Discover more from NTT20.COM
Timeless: 31 Over 31
The EFL’s most influential old-timers (sorry), from wily schemers to revitalised goalsmen.
This Midweek Fixture is free for all, forming one part of our weekly content triple-header. Our mission is to cover the EFL in the same way the Premier League is covered — with insight, research and knowledge. But the EFL isn’t only ripe for insight. The stories are rich, the characters are fascinating, and that is the path we tread today in this listicle look at 31 over 31.
Thank you for reading. We love the EFL. We think it deserves more and better content across the whole 72. If you feel the same as us, please consider taking out a free or paid subscription, it makes a huge difference.
You know 21 Under 21? George and Ali select the EFL’s 21 most promising players under the age of 21 and unearth some future stars, to great success. I’m going the other way, and not just with the ‘great success’ bit.
I’ve looked at Football League players older than 31 who’ve played at least 50% of their club’s league minutes this season (so, no Aaron Ramsey, sadly), and I’ve picked 31 of the best. As an extra twist, I’m ranking them. Not by quality nor prestige, because we all know by now that Jamie Vardy’s had a decent career, but based on importance to that player’s team. Approximately, anyway. Comparing the influence of a Championship goalkeeper and a League Two striker is not an exact science, so please, no dead mice in the post.
Stats, appearance data and whatnot are taken from before this midweek slate of fixtures, because come on, have some pity. Finally, if you’re offended by the earlier reference to “old-timers”, be assured that all of these players are younger than me, and probably always will be.
31. ERIK PIETERS (35, West Bromwich Albion)
I’m not saying the Baggies got lucky. I’m just saying that when your previous manager (Steve Bruce) signs a 34-year-old defender (Pieters) partly because they were neighbours (per The Athletic), you weren’t expecting that defender to be starting a year later under a different manager (Carlos Corberán) during a run of clean sheets (five in his last seven appearances, and my bracket keys are broken now). Yet here we are, with the former left-back offering reliability and ball progression from central defence. Who needs scouts anyway?
30. JOSH FALKINGHAM (33, Harrogate Town)
Harrogate’s captain embodies their rise. After playing in all four Scottish divisions, he started again in the National League North, joined the Sulphurites there and fought his way into League Two – where, despite being a defensive midfielder for a bottom-half side, he’s one of the league’s most regularly fouled players. Unless Falkingham’s faking ’em…
29. CRAIG FORSYTH (34, Derby County)
This is awkward. Dad’s Army at Derby is currently going about as well as the film remake did in 2016. Seven of Paul Warne’s eight most-used outfield players are in their thirties (<deep breath> Curtis Nelson, Korey Smith, Conor Hourihane, Martyn Waghorn, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, James Collins and our man here) and performances so far have been laboured. There is one winner of this Generation Game, however, and that’s Forsyth. After more than a decade at Derby, the Scot is still trucking along at centre-half or even as a wing-back, scoring a belting opening-day volley against Wigan. Good game, good game.
28. MATTY JAMES (32, Bristol City)
No disrespect to Andy King, 35 this week, who is the older yet recently less favoured son, but do you think Nigel Pearson quite likes Matty James? He took James to Leicester in 2012, then nine years later made the midfielder his second signing at Bristol City, giving him a three-year contract aged 29. Since then, James has played the full 90 virtually every time he’s been fit, including 100% of minutes this season, mostly as captain. So: yes, Nigel Pearson quite likes Matty James. And if you think James doesn’t count as ‘old’, remember he was one of the three players Sir Alex Ferguson petulantly recalled from loan when Preston sacked his son, and that was ages ago.
27. SCOT BENNETT (32, Newport County)
Bennett is the only survivor of 2016/17’s Great Escape, when first-time manager Michael Flynn took the reins, the initiative and 22 points from 12 games to save Newport, who were 11 points adrift. He isn’t just some symbol, however. As one of the division’s 10 most prolific tacklers and interceptors, the midfielder is helping Graham Coughlan’s high-pressing Exiles to make easily the most high turnovers in League Two: 144, leading to… zero goals, per Opta Analyst. Bennett’s doing his part, at least.
26. PAUL HUNTINGTON (36, Carlisle United)
Did you know Huntington played in 11 Premier League games for Newcastle, making his first start as a full-back against Jose Mourinho’s Mk.I Chelsea? You do now. These days, as Carlisle’s captain, the centre-half is near the top of League One’s charts for clearances, interceptions and anecdotes about keeping Arjen Robben in his pocket 17 years ago.
25. CHARLIE AUSTIN (34, Swindon Town)
You Know What You’re Getting With Charlie Austin (Comedy Central, 9.30pm) was a long-running favourite: 14 league seasons, 167 goals, only 25 assists. Now: the spin-off. With Swindon’s loan pairing of Dan Kemp and Jake Young having rendered Austin’s goals less vital – hence his relatively low placing here – he’s cosplaying as a creator, laying on five assists (one shy of a record campaign for him) while scoring just two non-penalty goals. If this is the Frasier to Austin’s Cheers, I’m all for it.
24. JONNY HOWSON (35, Middlesbrough)
Howson has been so important for Middlesbrough, making 40-plus league appearances in each of their past six seasons, despite having made his senior debut in the same year Boro reached a UEFA Cup final. We could finally be seeing the first hints of Howson being phased out, although he won’t go without a fight; Hayden Hackney and Dan Barlaser may be the future, but as The Smiths sung, Howson is now. He’s a top-five Championship midfielder for passes into the final third, making 7 per 90 minutes (though interestingly, Barlaser is just behind him and Hackney tops the lot), and when Howson does play, he’s central to everything Boro do.
23. PAUL FARMAN (33, Barrow)
Fun Fact: Farman, one of League Two’s most reliable goalkeepers this season, was robbed of an England C cap not once but twice back in his non-league days. The first never happened due to the 2011 London riots; the second, in Albania a year later, was cancelled when “floods from outside started coming up through the shower holes and toilets”. That’ll do it. Today, he’s playing his seventh consecutive fourth-tier campaign across four different clubs, and the other three – Lincoln, Stevenage and Carlisle – are all in League One now. An omen for Barrow, perhaps?
22. SAM VOKES (34, Wycombe)
The striker turned 34 last week and shows… all right, some signs of slowing down. He could hardly repeat his stupendous 17-goal season upon joining Wycombe as a mere 31-year-old. However, he gives the Chairboys a trustworthy out ball – no League One striker comes close to his aerial success rate – and some big performances, monstering Blackpool’s back line in September and mischievously tricking Carlisle’s Jokull Andresson a fortnight later.
21. JAMES McCLEAN (34, Wrexham)
Wrexham’s late winner against Salford summed up the club and McClean as well. Having just conceded an 88th-minute equaliser, all Salford wanted was some respite in possession, but McClean wasn’t having it. From their kick-off, the wing-back saw a seemingly safe pass head towards Liam Shephard, then hared into him like a particularly ginger hare. Winning the ball, he played it inside to Steven Fletcher, ran into the box and was the closest Wrexham player to the goal-line when Jordan Davies’ shot found the net, 18 seconds after Salford’s kick-off and 10 seconds after McClean’s tackle. The 34-year-old has that doggedness required in League Two and his quality is obvious: 1.9 key passes per game, mostly from open play.
20. FUNSO OJO (32, Port Vale)
When Ojo reached the League One play-offs in his first English season, do you think other 26-year-old Belgians considered swapping regular Eredivisie football for the bright lights of Scunthorpe? Fun-time Funso has spent more than six years in Lincolnshire, Aberdeen, Wigan and Burslem, screening tidily in midfield, and the novelty hasn’t worn off for him yet. As an environmental activist, surely he’ll make Forest Green the next destination for his electric car.
19. MATTY GODDEN (32, Coventry)
In a less counter-attacking Coventry team, Godden is stepping out of Viktor Gyökeres’ shadow just as he stepped up to the Championship in 2020, when he silenced doubters with three goals in his first four games. For a slow starter in career terms, he loves a fast start to a Championship season: after that arrival, he had an excellent 2021/22, then opened 2022/23 with three goals in two games (both defeats, bless him) and 2023/24 with five in seven. In his four starts since, however, 11 shots on target from 21 efforts has turned into none from eight, so the strong starter needs to remind everyone he’s also a fine finisher… usually.
18. LUCAS AKINS (34, Mansfield)
Lucky old Nigel Clough has two model pros happy to fill in anywhere: 32-year-old Jordan Bowery, a centre-forward converted into a right-back who even stays back at corners, and 34-year-old Akins, who has played in virtually every position for the Stags. I’ve plumped for Akins, whose impressive displays up front this season have resulted in him playing 95% of Mansfield’s minutes – some achievement, given his age and competition in attack.
17 & 16. RYAN BENNETT & MICHAEL MORRISON (33 & 35, Cambridge)
It shouldn’t work. Fielding not one but two grizzled old centre-backs on their way down the pyramid should not bring four clean sheets from your first six games of the season. It’s gone a bit pear-shaped since then, that ‘Morradona’ wonder-goal apart, but still: you don’t see many central defenders in their mid-thirties playing every minute of a league campaign…
15. KYLE McFADZEAN (36, Coventry)
…but that’s only because McFadzean missed his first action of the Championship season last weekend when he was substituted in the 89th minute. This devastating blow puts him on 99.9%, a figure usually reserved for toilet bleach.
McFadzean doesn’t kill 99.9% of germs, but he does kill attacks with his reading of the game. There’s a reason Mark Robins retained him amid Cov’s evolution following their play-off final defeat (and it was a joy to see McFadzean, who’d left Sheffield United as a youngster to start again with sixth-tier Alfreton, reach the pinnacle of his career as a 36-year-old at Wembley).
Fancy a longevity stat? Here, have two. McFadzean made his debut by replacing Keith Gillespie, who’d been in Manchester United’s Class of ’92. And his first Football League appearance came with Crawley making their own EFL bow – when the defender had already played four seasons in non-league. What a man.
14. MARLON PACK (32, Portsmouth)
Pompey’s captain puts in tackles and sets up chances but mainly keeps things ticking along with his 86% pass completion rate. He and Joe Morrell are probably League One’s best midfield partnership, and most of the time you’d barely notice they’re playing. Stealthy.
13. SHAUN WHALLEY (36, Accrington)
Whalley and Seamus Conneely, 35, stick out in a relatively young Accy team in which Whalley’s the only one of their eight most-used players who’s older than 24 – and by scoring the winner in consecutive matches, he’s the grown-up in the room while those in charge have a domestic.
If anyone can lead by experience, it’s a man whose 20-year career reads as if someone put his Wikipedia entry on shuffle. All the way from League Two (playing for Chester under Ian Rush, i.e. not recently) to the Northern Prem, back up to League Two with Accrington, down to the Conference North with Droylsden, and finally playing regular League One football from the age of 28 to 35 with Shrewsbury and Accy again before returning to the fourth tier, Whalley has inspired team-mates and infuriated full-backs – even now, he’s one of the most fouled players in League Two, which is fine by him. Against Wimbledon, he was clobbered three times yet also completed seven dribbles. He’s 36.
12. LIAM SERCOMBE (33, Cheltenham)
It was fitting that Sercombe delivered Cheltenham their long-overdue first win, emulating Clint Dempsey against Juventus with a sublime chip/wedge/dink. He’d been their most consistent player during their dismal start – well, their most consistently good player – and mucked out in midfield while making 17 key passes for his team-mates to waste.
Cheltenham also have the EFL’s oldest regular-ish player. Curtis Davies just made his international debut for Sierra Leone at the age of 38, so that’s nice.
11. ASHLEY BARNES (33, Norwich)
Thirteen points from six games pre-injury. Four points from six games post-injury. While it doesn’t say great things about Norwich that they miss Barnes this much, it’s another line for the theoretically Austrian striker’s extensive CV. As countless opposition defenders have learned, Barnes won’t lie down unless he wants to. His Burnley career looked over when Vincent Kompany arrived with his myriad sexy forwards, only for Kompany to find a regular use for him; then a seemingly uninspiring signing for Norwich inspired them to a great start with excellent back-to-goal play, occupying of defenders and busybodying off the ball. You want an example of one attacker helping others to shine? Here he is. Then Barnes injured his knee and it’s fallen apart since. Norwich’s form, that is, not his knee. I think.
10. KEVIN LONG (33, Birmingham)
Cork-born Kevin Finbarr Long knows good things come to those who wait. And he has waited. After 13 years (thirteen years) at Burnley brought just 91 appearances in all competitions, or seven runouts per season, the defender swapped claret for blue and – despite not having kicked a ball in anger nor apathy for eight months – he immediately started 20 of Birmingham’s next 22 matches, playing 90 minutes in most. Now there’s a man with a gym in his house. This season, the Blues had the second tier’s second-best defensive record under John Eustace, and his ever-present January signing was one reason why: Long has led the backline, winning 71% of aerial duels (a top-10 ratio across all Championship players) and making the league’s second-most clearances. He’s solid. If only Sean Dyche had agreed.
9. MICKEY DEMETRIOU (33, Crewe)
Given Crewe’s ambitions and youth setup, signing a 33-year-old defender from Newport flattened more pulses than it raised among the fanbase. Yet while Demetriou offers Crewe nothing revolutionary off the ball, he’s been revelatory on it, dribbling out of defence, playing big switches from left to right, looking for through balls, prepared to go long. Five goals and three assists in his first 13 games didn’t hurt, either.
8. JACK HUNT (32, Bristol Rovers)
Simple one, this: Hunt has been Rovers’ best player in 2023/24 and perhaps League One’s best full-back. Unfortunately, he’s also been injured for half of the campaign, robbing The Gas of his goals (two), assists (two), key passes (ten) and defensive contributions (many). Joey Barton’s been very complimentary, and he’s Joey Barton.
7. SAM MORSY (32, Ipswich)
Yes, I’m banging on about Morsy again. The Egyptian is among the Championship’s 10 leading midfielders for passes into the final third and for progressive carrying distance, as well as being one of the four most prolific tacklers (as is Massimo Luongo; alas – o cruellest of fates – Morsy’s midfield partner is 31 and not over it). There’s not much Morsy can’t do, except avoid the referee’s attention (he’s closing in on 150 career bookings), so it borders on upsetting that he spent two-thirds of his career in Leagues One and Two. Still, he could emulate our No.24 here and star for several years yet.
6. JEAN MICHAEL SERI (32, Hull)
On technical ability, Seri would be No.1 – he’s a sublime footballer, a metronome and conductor in one. He has the third-best passing accuracy among Championship midfielders (91.7%) but, more importantly, he’s also in the top 10 of all players for shot-creating passes from open play and goal-creating passes from open play. This, I’m led to believe, is A Good Thing.
5. DAVID McGOLDRICK (35, Notts County)
We might’ve expected McGoldrick to top this countdown, having dropped to League Two earlier than was necessary. In truth, Notts County’s attacking setup is so impressive, they can win games without him – but nor can you argue with eight goal contributions in 1,070 minutes. He makes smart attacking runs from deep and has shown his class in front of goal, particularly against Tranmere, but mostly he contributes greatly to the build-up, which is partly why Dan Crowley has seven goals already this season – a quarter of his career tally. To have the pair of them behind Macaulay Langstaff is like taking an atom bomb to an arm wrestle.
4. MATT SMITH (34, Salford)
It’s true that the Manchester-University-graduate-turned-centre-forward’s 6ft 6in frame encourages Salford to play a certain way, but it’s also true that his goals carried them through a sticky patch. Indeed, Tuesday’s technically-not-canon hat-trick against Doncaster took Smith to a league-high 12 for the season. Salford’s next-highest goalscorer, Callum Hendry, has three – all scored in one game.
3. ADEN FLINT (34, Mansfield)
Mansfield’s defence has undermined recent promotion bids. 2021/22: 5th-best attacking record, 9th-best defensive record, 7th-place finish. 2022/23: joint-best attacking record, 13th-best defensive record, 8th-place finish. Then along came Flint, not seen in League Two since 2012, and suddenly the Stags are unbeaten and the only team conceding less than a goal per game. It isn’t entirely down to Flint – the seasoned centre-half would be exposed if Mansfield’s shape hadn’t also improved – but there isn’t a better head-it-kick-it defender in the division, and in Nigel Clough’s words he’s been “invaluable”. He needs a haircut, mind.
2. VACLAV HLADKY (32, Ipswich)
Hladky was nearly 30 when he came to England, leaving behind the Czech and Scottish top flights in order to join fourth-tier Salford. He fully earned his move to Ipswich a year later, but then, in and out of form, he was also in and out of Paul Cook’s ever-changing team. Hladky subsequently played just seven minutes of Ipswich’s promotion season, so there were concerns in Suffolk when Christian Walton was injured on the eve of the 2023/24 campaign – but Hladky has grabbed the baton, run with it, sprinted over the finish line and done another couple of laps before asking if anybody wants a fireman’s carry.
Most clean sheets? Czech. Best sweeping stats? By a
mile yard. And shot-stopping? Let’s see… going by ‘Post-Shot xG Minus Goals Allowed’ stats (great metric, abysmal name), only two Championship goalkeepers this term have prevented at least one goal more than they ‘should’ have, in line with save difficulty. Leicester’s Mads Hermansen is on +1.9. Hladky is on +4.5. Good as they are, Ipswich wouldn’t be 2nd without him.
1. JORDAN RHODES (33, Blackpool)
George wasn’t alone in being “not a massive fan” of Blackpool signing Rhodes on loan. His (incredible) prime came a full decade ago, and they already had Jake Beesley, Shayne Lavery, Kyle Joseph, then signed Kylian Kouassi a day later.
How wrong we all were, because Rhodes has been immense; transformative, even, considering he arrived when Blackpool were on a long goal drought and immediately took a hosepipe to it. A goal four minutes into his first start – showing the kind of poacher’s movement and finishing You Can’t Teach – begat a hat-trick against Reading, followed by more goals and more points. He’s also played at least 89 minutes (that extra minute’s rest is vital) in each of his nine starts, despite his ageing legs, allowing him to score a stoppage-time equaliser against Oxford. It’s been a beautiful Tangerine-tinged twilight.
In a long, thoughtful interview this week, Rhodes said, "I know there aren’t too many years left in me. It’s all about enjoying it and doing what I can before it’s all over." Oh God, Jordan. Is someone chopping onions in here?
Epilogue: The day after giving that interview, Rhodes scored one and assisted another in a 3-2 win against Cheltenham. Because of course he did.