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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
ESPN footage showed a split-screen Murray’s partner Kim Sears and Berdych’s partner Ester Satorova 'sporting' their jewellery
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee