If you try to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, you might get burnt: Should former stars stay retired?

Professional sportspeople retire for a host of different reasons. Some can sense that their time at the top end of their sport is coming to a close, such as Michael Schumacher. Others suffer major personal issues, such as Michael Jordan, who decided to make a career change to baseball on the back of mourning his father – who was murdered – and facing an NBA investigation into allegations that he had breached betting rules, of which he was later cleared. However, increasingly few are able to stay away from the sport that has occupied such a significant proportion of their lives for so long, meaning that nowadays, when an athlete retires, it seems to come with an asterisk, stating ‘for now’.

It should be stated that this is not an outright criticism of stars returning to the sports that they used to dominate, for there are plenty of legitimate reasons for them to do so, with studies suggesting that more than half of former professional sportspeople suffer from issues with their mental or emotional wellbeing after they retire. Instead, it is an article asserting the importance of managing expectations among fans and the returned heroes themselves, when they come out of retirement.

Too often is it the case that individuals whom were among the elite in their respective sports return and state that they cannot wait to get back to beating the very best, as Raymond Van Barneveld has recently claimed, following his return to the PDC circuit, after he successfully came through Qualifying School in Germany. Of course, this is exactly what you would expect a sportsperson coming out of retirement to say, to garner public interest in their return, by bringing back memories of the glory days.

However, having watched the interviews that Van Barneveld has given since his return, it does seem like he genuinely believes he can dial back the clock. Although he has stated his short-term goal is to simply qualify for the World Championship – which seems achievable – it is clear that his long-term intentions are far beyond this. Despite Barney having been my favourite darts player for years now, it saddens me to say that I do not believe that these goals are realistic.

RVB retired from professional darts, after losing to American Darin Young in the first round of the 2020 World Darts Championship. Van Barneveld was clearly distraught at the time, but it was a performance reflective of his long-term form, with his retirement coming 13 years after he had secured his fifth world title and he had lost in the early stages of the competition the previous year too.

Now, Barney is by no means an awful darts player, as the Dutchman would not even have had to go through Q-School to regain his Tour Card had he not relinquished it when retiring, for he had accrued enough prize money to still be in the world’s top 64. Further, the Q-School he did come through was one of the strongest in recent memory, it consisted of several top performers from the BDO, which went into liquidation not long prior, due to a questionable decision to relocate its World Championship to the O2 in London, moving away from the iconic Lakeside Country Club.

That being said, the reality is, in world darts, the gap between the top performers and those not far below in the world rankings is monumental. While Barney may very well nick the odd upset win over a top-10 player, the idea that he can compete deep into major tournaments with this calibre of player is fanciful at best. Van Barneveld has always struggled with the mental side of the game and there is little to suggest he will fare any better in this regard upon his return. The spotlight will be on him like never before and he will not have the Barney Army, who made him so famous, chanting out his name in their masses, with social distancing prohibiting the presence of the same vibrant crowds.

Sporting greats can return and conquer the world once again, as Rob Gronkowski made apparent in his recent Superbowl triumph. Netflix’s ‘The Last Dance’ documented the greatest returning success story in sporting history in Michael Jordan, who returned to basketball to complete the three-peat repeat of NBA titles with his Chicago Bulls, cementing himself as the GOAT in the process. Perhaps Barney will return rejuvenated and be able to echo the success of these great athletes before him.

Indeed, I sincerely hope that I am wrong in my prediction that Barney’s return will do him more harm than good, but, on the evidence available, I am inclined to agree with Rod Harrington’s assessment that he should have stuck to the exhibition circuit. There he could have made money and rediscovered his love of darts, whilst staying in his retirement, just like Phil Taylor has done.

However, when stars are surrounded by ‘yes men’ in their management teams, the idea that they can return and all will bow before them is all too tempting to ignore. Björn Borg arguably retired from tennis prematurely, citing burnout, but the tennis star’s ill-advised return highlights that even elite players who do not have that many miles on the clock can simply lose their talent, due to a prolonged absence from the game. If you have retired once, there was probably a good reason for it.

Whilst coming out of retirement may seem a short-term solution to poor mental health, the risk of failure carries many significant risks with it in that department too. As a result, moves back into the sport in a different capacity are often better ideas, with punditry, management and ambassadorial work just three examples of how sportspeople can fill the void left behind when they end their playing careers.

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Luke Saward

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September 2021
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