Sad sight of a great figure reaching forlornly for what used to be

When an ill-tempered filly booted Willie Carson in the stomach at Newbury last week, sending him 12 feet into the air and splitting his liver, people said that it was no sort of risk for a middle-aged man to be taking.

Probably, they are right, but try telling that to Carson. "So I'm going to be 54 in November. So what," you can imagine him saying.

Time waits for no athlete, and by his own marvellous standards - last season Carson brought in a century of winners for the 23rd time in 25 years - the total of 52 recorded before Meshed lashed out at him had already prompted thoughts of retirement.

That the splendid veteran might easily have lost his life in the Newbury parade ring adds greatly to the concern raised by a bad fall at Newmarket and quite startling errors in riding.

We can be sure, however, that any attempt to coax Carson out of the saddle would be an ear-burning experience. What we are talking about here is not so much a driven man as one trying to fend off the curse of anticlimax.

Carson knows that, no matter what the rest of his life holds, he will never find more joy than he has had from race riding. "There is nothing better in football than playing," Bill Shankly said.

In retirement, one of the greatest baseball players in history, Mickey Mantle, said: "I loved it. Nobody could have loved playing ball as much as me. The hair comes up on the back of my neck when I think about it. I get goose bumps. And I remember how it was and how I used to think that it would always be that way."

It passes so quickly, you see, the cheers like thunder, the dark devil's wine of fame. Then it's over and they can't believe it's done. Long after the performance, when the old players think seriously, they realize that they have become obsolete at an age when most men are moving towards their prime.

Better to hang on than step out too soon? Maybe, but the onset of nostalgia is inevitable. At the passing of an old footballer whose later life had been filled with memories of the long ago, someone wrote: "He didn't die this week. He died on the day he had to stop playing."

That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.

A E Housman

In their determination to hang on, some delude themselves. "If Danny Blanchflower is nearby when you get the ball, run past him," Matt Busby said to his players at Manchester United when it was obvious that the great career of Tottenham Hotspur's captain was almost over.

Blanchflower's brain was still sharp but he no longer had the legs. It turned out to be his last competitive match. "I think Tottenham acted prematurely," he said many years later. Pele was still strong and supple at 34 but, in 1974, he resisted the temptation of making a fifth appearance in World Cup finals. "Nobody loves football more," I remember him saying one night in Brazil, "but another World Cup is too much."

A couple of days after Ray Wilkins ceased to be the player-manager of Queen's Park Rangers, he turned out for Wycombe Wanderers. At 40 years old, Wilkins simply cannot give up playing. Stanley Matthews turned out for Stoke City at 50, Billy Meredith for Manchester United at the same age.

Last week, Graham Gooch, 43, was named batsman of the year. "Nothing much has changed," he said. "It's still me against the 11 guys who are trying to get me out."

The sadness in all this is when you see a great figure reaching forlornly for what used to be. Usually because of financial imperatives, it often happens in boxing. Terry Downes was once asked how it felt to defeat Sugar Ray Robinson, who is regarded as the greatest fighter, pound for pound, in history. "I didn't," Downes said. "I only beat some guy who called himself by that name." When Robinson lost to Downes, he was 43 and in serious financial difficulty.

Similar circumstances forced the former world lightweight champion, Ken Buchanan, to take a contest in London against an opponent he could once have beaten blindfolded. Buchanan lost on points. "Just one more time," he said in the dressing-room afterwards. "Just one more time."

Whether Carson chooses to continue may depend on the medical advice he is given. "I think that Willie's time has come," somebody who knows him well said this week. "He should give it up. But the tough little sod thinks probably that he can go on riding for ever."

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Furyon London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
News
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam