Birthdays can be as perilous as yellow cards for footballers. Every one collected pushes them closer to the sidelines, and – unlike the rest of us – such occasions cannot be hidden for view.
It seems only five minutes ago that Paul Lambert and Craig Burley were the bright young hopes of Scottish football. Now one has signalled his international retirement, while the other knows that he will be too old for another World Cup if Scotland miss out on Japan and South Korea.
Lambert celebrated his 32nd birthday four weeks ago while Burley reaches 30 later this month. They would settle for a joint party in Brussels on Wednesday, and 10,000 Scots will provide the drink if Craig Brown's team can win.
The pair have been international and club colleagues for almost a decade. In 1992, they were driving force behind the Scotland Under-21 side who defeated a German team, including Mehmet Scholl, 4-3 to reach the semi-final of the European Under-21 Championships.
Like the Bayern Munich midfielder, Burley and Lambert took a while to shake off the "promising youngster" tag, which explains why age caught up with them before they had compiled a sizeable cap collection. Burley has the best statistic of the trio with 42 caps before this round of World Cup matches while Scholl, injured for last night's encounter with England, has fewer than 40. Lambert, the oldest, had only 26 to his name before the weekend.
The Celtic player did not make his full Scotland debut until the age of 26, coincidentally in Japan in 1995. But unless he returns there next summer, Lambert has no intention of sticking around to squeeze in many more. "I will be 33 next summer and I would not kid myself on that I could play for Scotland beyond that," he explains. "I think it would be time for the younger ones."
The man who kept Lambert and Burley back was the very one who once promoted their precociousness: Craig Brown was their Under-21 coach. To watch Lambert running Ajax ragged in Amsterdam last month the evening after blowing out 32 candles on his birthday cake was to see a man who does not look short of breath. "I feel great just now," he said, "probably the best in my career, but I know how I felt seven or eight years ago when I was not getting a look-in for Scotland. It is not in my nature to hang around looking for more."
Burley cannot resist pointing out that, unlike his erstwhile Celtic team-mate, he is still on the right side of 30. "I am only 29," the aggrieved Derby County captain said. "There will be a time when there will be space for other young players to come through, but at the moment we are the players who have been picked to do a job. Maybe someone will make that decision for me. I still have a couple of years left on my contract at Derby and hopefully a few more in the Premiership."
While Gary McAllister is currently showing that, for some Scots, age is no concern, the Liverpool player's international curtain call – robbed of France 98 by injury and Euro 2000 by England – others hunger for a last chance, and are unwilling to trust in the play-offs.
"Everyone is conscious of qualifying as group winners because of the disappointment of losing the play-off to England and having to spend the summer watching Euro 2000 on TV," said Burley. "We are not the youngest squad in the business and there are a lot of guys, like Paul and myself, hoping to get there because the World Cup only comes around every four years."
Scotland's record of qualifying for the World Cup is second to none: they have reached the finals six times out of the last seven. Had they not thrown away a two-goal lead against Belgium at Hampden in March, the equaliser coming in injury time, they would still be top of Group Six.
It rankles with Burley, but he would settle for putting the record straight in Brussels. "That was a sore one," he reflected. "I can still remember the ball going in for the equaliser and looking around Hampden, which had gone dead. We are hoping it won't come back to haunt us."Reuse content