James Lawton: Sheringham's show proves an old truth about a sharp mind in a creaking body

Click to follow

Every spring two toasts were made in the bar of the Hotel Russell, a place which knew many football celebrations, not least the one which followed Manchester United's emotional triumph in the European Cup final at Wembley in 1968. One was to Stoke City's annual success in the Staffordshire Senior Cup. It was the private joke of the manager, Tony Waddington, and his entourage when they attended the FA Cup final, invariably as spectators. But it was the other toast which came to mind when 40-year-old Teddy Sheringham poured new life into a young but highly apprehensive West Ham United on Sunday.

Waddington also celebrated the enduring quality of great old players, many of whom he employed in his long and brilliant achievement of maintaining First Division football at the famous old Potteries club.

His premise was simple enough. Too many veterans hung up their boots not out of fatigue, either mental or metal, but because it was expected of them. They reached a certain age and they had to go. A star player in the prime of his career - generally agreed to be the mid-twenties - had an off day and it was the merest blip.

But if a player 10 years his senior had a similar experience it didn't matter if he was still as strong as a shire horse and had a vast accumulation of football knowledge - the kind Sheringham displayed when he so effortlessly lost his marker and headed West Ham into the lead against Blackburn - it was unshakeable evidence that he was ready for the knacker's yard.

Waddington, and then his shameless imitator, Lawrie McMenemy, made a career out of preventing such waste.

Sir Stanley Matthews turned out for Stoke when he was 50 years old. Much of the spring had gone from his heels, of course, but he was still rather more than a novelty act. The oldest player ever to perform in England's top flight still had an aura - and an eye to exploit an opening.

Waddington scoured the byways of big-time football reclaiming one lost cause after another. He had Jimmy McIlroy, the silky Irish inside forward, reviving a thousand memories of easy touch and fine perception. He conjured some of the best of Dennis Viollet, Jackie Mudie and Peter Dobing. And when a fine talent was ebbing far too quickly, he would also intervene - seizing on an Alan Hudson whose lack of discipline was driving Chelsea's Dave Sexton to distraction.

It was a policy that served McMenemy equally well at Southampton as he invested in the likes of Alan Ball, Kevin Keegan, Frank Worthington and Joe Jordan.

Now Sheringham gives thunderous validation to the judgement of his embattled - but after Sunday, strikingly less so - manager at Upton Park, Alan Pardew. In Sheringham, Pardew scarcely had the most supple body on the field. But he had arguably the sharpest mind.

For John Giles, who ended his career in England at 36 as player-manager of West Bromwich and was still playing for the Republic of Ireland two years later, the influence of Sheringham at the weekend was a statement about the value of retaining that experience which has been best preserved over the years.

"Yes," he says, "the game is harder, faster now, but somebody like Sheringham, who has obviously looked after himself pretty well, has proved that older players can still make a significant contribution.

"However fast players run, however quickly they hit the ball, speed of thought, a good instinct, remains as valuable as ever. No doubt the rewards of the modern game has changed a lot of thinking. To be perfectly honest, if I had been on today's money I probably wouldn't have left Leeds for West Brom at the age of 34. But I still had a living to make, a family to keep, and what happened was that I could still the play the game ... and I found I could still enjoy it.

"Given modern nutrition and training and medical care and, quite frankly, the lack of craft in such vital areas as midfield, it surprises me that so many top players disappear so quickly. Gordon Strachan played until he was 40, like Sheringham, and he always remained a sharp, intelligent presence.

"Goalkeepers who stay free of serious injury, and look around and see the general lack of quality in that position, have a particular incentive to hang around."

Surely when Sheringham looks back on his long career Sunday's goal will figure highly in his warmest memories. No doubt pride of place will go to his breathtaking intervention so late in the 1999 European Cup final and there was also his brilliant contribution to England's defeat of the Netherlands in the 1996 European Championship. But on Sunday he did something that will always bring a tingle to his blood. He conjured that sensation, which orthodox opinion would have consigned to his past some years ago - he scored a goal that mattered, a goal which, however briefly, returned him to the centre of the football universe.

It is maybe something to reinforce David Beckham, at a mere 31, in the view he expressed yesterday that he intends to stick it out in Madrid despite some hard going recently under Real Madrid's new coach, Fabio Capello. The point that Sheringham has made so forcefully is that you have only one career and if it happens to be the thing you do best, and gives you most pleasure, there is a powerful case to prolong it as long as possible.

This view was advanced most forcefully 30-odd years ago by the great rugby player Gareth Edwards during a reflective lunchtime in one of his favourite watering holes. He was agonising over whether to submit himself to selection for a forthcoming Lions tour of New Zealand. He was in his thirties and he felt a certain weariness in his bones. "Damn it," said Edwards suddenly. "I think I'll go. The point is I'll never get another chance, and if I don't take it I suspect I'll regret it for the rest of my life."

Edwards, like Sheringham, went all the way with what was left of his talent. The calculation was that it was still enough to justify the journey. Heaven knows, it's always going to be a tricky call, but then what is the alternative? It is that terrible regret that, on Sunday, Teddy Sheringham banished for ever.

Downing outburst shows McClaren the folly of player consultation

The England head coach, Steve McClaren, didn't have to wait long to grasp the folly of his policy of player consultation. What did he really expect? Stringent self-examination, a reflective appreciation of the difficulties of building a team? Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing put such naïve speculation to the sword with his pathetic, self-serving claim that he had been "hung out to dry" by McClaren when he was omitted from the team that had performed so inadequately against Macedonia before the losing journey to Croatia.

Said Downing: "The manager said he was changing the system but I explained that I had played in that system at Middlesbrough when he had been our manager and had been quite effective there, particularly in the Uefa Cup. I was half-expecting to get the blame but I'm still annoyed."

This is not from a cornerstone of a successful England team but a young player who has yet to suggest anything more than the merely promising - and at club level. Against extremely modest international opposition his performances were small, highly forgettable monuments to mediocrity. His outrage, at best, is impertinent. But then it is no more than McClaren deserves. As we were saying here the other day, coaches coach and select their teams - players play, and if they are mature enough to inhabit the real world, accept the consequences.

Rooney back chasing greatness

All's well that end's well in the young life of Wayne Rooney, but if his brilliant opportunism against Bolton Wanderers confirmed the view long held here that he is indeed potentially a player of the ages, it didn't quite do what some claimed.

It didn't silence his critics. Great players, if they indeed truly achieve that status, do not silence their critics. They hold them at bay. They go from game to game pursuing the highest standards of performance. Of course, they can't always achieve it but the mark of their place in the highest category is their character and their perseverence. Rooney, playing in his right position, has shown that he is back on course to meet the challenge. It is a tough place, no doubt, but that is why the term great player has to be so carefully weighed. Too often these days it has the substance of a snowflake.