Johnson farewell caps a sad week for hero-worshippers everywhere


The week didn’t begin well for those of us who wear our hearts very firmly on our sleeves when it comes to sport. News filtered out of East Manchester that Sergio Aguero was leaving Manchester City, and in all likelihood therefore, English football.

Huge sighs all round. Then, on Saturday, champion National Hunt jockey on four occasions Richard Johnson O.B.E. called time on his own stellar career. After a low-key affair at Devon’s rather picturesque Newton Abbot circuit, he told us it was all over.

No great fuss, fanfare, blaze of high-profile rides trying to end on a winner. All very Richard Johnson – quiet, dignified, understated.

A man who snapped at Tony McCoy’s heels so successfully that the Champ had to win the jumps title 20 years in a row just to keep him at bay. When McCoy himself stood down, who else but Dicky would step up.

I met Richard ‘The Dikler’ Johnson at Market Rasen some years ago – sorry for inflicting the grainy photo on you (above) – and it was a very, very proud moment for me.

Here was the man who had thrillingly won a Stayers’ Hurdle in 1999 on Anzum in the most sensational last-gasp manner imaginable, and I was lucky enough to be present to witness it; steered an absolute  Rolls-Royce in the form of Rooster Booster to win the Champion Hurdle in 2003; and had bagged the big one, the Gold Cup, on future father-in-law Noel Chance’s Looks Like Trouble in 2000.

He would of course in more recent times (2018) land another Cheltenham Blue Riband with the fabulously-game Native River, a horse who himself epitomised all of Johnson’s tenacity, never-say-die spirit, work ethic, and lest we forget, sheer talent.

I’ve admired Dicky for so many years, and when he was up on one of Henry Daly’s over a trip in yielding ground, it was definitely time to have a flutter. Philip Hobbs has been the trainer he’s most firmly associated with, for so long his stable jockey, while the formidable David ‘The Duke’ Nicholson gave him a wonderful start at the very beginning, aged just 16. He rode his very first winner in 1994.

More than 3,800 victories later, he’s called it a day. Great rival AP remarked, upon on hearing the news; “When you go home tonight look in the mirror – you’ll see what a champion looks like. Sometimes those that challenge us the most teach us the best. You did both for me for over 20 years. I will be forever grateful to you – thanks buddy.”

It’s the Grand National on Saturday of course, a race that has eluded Dicky on no fewer than 21 occasions. His is a notable name in a long list of greats that never managed to win the big one at Aintree – like John Francome, Peter Scudamore, and Jonjo O’Neill – as a jockey at any rate.

The great AP McCoy himself only managed one, such is the difficulty of getting the stars to perfectly align on that early April Saturday on Merseyside.

I cherish the fact that I met Richard Johnson, who was, of course, an absolute gentleman. He’s been a great jockey, and an even better example, colleague, human being.

I’m just a fan. These talented guys fill my head with the most wonderful memories, and I’m so grateful for what they do, and how what they do can touch us so much.

From Colin Bell to Sergio Aguero. Pat Eddery to Dicky Johnson. Jack Nicklaus. Barry John. Gareth Edwards, Joe Montana, Larry Fitzgerald – God, the names are way too many to list. Being a sports fan is ace – even if it involves shedding a tear or three on a fairly regular basis.

Legends, in all eras, we salute you. Joy and wonder exist and inspire in your magnificent wake.

Alan Firkins