A few hours after Michael Vaughan had shed tears as he announced he was giving up the England captaincy, he was celebrating at a family barbecue. So which was the real Michael Vaughan? We are in a room at the basement of BBC Television Centre talking about his documentary, Sporting Heroes: After the Final Whistle, for which he has interviewed famous athletes coping with retirement. For Vaughan the tears that fell during his August 2008 press conference did not represent fear of life after his sporting career was over. They were an unplanned reaction to a very different feeling.
“As I walked in, I screwed up my script. I thought, ‘I’m going to speak from the heart and see what comes out.’ I didn’t expect to cry, but the tears came. The room was full of guys I’d been talking to for six years as captain. I knew then that, as much as I was trying to put this spin on it that I was going to come back as a batsman, I wouldn’t play for England again. That hurt me most because that’s what I played cricket for.”
While Vaughan played another year for Yorkshire before his final retirement in 2009, he never did play again for his country.
But however wonderful an experience the captaincy was – “like no other in sport,” he says – Vaughan confesses it imposed a heavy burden on him. “You have to put on a show, be this diplomat. When I was driven away from that press conference, the tears dried and I had a family barbecue and celebrated. Much as I was emotional, I realised I could start being me again. I could say pretty much what I wanted. I was very fortunate to be a successful England captain and I had many opportunities. I was one of the lucky ones who’d called time on their career. I wasn’t shoved.”
This wasn’t quite the impression Vaughan gave when the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew asked him about his poor form just before that press conference. When I remind Vaughan of his testy response to Agnew’s question he laughs and says, “That got blown out. It may have come across that I was having a dig at him, but I was just having a bit of fun. My game wasn’t in great order and the team needed new direction.”
Vaughan had carried on playing after a major knee operation in 2006, even though his surgeon had warned him he would struggle. “I had this inner fight to prove him wrong,” says Vaughan. “But one thing I never wanted to do was stay on too long. Then you end up getting remembered for your last year. Duncan Fletcher as a coach kept on a little bit too long, unfortunately, and he got remembered for some bad times when he’d done six or seven years of great stuff.
But even if you get the timing right, retirement does produce a sense of loss, as Vaughan found when he spoke to his chosen sportsmen and women. “Everyone who is retired goes through a mourning stage. It is like a bereavement. It takes time to understand what you’ve given up.
“The majority of the people I interviewed were successful and retired on their own terms. If you’ve got the best out of yourself, even if like myself you retired through injury, you go through that mourning, but you don’t have the bitterness.”
You still need to prepare. Even the great Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar, says Vaughan, must be thinking, “‘What am I going to do?’ He probably has £100 million in the bank, but he’s still got to fill his days.”
The trick, Vaughan says, is not to try to replicate the sporting experience. “You’re never going to get the buzz of playing. Going out in front of 30,000 people and scoring a hundred, that’s never going to be replaced. People who try to get that feeling struggle. Take yourself out of your comfort zone. To become a businessperson, a charity worker, a broadcaster, you’re challenging yourself and it should be more rewarding.”
If the retired athlete can do that, adds Vaughan, “You won’t get the buzz of the applause, but you’ll get home at night and you’ve made a programme or done a business deal or helped some charity to build a project. You’ll get a nice feel-good factor.”
For Vaughan, this feel-good factor has come from going into business: “It requires communications and leadership, as in cricket,” he says of his new career sifting through spreadsheets on the boards of sports-related companies and a tailoring business.
It has also come from his broadcasting work, though he’s had moments he’d rather forget. This was painfully illustrated when Vaughan interviewed Tiger Woods at the Augusta Masters and referred to Woods having won three green jackets. “Four,” Woods corrected him. Vaughan brushes aside that embarrassment, saying, “I was misinformed. It was blown out of all proportion. I have not found broadcasting difficult. You need to be relaxed and get your subject relaxed.”
Vaughan is building a reputation as a straight-talking pundit in the Radio 4 Test Match Special commentary box, alongside that other straight-talking son of Yorkshire, Geoffrey Boycott. And he has found more people now recognise him in the street. “When you’re England captain you have a cap on or a grille in front of your face. When you’re a broadcaster, you become more recognisable. It’s actually nicer now. When you have conversations about the game, you can say what you want, which is quite refreshing.”
Of all those he interviewed for the film he was most intrigued to meet Tony Adams. “I’m a big football fan, a big admirer of the way he led Arsenal and England.” But the person Vaughan was most anxious about meeting was John McEnroe: “I love McEnroe and was nervous when he walked into the room. But he was great, and a great example of what you can do in retirement. And he knew a bit about cricket. He had heard about me being captain of England and that I’d cried when I left. That surprised me.”
Mihir Bose’s book The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World is published by Constable & Robinson
Sporting Heroes: After the Final Whistle is on tonight at 10.45pm on BBC1 (11.15pm Wales, 11.45pm N Ireland)
AFTER THE GLORY
Former Arsenal and England captain, founder of the Sporting Chance clinic:
“Do I miss the game? No, I don’t miss it. Maybe because I don’t feel unfulfilled. If I thought I was just Tony Adams the footballer, then it’s over.”
World Cup-winning rugby player, now a City trader:
“Sport is the best job in the world… but then again, it is a bit of a false world. If you need that drug, where else do you get it from alcohol, drugs, pulling girls? How do you get that adrenaline fix elsewhere?
Double Olympic gold medallist, now TV presenter and adventurer:
“I learnt a lot of things from Steve Redgrave – one of which was not to say, ‘If you ever see me in a boat again, shoot me’, straight after you’ve raced! A sports psychologist told me it takes two years to retire.
HEROL “BOMBER” GRAHAM
Former British middleweight champion, now boxing coach and author:
“I was terrified [of retirement]. There’s a numbness: what do I do? What can I do? Who am I? And it was as if I couldn’t do anything. I felt isolated. I was on my own… I just wanted to give in. I’d come to the finale. I cut my wrists. I saw the blood spurt out… I was relieved. It was as if I was a kettle, a pressure cooker, and all the steam was flowing out.”
Former world heavyweight champion, now entrepreneur and ordained minister:
“You need someone to tell you: enough is enough. Most boxers can’t find that person. There’s always that one punch you think you can land. I think I’ll be sitting there at 70 thinking: ‘I got one more fight’.”