By Simon Hattenstone in the Guardian.
What a wonderful throwback last weekend's FA Cup third round provided: mud-baths, splishy-splashy sliding tackles, footballs bogged in bogs, and best of all, pensionable players showing us how it should be done.
There was the predatory Dion Dublin (37) knocking in a couple for
It was all reminiscent of decades gone by when footballers dropped down the divisions to trot out their final years. Virtually all the 1966 World Cup victors did - Ray Wilson would turn out at Oldham Athletic, Martin Peters at Sheffield United, Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles at Preston . . . The third round of the FA Cup was the day we glimpsed them on Match of the Day, balding, or half-lame, or somewhat the worse for Christmas wear, and remembered they were still alive and- in the case of Nobby - kicking.
But this time around it seems different. Larsson and Solskjaer are playing at the very highest level. They are not simply survivors, they are aspirant champs, looking forward to their next trophy.
In the mid-90s Manchester United promoted Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt and David Beckham from their youth team to the first team. On the opening day of the 1995-6 season, they lost 3-1 at Aston Villa and Alan Hansen famously announced: "You can't win anything with kids." That season United won the title with a team whose average age was 24, six of whom were 21 or under. (Forty years earlier, United's Busby Babes became the youngest team to win the old First Division with an astonishing average age of 22.)
Now I'm expecting Hansen to announce that you can't win anything with old farts. United are top of the table with a team that includes a handful of thirtysomethings - amazingly, its ancient nucleus comprises three of the very kids who made up the youngest team to win the Premiership - and Giggs (33), Scholes (32) and Gary Neville (32 next month), all one-club loyalists, are playing as well as ever. So is goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar (36). They might well end up as the oldest team to win the Premiership. Include Solskjaer and Larsson (admittedly at the expense of Rooney and Ronaldo), and they average over 30. As for Fergie, at 65 the manager is now the godfather of old fartdom.
The dazzle and fury of youth combined with the guile and maturity of age make for a potent brew. One of the great, almost eerie, joys of the new United is watching Ronaldo and Giggs play together. Does Giggs look across the pitch and see the ghost of seasons past running down the wing?
Oldsters are popping up all over the show. Teddy Sheringham just became the first 40-year-old to score in the Premiership. Were it not for Zinédine Zidane (34) and his headbanging epiphany, the World Cup might have been won by a team of ancients. As for the Ashes, let's not even go there - suffice to say that Ian Botham's armchair sledging of Warne, McGrath et al as "Dad's Army" didn't help.