IT was 25 years ago that Alan Hansen declared “you can’t win anything with kids”, in reference to Manchester United’s team of youngsters.

Of course, Fergie’s Fledglings resoundingly proved Hansen wrong, going  on to win the Premier League that season.

As the years have gone by though, there has been a shift in mindset when it comes to elite sport – now youth, and excelling at a young age, is seen as a vital quality when it comes to succeeding.

There are, of course, usually signs early on that an athlete is headed for the top. But there seems now to be a lack of flexibility when it comes to supporting athletes who may develop outwith the preferred timescale, which includes achieving success sooner rather than later.  

It is this cut-throat attitude that Beth Potter is battling, and succeeding against all odds.

Potter made her name as a track-and-field athlete, representing Scotland in the 2014 Commonwealth Games at the 5000m and 10,000m before making her Olympic debut in Rio two years later.

However, the following year, having just turned 26, Potter announced she was switching to triathlon. It was quite a challenge, but Potter has never been one to run scared from one of those.

It wasn’t long before her switch of sport began to pay dividends; just two years after dipping her toe into triathlon, Potter became European champion. It was a fantastic  achievement, and one which, for most, vindicated her decision.

However, for those holding the purse strings in triathlon, there was an issue – Potter’s age. The Scot was 27 when she became European champion and as she approached her 28th birthday, was told she would no longer receive funding due, in part, to her advancing years.

For many, such a blow would have proved decisive but Potter is nothing if not resilient. And her tenacity was rewarded last weekend with a quite remarkable result; with no bike sponsor and little financial support, Potter won her maiden World Cup title in the Valencia World Cup.

It was a major victory, and was all the more impressive bearing in mind she defeated Olympic gold and silver medallist Nicola Spirig to the top step of the podium.

Such a result calls into question the decision not to support Potter.

Yes, the Glaswegian is older than many triathletes to win her first World Cup. But the fact she has only been competing in the sport for two years makes her age almost irrelevant, particularly considering she is still in her 20s which, for an endurance athlete, is positively youthful.

There is, however, this obsession in sport with age that if you haven’t made it by your mid-20s, or sometimes even younger, you will never make it.

That Potter is older than some of her rivals – although it should be noted that Spirig, is 38 – is surely far less important than the fact she is improving at an astonishing pace.

Potter’s disadvantage is the fact she is from a country which has an abundance of elite female triathletes. GB boasts the world No. 2, 3, 7 and 12 so if the Scot is to force her way to the top of the sport in this country, she will truly be on top of the world. 

But it seems grossly unfair to deem her too old to make an impact in her sport, particularly when she is achieving so much through her own talent and determination.

Potter’s story made me think of the sad tale of footballer Jeremy Wisten, the Manchester City youth player who last month took his own life aged just 18 having been recently dropped from the English club’s academy programme.

His story is an extreme one, but it is not uncommon for everything to be ploughed into an athlete who shows promise at a young age, only for it to be whipped away when it is decided they have not fulfilled their potential, or reached a sufficiently high level by a certain age.

Elite sport is a brutal business and no one who is involved would suggest otherwise. But there also has to be an appreciation that age is, sometimes, nothing more than a number and every athlete will develop at their own rate. 

In Potter’s case, that she is 28 should be deemed almost irrelevant when taking into consideration she is still a novice in the sport.

She herself is scathing about her swimming, a sport in which she had almost no experience before switching to triathlon, and she freely admits her scope for improvement in the pool is vast.

So for Potter to have won a World Cup with so little experience under her belt surely says more about her potential than the fact she is approaching 30.

There is, of course, not a bottomless pit of money and athletes cannot, and do not, expect to be supported indefinitely. But there are so many factors that come into play in turning a promising youngster into a world-class athlete, with age playing only a tiny part. For every Tiger Woods who sets records for excelling when very young, there is a Roger Federer who took much longer to rise to the very top.

There cannot, and should not, be one hard and fast rule. Potter’s case is the perfect example of why age can often be an irrelevance in sport.