in both goals in a 2-1 win at Carlisle on Saturday that moved Hartlepool into sixth in League One. See him while you can.Reuse content