Having grown up in Liverpool and been a lifetime (if currently slightly despairing) supporter of Liverpool Football Club, I have been trained to instinctively despise all things Manchester United, even if, since moving away from Liverpool, I have acquired some Man U supporting friends. As Manchester United’s longest serving player, one would be forgiven for thinking that Ryan Giggs would be an easy target for my Scouse inspired hatred. However, for me, my Welsh heritage has given me a fondness for the Welsh national team and subsequently, Giggs, who represented Wales from 1991 until retiring from the national team in 2007. He’s a player that’s left me feeling torn between my city and my country, even though I always say that Liverpool comes first.
Regional prejudices aside, on hearing that Giggs played his 1,000th senior game for Manchester United against Real Madrid last night, I was struck by how prominently his age featured across the press. Despite the fact that Giggs has won numerous prestigious awards throughout his career, including BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and continues to score goals in the Premier League, the media seem fixated on his plans to stay at Manchester United for two more years, despite reaching the ripe old age of 39.
In the Premier League it’s widely expected that players will be hanging up their boots way before they reach the big 4-0. Players such as Giggs who manage to carry on scoring with wrinkles around their eyes are examined by the media with a sort of cautious suspicion and grudging respect, with the question of retirement never being far from an eager sports reporter’s lips in a post-match interview. While this is to be expected in a sport that is described as a ‘young man’s game’ it is somewhat disturbing that such an attitude toward ageing is frequently displayed in other walks of life.
The requirement for a youthful image is still ever present in television, as demonstrated by the case of Miriam O’Reilly, who was dropped from Countryfile in 2009 and replaced by younger presenters. O’Reilly subsequently went to an employment tribunal claiming age discrimination, and won her case. However, nine months into a three year deal with the BBC she said she had no option but to leave, due to unfair treatment upon her return, stating that apologies and offers of work from the BBC following her tribunal victory were “clearly just a PR damage-limitation exercise.” More recently racing pundit, John McCririck, has said he will be taking legal action against Channel Four, accusing the broadcaster of dropping him because of his age. It seems absurd, in 2013, when we readily accept that people are living longer, that perfectly capable individuals have to go to court to keep their jobs simply because they have aged another year.
In the past week, Harriet Harman has written to leading broadcasters asking about the number of older women employed within their organisations, as part of a campaign to stop women in the media being “written off” at the age of 50. While such actions are important, it seems that it will take a much larger cultural change to stop age being seen as a barrier by the media in the UK. While Giggs could do nothing to prevent Manchester United’s exit from the Champion’s League last night, I was intrigued by the reporting of the controversial decision to send off United’s Nani, which arguably cost United the game. This was not only because my Scouse side took great delight in seeing Alex Ferguson’s furious post match tempter-tantrum and later the childish wall of silence he presented to the press. But also because several sports pages chose to mention that the referee who sent off Nani, Cuneyt Cakir, was a “36-year-old insurance agent” who is “three years younger than Giggs.” Both within and outside of the beautiful game, it will be interesting to see how the issue of age in the media continues to rumble on in the future.