There’s life in some of these old dogs yet, with the Championship offering a nice swansong (maybe) for some veterans this season…
5) Sol Bamba (Middlesbrough)
Oh how Cardiff must wish they had held onto Sol Bamba in the summer. Having fought Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in the first half of the year, and given his veteran age as a footballer, there are very few who would have expected the Ivory Coast centre-back to come back at such a high level. But not only is Bamba putting in some excellent individual performances at the back for Middlesbrough under Neil Warnock; he put in one of the best performances by any player this season against his former employers Cardiff in October.
It made Bamba a big winner that weekend, but to come back at all from such a difficult period and be the best centre-back in the division who was at Cardiff in 2020/21 – and the only one not still there from that contingent – is testament to the credentials of this 36-year-old, both physically and mentally.
A stop-start season for Boro thus far could go some way to earning consistency for as long as Bamba can prove to be a mainstay in that backline. They have won just one of their seven games when he hasn’t played, compared to five victories from eight when he has, the majority of those being starts and full 90-minute performances.
4) Billy Sharp (Sheffield United)
Perhaps the Championship’s most recognisable veteran and the only one on this list not to ply his trade at centre-back, Sharp has been putting players nearly half his age to shame for much of his EFL career, and continues to do so with some of his strike partners this season. Despite being 35 years old, the former Doncaster and Southampton forward is still the sharpest of the Blades’ forwards in every sense, with four apiece in terms of goals and assists to his name a third of the way into this Championship campaign.
Another player who has had to deal with personal issues off the pitch during his career, Sharp is one of the game’s truest professionals, and while Sheffield United may be in a slump right now – largely owing to the struggles of relative youngsters Oli McBurnie and Rhian Brewster – Sharp is showing few signs of slowing down as he approaches his twilight years.
His hat-trick of assists in the brightest day of Slavisa Jokanovic’s reign to date – a 6-2 pasting of Peterborough United – remains the highlight of the season so far, but one would back him to better that between now and the end of May.
3) Curtis Davies (Derby County)
Derby County may be bottom by virtue of their points deduction, but there is no doubt that they have one of the greatest defences in the division. As if that isn’t impressive enough, that it has mostly consisted of 35-year-old Curtis Davies and the 39-year-old Phil Jagielka – this season’s eldest second-tier player – is scarcely believable.
Only the unbeaten table toppers Bournemouth have conceded fewer goals than the Rams this season, while Derby have managed more goals at the other end than their fellow relegation zoners Hull City and Barnsley. It is Davies’ impact in both statistics that grants him a place here with special and honourable mention to his centre-back partner.
Despite his veteran years, Davies has played every single minute of Derby’s league campaign to date, and while one might question just how sustainable that is over the next six months, there is no denying the impact the vice-captain is having on Wayne Rooney’s side. Davies has put some Championship strikers – including some of his teammates in the forward positions – to shame with his exploits in front of the opposition goal as well as his own. With three goals to his name, one in an opening-day draw with Huddersfield Town and a winner against Stoke City, Davies is proving to be one of the Championship’s best players in any age group.
2) Richard Keogh (Blackpool)
The only way to top those sort of performances that are being put in by Davies is to play in an even better defence (we’re coming to that) or come into this season with such little expectation of being good that to be stellar elevates you up these rankings considerably. Step forward then, Mr Richard Keogh of Blackpool fame.
Having spent much of his career as a figure of ridicule, all of which culminated in that car crash at Derby County (which unfairly or not spelt the end of Keogh’s considerably long but ultimately fruitless reign with the Rams), before largely struggling in his redemption season at Huddersfield Town, few expected Keogh to be anything more than a body in the building upon his summer arrival beside the seaside with Blackpool.
But then, none of us accounted for just how good this Tangerines side is under Neil Critchley, who has proven time and time again in his year and a half in senior management that no task is too big. Having played very little first-team football over the course of the past couple of years, Keogh has missed only 135 minutes of second-tier action this campaign. Keogh’s stats are not as outrightly impressive as others on this list, but anyone who has watched him command a rather youthful Blackpool side to the play-off places a third of the way into the season can testify for his deserved ranking in the top two here.
1) Gary Cahill (AFC Bournemouth)
And so, to the winning spot in a surprisingly tight race of veterans in this Championship season, and it is no surprise that it’s the man who has played at the loftiest heights of the game, a Premier League and Champions League winner, Gary Cahill. Having spent the best days of his career with Chelsea, he is very much enjoying the golden years with Championship table-toppers Bournemouth.
The only team to have conceded fewer Championship goals than Derby this season – that’s just eight in 15 games – had to have the man at the heart of that titanic defence in the top position here. Five of those goals came before Cahill made his debut for the Cherries in mid-September. He has since played every minute of Bournemouth’s subsequent 10 fixtures in which they have conceded just three times. This is no coincidence, and it is why ‘boring, boring Bournemouth’ are already almost certainly getting promoted back to the top flight this season.
If he can keep this kind of form to this time next year, then there is every chance Cahill can get the Premier League swansong he deserves too.