I’ve seen both sides of the fence when it comes to that fabled attribute in professional football: experience.
I’ve been the know-it-all kid with the arrogance and energy of youth. I’ve been the veteran who thinks about the game very differently when the years start to run out on him.
In my teens I never thought I’d be a 30-year-old player. Thirty seems a million miles away and when you’re just starting out, the last thing you think about is how you’ll be thinking when your career gets close to the end. But blink and you miss it, I’ll tell you that now. Before you know it, the offers are dwindling and you’re about to retire.
That’s part of the value of experience, I think. Experience is a bit of a cliched concept and it’s often used to explain why raw or young teams aren’t winning as many games as they should but you need old heads. Firstly, the older you get the better you become at handling the emotions of a sport which is emotionally extreme. That’s important. But on top of that, you represent a good example of the realities of football and the fact that a player’s time in the game is precious.
Pablo Hernandez is that sort of character. He’s been around the block, he’s travelled the world, he’s played at a high level in England and Spain and he’s still turning it on in the Championship, albeit in amongst some off-days. You could blame his age for those off-days but I suspect that Hernandez has always been that way: very skilful, wonderfully creative and, as tends to be the way with skilful, creative players, a little hot and cold.
It’s perfectly obvious that he looks after himself well and at a very basic level, he’s a good specimen for the younger players at Leeds United to look up to and appreciate. Yes, there will be times when Hernandez’s cool head is crucial as games go wrong but as a rule, good teams don’t need to revert to crisis mode too often. It’s a waste of Hernandez to see him as a bit of a saving grace. In my eyes he’s a role model and in that respect, it must be useful having him around.
Hernandez’s contract is up this summer but if the decision was mine, I’d certainly be giving him a year’s extension. He’s almost 33 and as I quickly found out, clubs aren’t going to throw long contracts at a 33-year-old.
There’s never been less appetite for loading your squad with players over the age of 30 and Hernandez is at the point where he’s living season to season or on two-year deals at best.
That might sound harsh but increasingly, it’s the way it is. But fundamentally, he’s a very good player.
His set-pieces are excellent, he’s naturally attacking – by which I mean he will always, always look for a forward pass – and he’s got that essential touch of flair.
I’m firmly of the view that a quality Championship side needs a solid Championship core running through it, and Wolves, for all their talent have been a great example of that this season, but you get out of the league by winning games and players like Hernandez are the difference. Likewise Samuel Saiz.
Balance is crucial, though, and so is a range of ability: from those who can run the opposition ragged when the sun’s shining to those who can dig it out in the freezing cold, like Friday’s defeat at Middlesbrough.
That was a sore result and a weak performance; a performance which suggest that Leeds don’t have enough fight about them. But that’s the point with Hernandez. He will win you games and he’ll create goals fairly regularly, but he’s not a player you can build a team around. Not anymore.
He needs to be someone who’s there to call upon in the right circumstances but only in the right circumstances. It can’t be the case that for 46 games a season or every time things aren’t working, the buck passes straight to him. In a lot of ways, Hernandez’s situation points to a bigger issue. If promotion doesn’t materialise and if Leeds are preparing for another Championship season, the squad as a whole needs to be better.
The squad around Hernandez needs more industry and consistency so that Leeds can make the most of his talent by using it in the circumstances where it’s right to rely on him. By doing that you make him an additional weapon. At the age of almost 33, that’s what I feel he needs to be.
But unless the standard of recruitment goes up spectacularly this summer, to the point where he’s not needed, he’s worth another deal. It’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.
He’s going over the brow of the hill, there’s no doubt about that, but in some ways that makes a footballer more diligent and committed. You train harder because you have to. You push yourself farther because otherwise younger players will try and leave you behind. And unless you really don’t give a toss, you try your best not to waste the precious seasons you’ve got left.
I’ve read many times about how Gordon Strachan, in his time at Leeds, used to train full pelt in every session. There was never any question in his mind of taking it easy or slacking off because the danger is that your attitude and passion goes the same way.
Hernandez probably thinks the same way and his presence at Leeds, to me, is very healthy. And the bottom line is that he still has something to offer. If he wants to stay then Leeds should tie up down – or give a good explanation for letting him go.
n Upcoming Sky-televised fixtures:
Tuesday: Birmingham City v Middlesbrough, 7.45pm.
Wednesday: Leeds United v Wolverhampton Wanderers, 7.45pm.