Stan Hey: Don't envy Martin Johnson in his retirement

Media tart, management guru, coach - what lies ahead is a lesser life than his sport gave him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a Monday morning in mid-January. The rain is lashing down outside and gales are rattling the windows. You have just spent Sunday reading about how little recovery your pension funds have made despite the resurgence of the stock market. And now the first of the Christmas period credit-card statements arrives, running to an ominous three pages. On the radio, you hear that Martin Johnson, England's World Cup-winning rugby captain, is about to announce his retirement at the age of 33 and you can't help thinking to yourself, "lucky bastard".

Here's a man at the very summit of his career, feted by his countrymen, honoured by Queen and state, who can even boast a best-selling autobiography to complement his other achievements. And now he can step away from the game that provided his route to fame and wealth and coast through the rest of his life, while the rest of us slog on to 70, or whatever the new official retirement age will be.

Well let's just put that flush of envy to one side for a moment and consider the reality of the ending of a great sportsman's career. From the hundreds I've interviewed over my years as a sports writer, I can't remember one who found life after retirement as fulfilling as the life they had on the pitch, in the saddle, out on the track or in the boxing ring. Even becoming a coach or a commentator was only ever deemed the "next best thing", a course of methadone to kill the pain of a lost addiction.

Perhaps even more poignant are those who recognise the emptiness ahead and play on despite what their bodies are trying to tell them. Sensibly, Johnson seems to be steering a careful route away from this dangerous territory, one that will allow him to disengage from the high-octane arena of international rugby while achieving "decompression" by playing out this season for his club side, Leicester Tigers - they need him, having lost 33-0 to Ulster in the Heineken Cup on Sunday. This once dominant club is also languishing in the Premiership, a fact not unconnected with half the team having been on duty at the World Cup.

So Johnson can leave with no unfinished business in his in-tray - he owes the national team nothing, and his drive will surely lift the Tigers clear of relegation. But then what? He will certainly have any number of commercial opportunities available to him for several years. His six-foot seven frame and Neanderthal glare are said to be a bit of a turn-on for certain types of woman, so a bit of modelling or advertising is not as unlikely as it might seem for a man whose ears look as though they have been pounded with a steak-hammer.

It's also possible that Johnson could take the Vinnie Jones route, appearing as a heavy in films. He would also be a natural candidate for I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! - the epiphany chosen by the ex-cricketer Phil Tufnell - trapped on a tropical island with several basket cases from lifestyle television, baited by a pair of Geordie midgets. Mmm - maybe the showbiz route wouldn't be quite right for him after all.

He will be in demand for the after-dinner speaking circuit and could easily emulate his former colleague Will Carling, who branched out into the bizarre world of motivational courses for middle-management. Carling was groomed as a "thinking captain" - articulate, smartly-dressed, caddish good looks - and even undertook a speech at the Oxford Union to correct any possibility of being regarded as a "rugger thicko". The speech that I wrote for him seemed to do the job (although I never got the case of wine that was promised), and even before Carling retired from rugby he was fronting country hotel seminars on decision-making and leading team-building exercises for the David Brents of this world.

Johnson doesn't quite strike me as the type for this malarkey. His captaincy seems to have been elemental and instinctive. He may not know how to distil it into a five-grand-a-day discussion on "Exploiting the Spirit of the Scrum". He is much more likely to go into coaching, keeping a direct involvement with the game. He will also, doubtless, do a turn as a commentator on Sky Sports' coverage of American football, of which he is a big fan, although he's unlikely to follow the example of the former Scottish captain Gavin Hastings and actually play for a NFL Europe franchise.

So how impressive does this list of possibilities seem now? The roles of media tart, management guru, or coach to less-gifted players could never match the visceral excitement of leading your national team to the heights of achievement before an audience of millions. So don't envy Martin Johnson this morning, apart from the fact that he has earned the choice to retire on his own terms, at a time that suited him. What lies ahead of him, despite his exalted status, despite the money he will earn, is a lesser life than his sport gave him.

Stanhey@aol.com

Comments