When a man's got to go . . .

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The Independent Online
I WAS only away for a few days, but when I came back, everyone had retired. First Ian Botham decided to throw in the towel, to give his ageing frame a long deserved rest and, come December, to play a prominent role in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Bletchley Hippodrome (seats now bookable). Then Brian Clough, after the sort of season that makes you wonder whether it's all worth it, evidently decided that it wasn't all worth it, and announced that he too would be taking the pipe and slippers option. To cap it all, I read yesterday that this season will also be the last for my favourite sportsman of all time, Derek Randall, who has presumably had it up to here with being called 'impish' and 'irrepressible'. Meanwhile, the career of the referee in Wednesday's England-Netherlands match continues without interruption, despite what now appear to be irreparable eyesight problems. Life is brutal and unjust.

Knowing when to go, however, is a vital skill for any aspiring immortal. Far better to retire than be put out to grass, let alone sent to the knacker's yard, as could yet be Bryan Robson's fate. For the professional sportsman, a well- judged retirement can be the difference between (a) eternal glory and public adoration, and (b) running a pub in Torquay. Stay too long and obscurity is yours. Duck out at the top, and those invitations to appear on Celebrity Squares will keep on coming. Timing, as always in sport, is everything.

Of course you can go too far. One long-serving stalwart of the Captain Scott Invitation XI announced some years ago that to play cricket after the age of 30 was 'an abomination', and that he would be retiring before that age to spend his leisure time on more improving activities. And this, to general astonishment, he did. He has never played again. Some ungenerous observers pointed out that his final season's batting average (2.8) and bowling average (50.6) showed a small decline over previous seasons, but I have no doubt that this was purely coincidental.

So when to go? For the professionals, the uninhibited attitudes of the tabloid newspapers provide as reliable a guide as any. For managers, retirement should be seriously considered when the tabs start showing photos of you looking young and vibrant in 1975 next to a recent photo of you looking like an old wino. As every blotch and puffy eyebag become the subject of public scrutiny, it becomes only a matter of time before the chairman comes forward to express his complete confidence in you. For players, the use in the press of words like 'veteran', 'ageless' and 'timelord' tend to imply that your best days are behind you. Phrases like 'injury-prone' and 'dodgy knees' sow doubt into even the most sympathetic minds.

And once you've decided to go, you have to do it properly. Complaining jocularly on television about your knees is perfectly acceptable, although admitting that you can't run up the stairs without medical attention is less wise. Saying you don't feel a day over 30 when you don't look a day under 70 will not convince anyone. Best of all, dye your temples grey and get transferred to some cushy club in Japan for millions of pounds. Get out while the cash is still flowing.

Clough and Botham have probably left it a little late, but at least they're going before they begin to look really stupid. The crucial thing to remember is not to retire too many times, like Frank Sinatra. After a while, people stop paying attention, and you have to get a job driving Indycars. Now that would be a tragic fate . . .