Cristiano Ronaldo
FootballPremier League

Father Time on the back foot

September 4, 2021April 19th, 2022

Duncan Alexander answers the question on everyone’s lips: Can Ronaldo still be a consistent Premier League performer at 36 years of age? 

Cristiano Ronaldo is not a young footballer. He made his Manchester United debut when his new teammate Mason Greenwood was a one-year-old. One of his teammates that day is now his manager and many others will be in a comfy TV studio analyzing his second debut 18 years later. None of them scored their 110th and 111th international goals in midweek.

But it’s not a unique achievement in football, to be this good for this long. The sports science may be vastly better in the 21st century but, for instance, legendary England forward Stanley Matthews played throughout his 40s, making his final Football League appearance just five days into his 50s. A different time, undoubtedly, but if Ronaldo is as consistent as we have been led to believe in the past decade, he could surpass a lot of the current Premier League landmarks left by players in their late 30s.

Just as a production recap: in the 12 seasons since he left United in 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 20+ league goals in each season, scoring a total of 450 in 438 appearances for Real Madrid and 101 in 134 for Juventus. 28 total goals in his first season in Turin was the first time he had dipped under 30 since his final season at Old Trafford, but then he followed that up with 37 in 2019-20 and 36 in 2020-21. These are barely conceivable totals.

Footballing pensions used to be paid out at the age of 35 because, outliers Stanley Matthews aside, it was rare for players to perform adequately past that age. Even now, the average age of a Premier League team ranges between 25 and 29, but there have been notable examples of significant veteran impact, as we are about to find out.

It’s not really a surprise to learn that, so far, the strongest attacking performances by players aged 36 and older came in the early 2000s. This was the era where the Premier League was still playing catch-up with its continental rivals, and so players like Gianfranco Zola would absolutely come and happily play for Chelsea, but would do so in their 30s. Zola played seven seasons in west London and his finest goalscoring performance came in the last of them, when he scored 14 times. A crucial campaign for the team; their win against Liverpool on the final day not only got the financially stricken club into the Champions League for 2003-04, but convinced Roman Abramovich to invest. Until Ronaldo overtakes the mark later this season, Zola has the record goal return from any player in Premier League history who started that season aged 36 or older.

Also up there are two Teddy Sheringham seasons and a Les Ferdinand campaign from the same era. Members of that rich seam of English strikers who emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sheringham and Ferdinand continued playing much longer than they needed to, but did so because they both wanted to and were good enough to. Sheringham remains the oldest goalscorer in Premier League history, aged 40 years and 268 when he scored for West Ham versus Portsmouth in 2006. That record may remain safe for some time to come.

There’s even a vague Ronaldo connection when it comes to elderly assists too. As it stands, the most creative season from someone who began it aged 36 or older is by the late Ray Wilkins back in 1993-94. Clocking up nine assists in 39 appearances for QPR, despite turning 37 that September, Wilkins turned back the years, years that included spells at both Manchester United and in Serie A, just like Old Trafford’s newest arrival. Ronaldo’s creativity is often overlooked, but with 137 assists in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A so far, he has an outside chance of overtaking Wilkins, although Zola seems the more realistic target. 15 goals beats Zola and takes Ronaldo to 99 in the Premier League. You can do the rest of the math.

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