Garath McCleary interview: Wycombe winger on impressing at 35, managing chronic pain and postponing retirement plans | Football News

A typical football career is so short that any outfield player still playing regularly into their mid-30s deserves recognition.

As does holding down a starting spot and delivering goals and assists in abundance in the twilight of a career, perhaps even more so.

Step forward, Garath McCleary.

The 35-year-old winger has been a key figure at Wycombe ever since he joined the Buckinghamshire club as a free agent in November 2020 and, after contributing 11 goals and seven assists in 45 League One games in 2021/22, has already scored four and assisted another four in 19 outings this season.

The numbers are encouraging, particularly given that, with another 24 league games still to play, he could well shatter his return from the previous campaign.

But, equally, they could be seen as representing par for the course for McCleary, who has taken ownership of the processes and practices required to sustain his output at an elite level.

“The gaffer [Gareth Ainsworth] has been brilliant for me in terms of not going off age and going off what I’m doing in training,” he says in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports.

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Here are the nominees for the Sky Bet League One Goals of the Month award for November.

“My physical output has been pretty much the same when I was a bit younger, so there’s not been masses of changes, but it’s something I’ve worked on in terms of looking for the extra per cent, whether that’s with diet or gym programmes I’ve been doing.

“I’m not going to say I’m teetotal and I don’t have the occasional cheat day, but those days are few and far between compared to when I was a bit younger. I do know my body a lot better and I have looked more into nutrition now than ever before.

“It’s something that you learn with age and it’s something that I’ve tried to help the younger players here with trying to find their peak now instead of trying to look for it when they are older.

“I know that you do lose a bit when you get older, but the more you put in, the more you get out, so I have been doing a lot to keep the performances up. I’ll be honest, though, I feel like I could have done a bit more.”

McCleary has eight goal involvements in 19 League One games so far this season

On November 4, McCleary posted a video on Instagram of himself in the gym, accompanied by the caption: “11+ years of quadricep tendon pain, my go to for years was pain killers. Consistency is key.”

This term, he has been aided by a routine that has limited the chronic pain significantly.

“I still get the odd pain, but it’s being able to manage it,” he explains. “For years, I was on anti-inflammatories, but this whole season, I’ve not actually taken any at all.

“I have a gym programme that the physios here have been able to muster up for me and it’s just the due diligence to do it every day or every other day and do as much as I can. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to come to a place where they’ve been able to manage it and I’ve been able to play games with less pain than I did when I was younger.

“But when the weather gets colder, that’s when I notice that the pain is more evident, so I probably do need to play in a hot country at some point!”

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League One clash between Wycombe Wanderers and Ipswich Town

It has been quite the turnaround for McCleary, who admits he was considering retirement when an eight-year spell at Reading came to an end in the summer of 2020.

Not only has he carried on for two years and one month since first signing for the Chairboys, it appears the idea of quitting has left his mind altogether for the time being. Having seen former team-mates Adebayo Akinfenwa and Jobi McAnuff – as well as manager Gareth Ainsworth – continue past their 40th birthdays, he has the inspiration he needs.

“Bayo had his injuries and I saw how he got through them; there would be games where he was in so much pain, but he was getting through it,” he adds.

“Jobi was definitely one of the best captains I’ve had. Seeing how he did and how he excelled when he played up until 40, is definitely something I will take and look at and think that if they can do it, then I can potentially do it as well.

“The gaffer played until he was 41 as well, so I’ve told him that I’m definitely going to be trying to compete with that and trying to get to that stage as well!

“I’m still quick, but I’m not probably as quick as I was, so you have to be able to read the game a bit more. I’ve been playing in a lot more different positions as well, so I’ve played up front, in the No 10, in midfield, either wing. That has maybe come with age, as well as with trust and understanding from the gaffer.”

The 35-year-old has joked with Wycombe boss Gareth Ainsworth that he will rival his retirement age of 41

Wycombe are seventh in League One going into the Boxing Day visit of Bristol Rovers to Adams Park, two points outside the play-offs, which do not invoke happy memories after last season’s final defeat to Sunderland – McCleary’s third career defeat at Wembley. “Where we are in the table doesn’t reflect where we want to be,” he says.

At this stage, talks of finishing in the top six again are premature, as the Chairboys are not even yet at the halfway mark. But McCleary is happy to admit he would like another crack at the Championship – he did play in the division for 11 seasons with Nottingham Forest and Reading, after all.

“I’d like to get back there, 100 per cent, though I don’t know if there are any 36-year-old wingers in the Championship!

“To do it with Wycombe would be brilliant for me, the gaffer and the fans who didn’t get to see us play in the Championship during the Covid year. Just to be back there at my age would be something of an achievement.”

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