Are you experienced? Or are you just sodding past it?

Date published: Monday 20th November 2017 9:39

In life, we know that experience does not inevitably confer wisdom on people. Yet it is always cited as a positive thing in football.

“He’s an experienced manager.”

“He’s an experienced international player.”

This is never said in a negative context. But sometimes it really should be. We should be suspicious of experience because it lives next door to narrow-mindedness, conservatism and complacency.

For example, the more experienced Wayne Rooney got, the worse he became, and that can be said of many in the game. Some players do get better as they move into the last third of their careers, but a lot get worse because they lose the ability to be flexible and progressive. They just do the same things over and over again with increasingly less effectiveness. Look at Joe Hart, he seems to be getting significantly worse as he gets older, possibly in part because experience of past failure plays on his mind. He’s experienced, yes, but experience can be a curse.

This month, when England fielded inexperienced players, there were much better performances. When we’ve played a lot of experienced players, it’s been much worse. Being experienced actually weighs them down.

Look at the FA Potatoes. All experienced businessmen, albeit experienced in the biscuit industry, in some cases. But this experience has proven time and again to be worthless as they blunder through their jobs like a buffalo in a glaziers, dumbly looking around themselves with the blank expression of incomprehension, desperately trying to remember how to say and do the right thing, but without the understanding to achieve that. As a result they resort to speaking fluent obfuscation and propaganda to fill the void. Someone with much less experience but with much better brains would do a much better job.

What is ‘experience’ anyway? It just means having been there and done it before and thus having a good idea of what to expect. While this can be beneficial in everyday life when predictability is useful, in football – a game of infinite variables – the ability to adapt and change is far more valuable than assuming that which has happened before, will happen again.

It is certainly a common human trait that with age comes increasing conservatism and inflexibility. You get tired and want to pull up the cultural, political and societal drawbridge and live in the past.

I can tell you that as an older person, you have to take deliberate and conscious action to prevent this being the case. Otherwise, it creeps in. The pull of the past is strong. The future can be frightening. You have to reinvent yourself to a degree. You certainly have to be open to new ideas and not just wallow in the past and, importantly, understand that the future is not all about you, the way it once was. Being around young or younger people is really important in this. They invest you with energy and ideas. Surrounding yourself with old farts who don’t like the modern world just leads to Brexit-type confusion.

In football, as in life, things change, people change, expectations and understandings change. But many people don’t like change. They stick to what they’ve always done, especially if it was successful in the past, even if it doesn’t work anymore.

Here’s a weird thing. Chris Hughton is born in the same year as Tony Pulis. He’s amazingly five years older than David Moyes but seems so much more in touch, fresh and interested than either of those two. So much more progressive and informed and bright. That’s why he’s doing such a good job.

In contrast, watching Moyes being interviewed before and after the Watford game, he seems like a dad who knows the world has changed, but isn’t really sure how or why. You can hear him skating on thin verbal ice, not sure if his words are quite right or not, a slightly fearful look in his eye as he desperately tries not to make a gaff. Having Stuart Pearce beside you only enhances the notion that you’re surrounding yourself with old comforting ideas, not young challenging ones.

This isn’t a nationality thing. I bet every country can point to over-the-hill players and managers who get jobs because of past achievements but who are now past their sell-by date.

Employing older managers is portrayed as a safe bet, but employing younger ones is actually much less of a risk, as has been proven at clubs such as Watford, Bournemouth and Burnley. And is playing youngsters really more of a risk than playing veterans?

When I see Arsene Wenger, I see a man who is stuck in his ways. When I see Sam Allardyce I see a man who is stuck in his ways. When I see Tony Pulis I see a man who is stuck in his ways. When I see Mark Hughes I see a man who is stuck in his ways. When I see David Moyes I see a man who is stuck in his ways. When I see Roy Hodgson I see a man who is stuck in his ways. This doesn’t make them useless, obviously, but it does lead to the feeling of atrophy which is so strong right now at those clubs.

Even in Jose Mourinho you see someone applying the same old techniques which were once new, but now seem over-worn and slightly threadbare and which will sooner or later, stop working unless he evolves again.

Modern football is a fast-moving sport. Ideas and trends come and go quickly. Science and analysis is constantly evolving. So when three or four years ago we were told by the press that Moyes had a ‘hi-tech bunker’ at Old Trafford which contained iPads and a whiteboard, it sounded so out of date. That’s a classic ‘experienced’ mistake. As you get older, things you think are modern and up to date, simply aren’t any more. Things have moved on without you realising. This is constantly revealed when friends of Allardyce, as they always do when trying to get him a job, tell us how modern he is because he uses ProZone stats, as though nobody else does. As though it is still 1997.

Being experienced is far less of an asset than usually portrayed and, whatever age you are, being fresh, creative and innovative is far more important. Football needs less reverence for experience and more for that which is radical and new.

John Nicholson

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