Gavin Willacy looks forward to the Premier League debuts of two of Burnley's thirtysomethings – better late than never

When Burnley make their return to top-flight football after 33 years, two of their most important players will be making their Premier League debuts in the 30s. Graham Alexander, who captained the side at Wembley in May, is approaching his 38th birthday, and Wade Elliott, the midfielder who scored the winning goal against Sheffield United, will be 30. They have both come a long way.

Twelve years ago I spent the spring doing press work for the England Schoolboys team and going to Kenilworth Road now and then to see my local team Luton Town. I saw plenty of Elliott and Alexander and a Premier League future looked plausible for neither. In 1997, Elliott was playing for England Schools Under-18s – on the right of a central trio in a five-man midfield. He had vision and an attractive passing game but looked far too weak to play at a high level. Among his team-mates were three players from Chelsea, and others from Derby, Spurs, Forest and Birmingham: an unusually elite group of clubs for schoolboys of that age. Most had been rejected long before that, Elliott included. Released by Southampton, he was at college and playing for Bashley in the Southern League.

As usual, playing for England Schoolboys was the devastatingly early peak of most of that team’s football lives. Some turned pro that summer before descending on an ever-decreasing circuit of lower-league clubs. Four players managed to make a living out of football during their twenties but only Elliott is still a full-time professional. Classy centre-back Matt Strode left Chelsea for a scholarship at Hartwick College in the US. Full-back Jason Clarke works in a bank in Boston, while striker Gary Phelps went to university in Carolina. Others did not even last long in the non-League game – defender Jon Bannister became a history teacher, goalkeeper Robert Clarke went into computing.

The majority of the squad went to university that September, including Elliott, who started a media and sociology degree at Goldsmiths College in south London. He continued to play for Bashley and caught the eye of Bournemouth, who offered him a pro deal. His first game for the Cherries was a reserve match at Millwall, round the corner from Goldsmiths: his college mates were there to cheer him on. Goldsmiths gave him a year off to try his luck. Ten years later he is still riding that wave, having moved to Burnley four years ago and has become one the Championship’s finest right-wingers.

When Elliott was playing for England, Alexander was midway through his Luton career, having moved from Scunthorpe. Playing wide on the right, he had neither the pace nor dribbling ability to beat a full-back, and was lightweight defensively. My mate’s dad berated his every move, chastised him throughout every game, and laughed when he moved to my beloved Preston. Nine years and 400 games later, Alexander was a hero of mine.

I was devastated to see Alexander suddenly quit North End two Augusts ago to join Burnley after a fall-out with manager Paul Simpson. The fans were sold a story about a contract-length dispute, but few bought it. Some thought he was too slow and, in what is a worrying trend at Deepdale, the longest-serving player became the scapegoat for every poor performance and defeat. Few clubs would sell their captain, arguably their best player, a regular Scottish international deemed good enough to face Italy a few months earlier, for £200,000 to their local rivals. Twenty years since he turned pro at Scunthorpe, Alexander is closing in on his 1,000th club appearance and his 100th different hairstyle. He won his first Scotland cap at 30 and now has 38.

Of course, Alexander and Elliott will not be the first thirtysomethings to make their Premiership bows: the recent promotions of Wigan, Reading, Stoke and Hull have seen the likes of Graeme Murty, Glen Little, Ian Ashby and others finally get to the top level. But I will be quietly delighted for the shaggy-haired right-back and pasty-faced winger when they face Man United, Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool in successive Premier League games in the next month. I wish it was Preston, not Burnley, but I hope they do just fine.

From WSC 271 September 2009

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