wed 17/07/2024

Sporting Heroes: After the Final Whistle, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Sporting Heroes: After the Final Whistle, BBC One

Sporting Heroes: After the Final Whistle, BBC One

Michael Vaughan asks where the validation comes from when no one's watching any more

If you can't do, commentate: Michael Vaughan meets John McEnroe

It’s a funny old game. Sport rewards the talented when they are young and their bodies responsive. A profession which requires the reflexes to work in instant harmony with the brain means that beyond a certain age, the gifted become instantly unemployable the moment they lose their magic powers. A case of they don’t think it’s all over: it is now.

Michael Vaughan, the England cricket captain whose body decided to retire before he did, embarked here on a thoughtful trawl through the sporting world to ask a poignant question: how do you cope when the crowd has stopped applauding, the accolades have stopped accumulating, the pay cheques stopped amassing?

In Vaughan’s case, and that of many others, if you can’t do, commentate. For tennis pros like John McEnroe – not that there is anyone exactly like McEnroe, an art dealer who is also Mr Patti Smyth – there is also the seniors’ circuit, where he is paid to recreate the very behaviour that once used to get him fined. Golfers, playing a sport which can be capricious in the way it schedules the waning of talent, keep the pros at the coalface for longer than other sports: Darren Clarke, already in his forties, was all set to move to the 19th hole for good when last year he won the British Open. He now has a free pass to compete there every year for something like perpetuity.

For sportsmen (and the interviewees were overwhelmingly not women), sport is a form of extended infancy

In the case of Gail Emms, the face of British badminton, you procreate. But for a lot of sportsmen who wave to the crowd for the last time, the distractions on offer to the rest of us aren’t enough. The rugby international Josh Lewsey has kicked the mud off his boots and moved to the trading floor, where the adrenalin levels, it seems, are the same. The only downside is you don’t get standing ovations from 80,000 people. Errol “Bomber” Graham, who used to swing punches for a living, recalled having “plenty of money and plenty of friends to go with the money”. The loans were never repaid when he retired, his terror of ordinary life never diminished and eventually he attempted to take his own life. “I had relieved a pressure cooker,” he explained, “and all the steam was flowing out.”

For another sweet scientist, the only way forward was back into the ring. Vaughan’s headline interview was with George Foreman, who - needing the money - contrived to regain his world heavyweight title carrying an irreducible wodge of extra timber round his midriff, presumably with help from his eponymous grill. “You have to be crazy to box in the first place,” he advised. “The sad thing about it is that craziness lingers on. We don't know when to quit. There’s always that one purse and that one punch that you think you can land always.” The ego has not yet landed. All five of his sons are called George.

There was an inevitable air of the sprint to this tour of the subject. Vaughan kept himself out of the picture rather more than his old England teammate Andrew Flintoff who recently looked into the subject of depression among sportsmen. We had a quick audience with Tony Adams, the big lump of the Arsenal back four who wrote a warts-and-all book about his alcohol addiction. As ever he talked with fluency about the path back from oblivion, but there is always the sense with Adams that he has learnt the lines of emotional intelligence from the 12-step programme. There was also a moving encounter with Matt Hampson, the remarkable former rugby player who was paralysed from the neck down by a scrummaging accident who nowadays coaches boys in scrummaging technique from a wheelchair.

But the interview that probably was most representative of the sporting mindset was with the bowler Matthew Hoggard, better known to England cricket followers as Shrek. Vaughan knows Hoggard well enough to know there’s no game plan for retirement. “At the end of the day he’s qualified to do nothing,” his wife complained to Vaughan. “None of you guys are.” Vaughan and Hoggard, old muckers from the great 2005 Ashes triumph, wandered through the countryside pondering the possibility that a sporting hero has zip to fall back on. “Maybe this chat will put the fear of God up me,” Shrek mused. “I could be stacking shelves in Morrisons if I don’t pull my finger out.” But it was clear he had no intention of doing any such thing. For sportsmen (and the interviewees were overwhelmingly not women), sport is a form of extended infancy, where every good action meets with exaggerated approbation. If you're good at it, no wonder no one wants to leave.

For a lot of sportsmen who wave to the crowd for the last time, the distractions on offer to the rest of us aren’t enough

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