Aaron Wilbraham: Rochdale's 'father figure' on his life in football

Aaron Wilbraham has little issue with playing the father figure at his current club Rochdale.

The 40-year-old has enjoyed a long career in football that began when he made his debut for Stockport in 1997. He had to wait just two weeks for his first goal, scoring early on in a 4-1 defeat to Manchester City - the club he supported as a boy.

Some 23 years later, he's still playing football and still among the goals. In fact, his equaliser against Newcastle in their FA Cup third round meeting at the beginning of January put him among an exclusive group of players to have scored in four different decades.

"I wasn't aware of it at all," he told Sporting Life on a bitterly cold Monday morning at Rochdale's training ground.

"When I heard it, it didn't really make sense and then I realised that I scored on my debut in '98, then the '00s, '10s and the '20s.

"It was crazy when I started hearing that fact after the game. People started messaging me - it's madness.

"I think (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic did it on Saturday, a week later, so yeah, crazy.

"Wilbrahimovic beat Ibrahimovic by a week!"

Aaron Wilbraham's goal against Newcastle was a landmark moment

Wilbraham is the oldest player to appear in the top three tiers of English football this season. Only Kevin Ellison and Dannie Bulman, both plying their trade in Sky Bet League Two, can top the Rochdale striker in that particular chart.

"I can stay current with the young lads," he said. "I've got a younger brother and nephew who are 24 and 25 so I've always been good at staying younger."

So much so that Wilbraham has claimed pre-match DJ duties. "Me and Calvin Andrew do it," he confirmed. "We swap it between us."

The Dale veteran is happy to provide the balance though, from being one of the lads in the squad to stepping into the experienced head role when needed.

"I am a similar age to a lot of the lads' mums and dads," Wilbraham claims. "So sometimes I have to play that father figure as well.

"I enjoy both roles. I can mix it up and be one of the lads but I can be that father figure if people need advice.

"I get phone calls off the lads for different bits of advice on certain things because I've been in a lot of positions in my career.

"They know that and they know I'll keep stuff to myself if they need a bit of advice on things.

"I like being that father figure to be fair. I've been nicknamed Peter Pan for a few years.

"I don't really act my age as well but when they need me to be serious and be that father figure I can definitely do that."

While others have elected to hang up their boots, Wilbraham continues to produce moments that hit the headlines.

In May 2018, at the age of 38, he scored the goal that kept Bolton in the Sky Bet Championship as they beat Nottingham Forest 3-2.

Wanderers found themselves 2-1 down in the 86th minute before David Wheater's goal and Wilbraham's header a minute later secured their survival.

"I think it's the hunger to not want to stop and not to get too comfortable really," he explained.

"Once you get past the age of 33 or 34 you don't really get offered more than a year contract but even in the past before that if I signed a three- or four-year deal I'd never get too comfortable.

"I'd always fight to improve, I've always done my gym stuff and I've never wasted a minute really.

"I think it's more the hunger to be competitive and not want to stop playing."

Although that goal for Bolton helped them avoid relegation, Wilbraham has plenty of experience fighting it out at the other end of the table.

He's secured promotion from every level of the Football League pyramid, reaching the Premier League with Norwich and Crystal Palace while also moving up divisions with Bristol City, Hull and MK Dons.

He could consider himself an expert in the field, in fact. Yet, despite some crucial goals along the way, Wilbraham points to the collective rather than the individual.

"The most important thing is togetherness and team spirit," he added.

"Look at all the promotions I've had. I think apart from Bristol City, where we did have a strong squad, all the others we weren't favourites to go up.

"We had a great togetherness and we got the momentum going.

"Once you start winning it breeds confidence throughout the squad and you want to get on a roll and keep going."

Aaron Wilbraham celebrates promotion with Crystal Palace

Those that guided him during these times of prosperity have left a lasting impression on the forward.

"Paul Lambert signed me for Norwich and we ended up going to the Premier League and he gave me my chance.

"It was just how good he was with the lads. He had the right mix between being a mate to them but also knowing when it's time to train and it's serious. He had a great mix and definitely had a big influence on me.

"People like Martin Allen at MK Dons had a big influence as well. He showed me how to be a person really.

"Then there was Steve Cotterill at Bristol City when I signed there at 34 years of age - he got the best out of me.

"I had a 21-goal season. He was massively intelligent with his tactical awareness.

"There have been lots of managers and lots of good managers. I've had Peter Taylor, who was the England manager at one point as well.

"Even Brian Barry-Murphy now. He's (just) a year older than me but shown me how much he has got at a young age. He's shown what a great manager he is and what he's going to be in the future."

Despite a career that has taken him to all ends of the country, with a stint in Norway too, and his advancing years, it's clear that Wilbraham has little intention of bringing an end to his playing days anytime soon.

"If I ever get to the stage where I don't feel that I can train every day or I don't feel I can compete when I do play then it's time to start looking at ending your career.

"But at the moment I still train every day. I'm still disappointed if the manager leaves me out of the team so I've got that hunger still.

"As long as I can keep doing that, keep performing and keep being a part of the squad then I'll just keep going as long as I can.

"I'll see how I feel at the end of each season. If I feel that I can keep going then I'll keep going.

"The boys are telling me I've got to get to 42 so I suppose that's the target."

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