Too much, too young: Will Town’s youngest team in 30 years fade or thrive?

Swindon’s managerless team of Spur’s frees and loanees is the youngest since Lou Macari was in charge with an average age of just 23.77, but Alex Cooke finds Town have won with kids, just not back to back.

Swindon manager Bert Head arranged a trial match shortly before the 1960-61 season. He had two sides – the Probables and the Possibles. The former was made up of older, experienced battle-hardened players, the later were young, local but inexperienced. Obviously the Possibles won as Head went on to create a team from this group of teenagers who in time went on to became one of Town’s most successful ever.

The media quickly named them ‘Bert’s Babes’ and the likes of John Trollope, Mike Summerbee, Bobby Woodruff, Ernie Hunt, Keith Morgan, Roger Smart and Don Rogers showed that you can win with kids. However, they also swung between bouts of sparkling promotion form (62-63 and 68-69) and nasty slumps, even once, (64-65) ending in relegation.

That 1960-61 team had an average age for the first XIs throughout the season of just 22.89, which makes them the youngest Swindon side since the 1930s, and yet they finished the season in 16th place. Now, the probable first team of 2013/14 isn’t quite that immature, but at just 23.77 it is still the youngest since the 1980s.

While it’s almost impossible to guess the line-up which will run out at Peterborough but it isn’t hard to produce a credible one which would still have the fifth lowest average age for a Swindon side since league football began in 1946-47.

The probably line-up, based on current injuries was:
Foderingham, Ward, Hall
N. Thompson, Barthram
Reis, Navarro, L. Rooney, Luongo
Williams, Collins* [*He may be gone by the time you read this…]

It is young, but it could easily be much younger, particularly as both Darren Ward and Alan Navarro are included. Without that pair, or the positively pensionable Andy Williams (at just 26), the team would certainly dip lower than even the 1960-61 side.

Of course, some believe that a youthful squad indicates a lack of resolve, resolution and even guarantees relegation. But there seems to be a startling lack of evidence either way. It is easy to point out that Brentford’s squad last year reportedly had an average age of just 23, but then they have pursued the more experienced members of the Swindon team. Using data kindly provided by Swindon-Town-FC-co.uk, it seems that the relationship between age and success if altogether more complex than it appears to some.

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A quick look at the graphs reveals no clear indication of either age extreme leading directly to success or failure. In fact, the average age trendline is surprisingly static around the 26 since the late 1950s, despite the potential for large fluctuations in an XI.

On the surface, some of Swindon’s younger sides have also been the most thrillingly successful – Lou Macari’s two promotion winning teams in the mid 80s were on average just over 25, as were the 69-70 side. The 63-64 team went up aged just 23.77 while Paolo Di Canio’s promoted side also came with a team with an average team age of just 25.01.

By contrast, Glenn Hoddle’s play-off winners were the second oldest Town side assembled since 1975, clocking in at a veritable coffin-dodging 28.13. Although this is a figure partly dragged up by Glenn himself – much as the team were.

Relegation is similarly scattered throughout the age groups. Danny Wilson and Paul Hart oversaw the drop for a relatively seasoned team (26.18) while Iffy Onoura took down a group with an average age of 24.61. However, Steve McMahon’s won a championship with a comparatively ageing side (27.60) but also kept its older successors up, despite tipping them over the 28 mark with the likes of Brian Borrows. The younger side which followed his sacking went down, although that team clearly lacked quality as well as experience.

Perhaps someone with some statistical ability can prove some correlation (and you are welcome to my Excel document) but to the non-mathematical eye, there seems little direct relationship between age and success.

What is remarkable though, is how stable the average age remains, particularly post 1970. Then, bar the 82-83 side dropping to 23.62, teams with an average age around 26 dominate. The only significant spike comes immediately before promotion to the Premier League and until the end of the McMahon era when the team started to drift towards 28 again.

The great outliers on this post-war era are the immediate post-wartime sides which must have been somewhat ad-hoc as from 1946 to 49-50 the average age was only marginally under 30. The oldest Swindon side since the 30s played in this era – 1949-50 and their average age was 29.38. They also finished the season in fourth.

At the other end of the spectrum are Head’s teams of the 60s, as already mentioned, but they are worth talking about for another reason – form.

The spikes and slumps in those team’s performance are also worthy of investigation, again using Swindon-Town-fc-co.uk’s data on the number of consecutive defeats. Do younger teams really experience slumps and peaks in form larger than other sides?

Not really, or so it seems. Of those teams, post 1946-47, who won more than four consecutive league games, only one had an average age higher than 26 (1946-47, 28.17) and none were younger than Paolo Di Canio’s promotion-winners at 25.01. Instead the 16 sides fit into a very narrow band, giving an average age of 25.79.

Of those sides since 1946 who experienced more than four consecutive defeats, seven had an average age lower than 25, however, three of the seven of those were one single team! The 64-65 side endured three separate bouts of five consecutive defeats, and experienced relegation on the final day, but many put their slumps down to a number of serious injuries to a small squad. Of course, they also won promotion soon after, and a lot more as they grew older.

Four teams who did experienced more than four consecutive defeats had an average age greater than 26, and all four were also drawn from the 1950s. So have we learnt more about experience over youth? Or just something about the more open state of 1950s and 1960s lower-league football?

From all this attempted numerical gymnastics all that is really clear is that there are better predictors of team performance than age – one of which is a club’s total wage bill. For, as has been proven in books such as The Numbers Game and Soccernomics, there is a strong correlation between a club’s spending on wages and long term league position. Although the same does not apply for transfer fees.. Which should suit Swindon as our wage bill is still pretty large for Division One – and we haven’t really spent money on fees.

Attributing success or failure by average age seems, at best, reductive. For every Dortmund or Crewe, there are young teams which struggle – and experienced teams who fail, such as Sunderland under Martin O’Neil. So perhaps the ultimate answer is that you can win things with kids? Perhaps… so long as you pay them enough.

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