LONDON: Manchester United are undergoing an discrimination revolution. This is nothing to do, thankfully, with racism but with the concept of age-ism.
Once United were famed for their devotion to youth. Matt Busby launched the ‘Busby Babes’ in the 1950s then later Sir Alex Ferguson promoted ‘Fergie’s Fledglings.’ From Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and Co to David Beckham, Gary Neville etc United were synonymous with a reliance on young talent (also laced, to be fair, with big-money signings).
Now United are in the market for experience. Manager Ferguson has been so encouraged by the contributions of veterans such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Giggs that he has his acquisitive eyes on Chelsea’s Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard.
Both England leftback Cole, 32, and midfielder Lampard, 34, are out of contract at Stamford Bridge at the end of the season. Lampard has been told, despite recent media reports to the contrary, that he will not be offered a new deal while Cole has failed to reach an agreement on a new one-year contract.
Ferguson is willing, apparently, to offer both players a 12-month contract with the promise of a second year if satisfactory. The two would fill the slots expected to be left open by the probable retirements, to coaching roles, of Giggs and Scholes.
Both Cole and Lampard will take their time. Cole is also a target for Qatari-enriched Paris Saint-Germain while Lampard’s impending availability has drawn interest from elsewhere in England as well as Italy, China, Qatar and the United States.
Neither player feels under any pressure to make a quick decision but the prospect of prolonging their Premier careers for another year or so at United would be attractive because they would still have career time left, if they so wished, to take up a lucrative last contract abroad.
Replacement in waiting
Chelsea, in Ryan Bertrand, have the perfect replacement-in-waiting for Cole’s leftback slot but it is Lampard’s situation which has generated more sparks. The player has always insisted on his total loyalty to Chelsea and continues to provide a cornerstone contribution to their trophies pursuit.
His penalty in Saturday’s 5-1 FA Cup walkover at Southampton equalled Kerry Dixon’s tally of 193 goals, nine behind Blues’ all-time top scorer, Bobby Tambling.
However his agent Steve Kutner, having double-checked with Chelsea, has no doubt that the club wants to lower both the average age and average pay rate of the squad.
He said: “Chelsea executives told Frank in Japan then again re-confirmed after the Everton victory [on December 30] that, in no circumstances, will he be offered a new contract to stay at Chelsea Football Club after the end of this season. Nothing since has changed in any respect.
“Frank has had to accept that and just wants to carry on playing football for Chelsea so as to finish the season as successfully as possible for the club that he loves.”
United came close to signing Lampard last January but baulked at Chelsea’s transfer fee demand on top of matching the player’s £150,000-a-week wages. Thus Scholes came out of retirement to resolve United’s midfield crisis.
In June, however, Lampard will be available for free and may agree a significant pay cut to stay in the Premier League.
While Ferguson may think he can afford two more veterans to his squad, Chelsea’s game plan is diametrically opposite. Their aim, ever since Andre Villas-Boas’s brief and unhappy stay, is to rejuvenate the squad.
This was proved easier said than done. The Portuguese lacked the diplomacy to manage a transition and Roberto Di Matteo’s target was always results in the short-term rather than strategic change in the long-term.
The trouble is, Chelsea’s own youth academy has yet to offer many significant products. Bertrand is one but England under-21 midfielder Josh McEachran is as happy to see out the season on loan to Middlesbrough as is Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku at West Bromwich.
Both enjoy regular first-team opportunities – a luxury which will never be guaranteed at Chelsea, rejuvenation or not.
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