IT was a very perceptive friend of mine who first pointed out to me that sportspeople seem to get older faster than the rest of us.
She grew up in the same town as a successful Premier League footballer who currently plays for a London club. And she was fully aware of the fact that this footballer was married (and was able to buy himself a very large house) by the time he was in his early 20s, while we were living – not to put too fine a point on it – like overgrown students in rented flats.
If a footballer gets married at 21, no one bats an eyelid. Anybody else does it, and you will – likely as not – get a host of friends and relatives wondering quietly if bride and groom aren’t a bit young to be pledging “til death us do part” like that.
This thought returned to me when watching Andrew Flintoff claim his 200th Test wicket on Thursday. Flintoff, who has seen injuries wipe away most of the last three years of his career, is considered a little past his peak now. Sure, he can still rip a batsman’s middle stump out of the ground with the best of them, but it’s not not to look back wistfully to his monster of a performance in the 2005 Ashes series and wonder if that was as good as it will get.
I find this a little disturbing, because I was born in the same year as Flintoff, and I still like to consider myself young.
It’s not healthy to compare yourself with sporting heroes in this way, I know. It does me no good whatsoever to reflect upon the fact that, while Freddie was tearing Australia apart in 2005, I was watching him do so on a television borrowed from my younger sister. (I’ve still got it, too.) And that, while Freddie is building himself a mansion in one of the most exclusive and peaceful parts of Macclesfield borough, I am not.
It’s not worth worrying about these things too much. I can walk quite happily through central Manchester without fear of being mobbed. I don’t have the expectations of a nation on my shoulders every time I go into work. If I do my job particularly badly one day, I don’t have dozens of newspaper columnists wondering out loud if I’m looking after myself properly.
But it can be quite sobering, as a journalist, to write an article criticising a sportsperson, knowing full well that they are the same age as (or younger than) you.
I don’t think these feelings are borne of jealousy. I knew when I was 12 that I would never become a professional sportsman, so I’ve had plenty of time to get used to that idea. Tragically, I can pinpoint the actual day I came to realise this. A Manchester United scout came to watch a junior league football match I was playing in. I was the goalkeeper, and put in a performance so erratic that I was substituted at half-time.
No, it’s not jealousy. It’s more the realisation that, if I had become a professional sportsman, I would now be heading towards the twilight of my career. Any newspaper articles about me would have to contain the words ‘veteran’, ‘seasoned’, ‘grizzled’ and ‘knackered’, despite being written by people 15 years older than me.
(Unless, of course, I had excelled in crown green bowls; in which case my youth would see me viewed with the kind of suspicion usually reserved for any local Conservative councillor under the age of 50.)
Ultimately, it’s all relative. What is considered old in Flintoff’s world isn’t in mine. Guardian journalist Daniel Taylor’s excellent book ‘This Is The One’ (about two seasons in the life of Manchester United) suggests that Sir Alex Ferguson is bemused – and amused – by just how young many sports journalists are these days. And by young, he means under 40.
Perhaps when Freddie eventually retires from cricket, he can pursue a career covering Manchester United. And then, when he gets too old for that, he can take up crown green bowls.
And then, when he gets too old for that, he can start to think about becoming a Tory councillor.