Shuffling into Retirement

16th May 2021

In the UK, a restricted number of spectators are gradually being allowed back into stadia to watch the major sports events. 21,000 fans were permitted to attend yesterday’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Leicester City in the Wembley Stadium that seats 90,000. It is expected that some spectators – predominantly on a Members-only basis – will watch some county cricket next month. “Gradually” and “expected” are implicit caveats, of course: it all depends on the Covid-19 statistics being favourable. The original plans for 600 fans to be allowed into Hampden Park to watch the Scottish Cup final between Hibernian and St Johnstone next weekend have been quashed following the outbreak of the Indian variant of the virus in Glasgow.

It is a statement of the obvious that a spectator sport needs the presence of spectators – usually, the more, the better – in order that its full character can be presented and experienced. Over the last year, we might have watched a Premier League soccer game or a Super League rugby match or a Six Nations international on our television screen and admired the fully competitive nature of the encounter being played out in front of us – complete with sound effects, as appropriate – but, deep down, we probably recognise that, without the crowd of engaged spectators in attendance, it is not really the full shilling.

In this essay, the theme I wish to explore is the relationship that is often built up – over time – between a club’s spectators and an individual player and, as a consequence, the adverse effect that the requirements for dealing with Covid-19 have had on the acknowledgement of that relationship when it has come to an end. I am interested, in particular, in the examples of retirement from playing sport that have had to pass under the radar. I shall focus on two of the sports – cricket and rugby league – that should have had full seasons in the 2020 calendar year.

The new Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack’s review of Warwickshire’s 2020 season reports that “Ian Bell, Jeetan Patel and Tim Ambrose all shuffled into retirement without the farewell they deserved”. The threesome had played a total of over 850 first-class matches (including over 150 test matches) and, across all forms of the game, Bell alone had represented his county on no fewer than 383 occasions over 20 seasons.

Elsewhere, those who also “shuffled” away included non-test playing county stalwarts such as Paul Horton (218 first-class matches over 18 years, including 15 with Lancashire), Ollie Rayner (151 matches over 14 seasons, principally with Middlesex) and Graham Wagg (164 matches over 19 seasons, including 10 with Glamorgan)

This contrasted with what had been possible 12 months earlier. Following his announcement in June 2019 that he would retire from professional cricket at the end of that season, Marcus Trescothick made on final on-field appearance as a substitute fielder in the final few minutes of Somerset’s County Championship game against Essex at Taunton at the end of September. He was greeted with a standing ovation by the spectators and he left the field to a guard of honour from the opposition. Quite right too: it was a fitting tribute from those had watched him play over many years.

For some rugby league examples, I go back to the opening day of the 2020 Super League season and the Castleford Tigers vs Toronto Wolfpack and Hull FC vs Leeds Rhinos double header at Headingley (The Return of Sonny Bill”, 7th February, 2020). The eponymous Sonny Bill Williams (SBW) is one of those to have retired from the sport following the announcement that Toronto would not be able to fulfil last season’s fixture schedule and his subsequent return to Australia where he played a further five games for the Sydney Roosters. His retirement could hardly be described as “under the radar”, however, as it received widespread media coverage, including reports that he hoped to resume his professional boxing career.

The Toronto team at Headingley also fielded Jon Wilkin, who was in his second season with the club having previously played over 400 matches in his 16 years at St Helens. My summary of his side’s defeat (“One senses that more will be required from both SBW and Wilkin if Toronto are to hold their own at this level”) suggested – none too subtly, perhaps – that both players were somewhat off the pace in this game. Accordingly, it was no great surprise to me when Toronto’s demise prompted Wilkin’s retirement from playing although, unlike SBW’s, this was a relatively low-key affair, given his impressive club and international career. Jon Wilkin has made a successful transfer into the BBC commentary team, where he is an informative and media-friendly analyst.

The end of the 2020 season saw other high-profile retirements from British rugby league, including James Graham at St Helens, Sean O’Loughlin at Wigan and Gareth Ellis at Hull FC. For the first pair, the final match was the dramatic Grand Final at the KCOM stadium in Hull, which St Helens won in the dying seconds of the game, so there was a significant media send-off, even if the ground itself was largely unpopulated. O’Loughlin is – for the modern era – the unusual case, as all his 450-plus club appearances were for his home-town club. But, as with Jon Wilkin, none of these retirements – Williams, Graham, et al – were major surprises, as the players were in their mid-thirties (apart from Ellis, who was 39).

It was a different story with one of the Leeds Rhinos team in the second match of the Headingley double-header – Stevie Ward – who left the field with concussion after half an hour. It was his last appearance on the rugby field, as 11 months later, in January this year, he announced that, due to the injury, he would be retiring at the age of 27. Ward had been a feature on the Rhinos scene for almost a decade – he had made his debut for the club as a teenager in 2012 – and, notwithstanding a series of injuries, had racked up over 130 appearances.

Retirements can be for many reasons, of course, of which age and injury are the most common. The point here is that, prior to the imposition of the Covid-19 restrictions on attendance, spectators had a known view of the playing universe – of who the participants were and which teams they represented. By contrast, when we (eventually) enter the post-restrictive “new normal” of watching live sport, a number of constituents of that universe will have been permanently removed. There will be a new “now” which will be devoid of some of the participants of the previous “then”, whose departures we will only be able to mark long after they occurred.

It might be noted that it’s not only retirement that will have been affected by Covid-19 in this way. In June last year, Tim Bresnan left Yorkshire CCC – for whom he had first played as an 18 year-old in 2003 – to join Warwickshire. He was a player regarded with great affection by the Yorkshire members and – as evident in many of the comments on the White Rose Forum supporters website – there was considerable disappointment that the absence of a traditional full-length season meant there was no occasion on which this could have been acknowledged publicly.

In the meantime – it is pleasing to know – that are some for whom the concept of retirement means something to be put on (semi)-permanent hold. In September 2019 – with his Kent career apparently approaching its termination – the then 43 year-old Darren Stevens scored 237 and took five second innings Yorkshire wickets in his county’s huge championship win at Headingley. Last year, Stevens followed this up by easily being Kent’s leading wicket taker – with 29 in 5 matches – in the truncated first-class programme. He duly opened his 2021 account with a century against Northamptonshire in the first championship match.

I do respect Darren Stevens’s robust Augustinian approach to retirement: ie not just yet. When it does eventually come, I hope his many admirers are able to acknowledge it in the traditional ways.

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