Knowing When To Go


If you read the headline and thought this might be about potty training, or jumping out of your seat a minute before half-time to avoid queuing in the gents, you’ll be disappointed. Today’s subject is sportsmen and retirement. Age withers us all (apart from Cleopatra obviously) and there’s nothing sadder than seeing a once great sportsman cling on to the very end, a shadow of their former selves, collecting their pay cheques but soiling their legacy.

Of course, there are occasions when remarkable longevity makes a great player even greater. Ryan Giggs played on after his fortieth birthday and was loved for it. He was sensible enough to play only occasionally and look after his body. Most importantly though, he was still pretty good in his dotage; Giggs was worth keeping around as a wise old head and a useful substitute.

The longevity of Jerry Rice, arguably the best NFL player of all time, also enhanced his greatness. Many wide receivers are washed up by their thirtieth birthday, but Rice played into his 40s. He obviously lost some speed but his skills and instincts endured. He caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards as a 40 year old, scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl, and was named to the Pro Bowl – an event for the top players in each position. It’s like a footballer being named in the PFA team of the year … even though they’re a decade older than most of their peers.

Giggs and Rice are probably the exceptions rather than the rule, however. Even the great Sachin Tendulkar played for two years too long (in my opinion). The wait for his one hundredth hundred was painful. Sachin was a wonderful player and an all-round good egg but his powers had clearly diminished by the end. It’s no surprise he reached his famous landmark against minnows Bangladesh.

When I’m asked whether I’m a Lara lover or a Tendulkar man, I invariably say the former. Lara quit at just about the right time; I only have memories of him at his very best. The last year of Tendulkar’s career spoiled things a tad. How sad that a great player struggled for so long. It’s a sorry image I can’t get out of my head.

Ian Botham was another fantastic sportsman who could’ve retired earlier. Although part of Beefy’s greatness stemmed from his larger-than-life personality – and therefore the sight of him trundling in to bowl with a wobbling gut enhanced his cult status somewhat – the Botham who played for Durham was a far cry from the golden child who excelled for Somerset and bashed the Aussies.

Mike Tyson, who has just released a fascinating autobiography, is another interesting example. The difference between the young Tyson, who was an intimidating and irresistible juggernaut, and the washed up Tyson who bit people’s ears and lost to Danny Williams, was striking. I guess he just needed the money or didn’t know what else to do with his life.

I’ve often wondered why sportsmen go on too long. I’m convinced it’s nothing to do with ego – at least not universally so. Although some stars play on precisely because of their ego (refusing to accept they’re no longer ‘great’) others carry on because of a complete absence of ego: they don’t care about their legacy and just want to keep doing something they love for as long as they can, for as long as they’re wanted.

Other sportsmen carry on due to insecurity: a fear of what comes next. Jonny Wilkinson has been extremely candid about his mental health since retiring from rugby. Poor Jonny misses the team environment, feels as though he’s lost his identity, and doesn’t know what to do with his life. As someone who started playing international rugby at such a tender age, he doesn’t know anything else. One hopes he can find some inner peace in his new life. TV punditry probably doesn’t fill enough hours.

The aforementioned Jerry Rice was also fearful of retirement. He needed extreme competition in his life. He was a workaholic, known for practicing the week after Super Bowl victories, who needed the focus and drive that professional sport gave him – that total dedication to achieving shared goals.

When Rice finally realised, as he rapidly approached his 43rd birthday, that his body wouldn’t allow him to compete anymore, he immediately appeared on Dancing With The Stars, the US equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing. He just needed another competitive goal. Call him an addict.

Two prominent sportsmen currently contemplating retirement are Mitchell Johnson, the Aussie fast bowler and Freddie Mercury lookalike, and the Denver Broncos’ Payton Manning. One looks likely to hang up his boots with immediate effect, while the other keeps plugging away – even though he’s way past his best – desperately hoping for one final shot at glory. What a shame that fairy tale endings happen so infrequently.

Before the current test between Australia and New Zealand at Perth, Mitch admitted he was contemplating retirement ‘most days’ but still enjoys playing. This set alarm bells ringing. Former players often say it’s impossible to give your absolute all, and perform at the peak of one’s abilities, unless the mind is 100% committed. After taking just 1-131 in 24 overs in the Kiwis’ first innings, the temptation to retire will be that little bit stronger.

Johnson was always an imperfect cricketer: fearsome and almost unplayable at this best, but comically poor at his worst. He’s enjoyed a remarkable international renaissance since the 2013/14 Ashes. It would be a shame if cricket followers remembered him for the lean times rather than his destructive best. Maybe it’s time for Mitch to hang up his long spikes while he’s still in credit? I’m sure there’s a Queen tribute band out there that needs a new lead singer.

If Mitch needs any encouragement, he need look no further than the mixed emotions experienced by Payton Manning last night: the great NFL quarterback, now 39, finally broke There’s Something About Mary star Brett Favre’s record for the most passing yards in NFL history. Overall though, he endured a torrid night: Manning completed just five out of twenty passes, for just 35 yards, and threw four ugly interceptions – some of which highlighted his alarming loss of arm strength. He was benched (substituted) during the third quarter of his team’s loss to Kansas City.

What should have been one of the greatest nights of Manning’s life turned into the mother of all disasters. A champion player like Payton deserved much better. But when one carries on past one’s prime, after age and injuries have corroded one’s abilities, you’re asking for trouble. Big trouble.

Manning’s head coach, Gary Kubiak, said after the game that Payton will keep playing as long as he enjoys the daily grind and could help his team. But is Manning best placed to know whether he’s actually helping? The crowd cheered when he was substituted. Maybe Kubiak will have to make the decision for him – the ultimate sign that one has played too long.

Although great players deserve to go out on their own terms, there’s no room for sentiment in professional sport. It’s better to bow out when people ask ‘why’ you’re calling it a day rather than ‘when’. Or so the saying goes …

But consider this: if you’re still capable of helping your teammates when you walk away, aren’t you leaving them in the lurch to some extent? Aren’t you putting your welfare, or ego, above the team’s needs? Is this what a true sportsman, or a true team-man, would do?

Perhaps a true pro soldiers on until he or she is no longer useful. Even if, in doing so, the timing of their departure is ultimately taken out of their hands. It’s sad when this happens. It might even be portrayed as stubborn or deluded. But it’s also admirably selfless. There has to be honour in that, surely?

James Morgan

PS I’d love to hear your views on this. Which sportsmen do you think retired too late or too early? Is it better to go out at the top and leave the public wanting more? There’s always the possibility of a glorious comeback 😉


  1. Philip Chapman on

    Impressed you got through this article without mentioning Ian Bell and Graeme Swann!

    It is always tough to know when to stop if you are still functioning as a sportsman – look at Sangakarra and Mike Hussey – both stepped away when still doing really well.

    • Yes, I should’ve mentioned that dropping out of a tour when your team is already 0-3 down and facing a hammering probably isn’t the best idea 😉

  2. I have always thought the general public and press have a romantic ideal of ‘going out at the top’ which doesn’t fit with the professional mindset. If you have fought for years to get to the summit of your sport making personal sacrifices, why wouldn’t you want to maximise your enjoyment and earnings whilst you can even if your performances start to slip.

    • I’m coming round to that way of thinking too. The exception would be boxing, where declining powers could lead directly to injury. But still, it’s personal choice for each athlete.

  3. I really enjoyed this article James. Knowing when to go can so often be the dilemma of a life time! Final goodbyes are often both difficult and sad.

    I agree with Philip above. Sanga did it perfectly. He is the epitome of style and grace in everything he does. His timing could not be faulted. Still playing beautifully, still the Sanga we have always known and happily we will always remember him that way.

    I never understand those who criticise Graeme Swann for leaving when he did. Due to injury and what was obviously unsuccessful surgery, he found he could no longer spin the ball. He was being carted all over the place. An embarrassment.

    Apart from the chagrin he was absolutely no use, whatsoever to the England team, so he left. No point in hanging around, being ineffective if not damaging, while still being paid for it. He took the correct decision.

    The only problem being that he knew before the tour that his elbow was not right and he went ahead with it assuming that it would be all right on the night. Which it wasn’t.

    Ian Bell is a problem. Is it that he is not the player he was and he is hanging in there by a thread or is it simply a long run of poor and indifferent form?He could come back and we need him. He has mentioned retirement and generally once that has happened it’s time to go. I suspect he might be privately asked to stay.

    Unless the arms and legs are getting tired and running for the ball is getting harder and harder, knowing the right time to retire must be very difficult. There are so many things with which to come to terms. Not being able to do the things you once did at a reasonably young age, missing the life and the companionship and an uncertain future.

    The one thing about being injured is that the decision is taken for you all be it perhaps equally sad.

    It’s tough at the top.

    • It must be weird for guys like Marcus Trescothick, who retired from internationals at a relatively young age yet continued to play at domestic level very effectively. I wonder how much he missed the big time?

      • Things were so different for Marcus Trescothick. His unhappiness at touring and being away from home probably superseded anything he might have missed of being at the big time. His troubles reoccurred even when Somerset played abroad. A wonderful player. A loss to England but he is probably much happier in the domestic set up and that’s what counts. His book is unfortunately sitting on my unread pile! I must get to it.

  4. Johnson actually bowled pretty well in the first game against the Kiwis, particularly in the first innings (where he looked the best of the Australian bowlers to me). But for a simple dropped catch at slip he would have had a couple of overs at the tailenders when bowling with some fire, and his 3-60 then, which would have been 4-60, could readily have turned into something like 5-70 rather than the eventual 3-100. Sadly he’s been very ordinary in Perth (on an absurdly flat wicket and against 2 very good players playing very well indeed), down on pace, the accustomed inconsistency still there and not giving any indication he’s got any idea what to do about it. Looking very like thanks for the memories.

    Jacques Kallis probably timed his retirement reasonably well – great, great player starting to be on the slide. Could have hung on to gather a few more stats but probably recognised he didn’t quite have it to be right at the top any more.

  5. Pete Cresswell on

    Well Mitch has officially given it away.

    A couple of guys who’ve probably gotten the timing dead right are Dan Carter and Richie McCaw (assuming Richie retires tomorrow as everyone expects), while some of their abilities were clearly on the wane over the last year or 2 both still had enough leadership to compensate, and performed on one last big stage when it counted.

    An interesting read here by Carter’s ghost writer too

    • Did he not like that. I think Lineker was retiring due to a longstanding toe injury though. Is that right? Memory is a little hazy. Didn’t he retire at 31 or 32?

  6. I think there are a few different cases.

    If we take someone like Ian Bell, then the “egoless” position is to keep playing as long as the coach/selectors will pick you. And as good as Mitchell Johnson is, that’s probably where he is too. (Of course, if you know your body can’t do the business any more, that’s another egoless reason to retire – the selectors relie on your judgement in that regard.)

    The problem comes with someone like Tendulkar where you are basically bigger than the selectors. Where they aren’t going to ditch you unless you are truly awful. Then there’s a bit of a decision to make. Probably all the more so in a game like cricket which is so individual. In football (or US football) experience can make up for physical deterioration and your presence and aura can make a difference to the team. As a batsman, not so much.

    Mind you in his last year, while he didn’t perform to his heights, it’s only the series against England that you’d say he wasn’t doing a job for the teaming Tests.

  7. Excellent piece James.
    I tweeted this morning that I was looking forward to the silence from all the idiots who criticised Swann for retiring mid-series and wouldn’t do the same for Johnson. And I was right. Both players had earned the right to retire on their own terms and if that’s in the middle of a series then so be it. Once the fire is gone, or the tank is empty, there’s no going back. If you’ve been the very best and you know you can’t be any more, why hang around? I think there’s a certain integrity in that decision.
    But obviously not every player sees it that way, and that’s fine. I don’t think there’s any right and wrong in this. What I will say is that if anyone does stay beyond their use-by date, the blame for that lies with selectors for not doing their job and giving whoever it is the tap on the shoulder.
    As a Broncos fan I’m well versed in the Manning case and it’s a difficult one. Since Sunday’s game it’s been revealed that he has been suffering from sore ribs and plantar fasciitis – both of which would mean he could neither plant his feet, nor rotate his body through throws correctly. And those mechanics become much more important as your arm strength declines.
    So he really shouldn’t gave been playing and Head Coach Gary Kubiak admitted that after the game. He won’t play this week and if the Broncos know what’s good for them, they will rest him for the next month to get him ready for the playoffs. Giving him another month to adapt to Kubiak’s ridiculous decision to install a new offense in Manning’s final season won’t do any harm either.
    The team is good enough to win a Super Bowl given even serviceable play from the QB and on that basis I think bringing back Manning was worth a punt. But it’s been badly handled by Kubiak, who should have planned periodic rest and recovery for Manning, and waited another season to redesign the offense. If he wasn’t prepared to do those things then Manning should have been quietly told to retire.
    But so what if Manning (or Tendulkar) stay too long? They’ve earned the right to do that as all time greats of the game. When I look back on their careers, the year that they overstayed will be an irrelevant footnote.

    • You can’t seriously be comparing Swanns retirement with MJs! Swanns exit was selfish and massively ego driven! He could have dropped himself for the final two tests and hung in there for the team but no,just a rat who deserted when experience needed most. He would have hung in there if England were 3-0 and his average wasn’t threatened! Completely different circumstances to Johnston’s retirement

  8. Warne got it right as did McGrath and most of that Australian team.
    James, I’d like to see a post on those who had their careers ended too early by poor selection etc. I’m thinking of Gower here whose career was ended by Gooch. Plenty of other sportsman who should have played on but did not due to politics, selectors, management and so on.
    Great read though.

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