kenny hodgart

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Tour de France preview

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

It is a remarkable thing, but people are actually talking about the terrain, the peculiarities of the course and the relative merits of the riders ahead of the 97th Tour de France, which starts in Rotterdam on Saturday.

It’s not that controversy has been wholly absent from the run-up, but no major riders from last year’s race – aside from Franco Pellizotti, King of the Mountains in 2009 – will be missing from the Tour caravan when it converges on the Dutch port.

There is also a vague feeling of ennui after all the doping scandals that have rocked cycling in recent years. The dramas of the coming weeks may well involve ignominy, but light enough has been shone on the secrets of the peloton to guarantee that it will be as clean in 2010 as it is likely to get.

For those who take an interest in the physical geography of the Tour – and the science of the thing can be every bit as dumbfounding as viticulture – a number of things stick out about this year’s race: the first week, which winds first through the Netherlands and Belgium before entering France on July 6, will offer a taste of the Northern Classics, including some of their most treacherous terrain; there is no team time trial this year; and the climbs look harder and are likely to be more decisive relative to last year.

That first incursion on French soil a week on Tuesday finishes in Arenberg, home to the notorious cobblestones of the “Drève des Boules d’Hérin” that form part of the “Hell of the North”, as the Paris-Roubaix spring classic is known. In 2004 the Basque rider, Iban Mayo, put paid to his Tour chances there, and anyone serious about placing high in the general classification must be up front and out of trouble before crossing the “pave”.

In the Pyrenees there are, unusually, two ascents on the Col du Tourmalet, one in the mammoth 196km 16th stage to Pau – which covers the four dreaded passes nicknamed the “Circle of Death” – and then at the finish of stage 17. Other major climbs in the Alps (including four in stage 9 between Morzine and Saint Jean-de-Maurienne) have likewise been included in tribute to epic battles of yore, but still there have been complaints that too few stages actually finish on a major summit. In fact, there were more stages last year in which it was feasible that breakaway climbers could be caught in the final kilometres after a big climb.

All of which is to say, Team Sky fans, that Bradley Wiggins will be up against it as he endeavours to improve on last year’s fourth overall. The 30-year-old Londoner, who has always been fast on the flat, was a revelation in the mountains riding for Garmin-Slipstream in 2009. But he wasn’t that good: mostly it was his ability to make up time on long final descents that ensured he kept within distance of the overall podium. That and his time trialling – but this year, after the prologue, there is only one further time trial, and that in the penultimate stage by which point he could be well back.

Britian’s only pro-cycling outfit are going for broke, however. Having omitted their most prolific sprinter, Greg Henderson, from their nine-man team in favour of the seasoned Canadian domestique Michael Barry, it is clear they are basing their entire approach around supporting Wiggins.

Otherwise, the majority of Anglo-Saxon interest will revolve around one man: Lance Armstrong. Having retired after his seventh Tour win in 2005, then returned with the stated ambition of winning an eighth, he finished third overall last year. This time, riding for RadioShack, he has not enjoyed a trouble-free build-up. Besides enduring crashes and illness, he has had to fend off allegations from his former US Postal team-mate Floyd Llandis that he doped in 2002 and 2003.

Nothing has been proven, but it is not the first time Armstrong has been implicated by conspiracy theorists who discern a cover-up. The American and his former Astana team-mate Alberto Contador, Tour winner in 2007 and 2009, are also impugned in the ongoing war between the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD), who allege the UCI have consistently shown favouritism towards the pair and that Astana were in the habit of keeping doping inspectors waiting for almost an hour for samples after stages. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have just turned down an AFLD request to carry out their own targeted tests over the next three weeks, on the grounds that they have “access to confidential information from the police and customs” that they cannot share with other organisations.

At any rate, Armstrong has started to put together some form in recent weeks, with podium finishes in the Tours of Luxembourg and Switzerland. He also has a strong team around him, including Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, and the winner, this month, of the Dauphin Libere, Janez Brajkovic, but let’s not forget the American is 38.

For his part, he was keen to talk up Contador’s chances last week. The two struggled to keep a lid on their strained relationship at Astana – the Spaniard declaring last year: “He [Armstrong] is a great rider but it is another thing on a personal level, where I have never had great admiration for him and I never will” – but Armstrong was all plaudits for his rival. “Alberto’s a complete rider with very few weaknesses. He climbs better [than anybody else] and he time-trials with the best,” he said.

Contador is odds-on favourite, but there are others worth keeping an eye on, not least Andy Schleck, Saxo Bank’s attack dog, the veteran Australian Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team), Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso – back racing, for Liquigas, after a two-year suspension for blood doping – and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, from whose Grand Tour checklist only a win in France is missing.

In terms of new contenders, Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), the 27-year-old Belgian who finished 15th overall in his Tour last year, and the 24-year-old Czech, Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), who improved on 13th in 2008 with ninth in 2009, may well impose themselves.

But while Spain have been knocked off their perch as favourites in the build-up to the World Cup, it will take something seismic in the first week for Contador to suffer the same fate.


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Let’s hawk more of Prince Andrew

This article appeared in The Herald

Like many people, I was once rather convinced of the merits of republicanism. After being hectored by faux-proletarian Trotskyite agitprop vendors outside Glasgow University library every day for four years, however, the condition eased.

Those who would have done with constitutional hereditary monarchy seem disinclined to acknowledge that revolution never spared France or Russia from despotism, that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a sociopath, that banishing Constantine II in 1974 hasn’t done Greece much good or that 69p per citizen per year is excellent value for the entertainment Prince Philip alone provides.

That said, it seems only right – in a democratic age – that as we brace ourselves for years of strikes and potholes and libraries closing down, the Queen should also draw in her horns, so to speak. To that end, George Osborne announced this week there will be no rise on the £7.9m the royals receive each year through the Civil List.

Of course, the Queen does surrender the revenue from royal property held by the Crown Estate – believed to be upwards of £200m every year – and is loved by all foreigners, even the French, Russians and Greeks, thus swelling the coffers of UK plc via tourism and helping to fund history lessons in our schools about the evils of her forebears and the hereditary principle in general. But, still, maybe the royals could do a bit more to help reduce the deficit.

Even before she was caught offering industrialists access to her ex-husband Prince Andrew for £500,000, the palace thought Sarah Ferguson unspeakably common, but what if she was on to something? If people exist who believe access to Prince Andrew might be of any use whatsoever, what harm punting his services by the hour for the country?

In a similar vein, if Phil agreed to make a donation to the Exchequer every time he offended a foreigner, those tours of the Commonwealth might pay for themselves. Charles, meanwhile, might simply be given some gentle encouragement to stop talking about homeopathy, Gaia and so on.

The point here is that there is time for the royal family to save the country from itself and thesselves from the gibbet. The alternatives are unthinkable: either we’d have to elect a career politician head of state or we’d end up at the mercy of quangocrats or J K Rowling or Ant and Dec.

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A time for heroes

This article appeared in the Herald

It is a heartening thing, one supposes, that Hollywood celebrities occasionally become exercised about matters other than their own fame.

Americans, at any rate, tend to be of a mind to take heed when they do. A charming people in many ways, they have great difficulty in absorbing the concept that George Clooney and Will Smith are not one and the same as the good-guy types they routinely play in films.

Barack Obama has come to recognise – now that he is in government and no longer merely a star candidate – that he is no longer trusted. Thus, short on ideas on how to “plug the damn hole” currently spewing vast quantities of oil from a BP rig into the Gulf of Mexico, he has been busy answering calls from LA’s entertainment oligarchy.

Kevin Costner, who was once in Waterworld, a terrible film set at sea, has offered to supply machines – in whose production he has a pecuniary interest – that separate oil from water. James Cameron, the director who made Abyss, a rather better film set in the depths of the ocean, has raised Costner a fleet of sea-robots. And Scarlett Johansson has come up with nothing; although, with the consummate presumption of her caste, she met with administration officials to discuss it.

There are those who wonder whether Hollywood folk can really make a difference where BP and the US government have so far failed, but Cameron seemingly knows what he is talking about and has the resources to help out. Not only are they trusted by Americans, but Hollywood’s top earners rival corporations and even governments in terms of power and influence. Soon, it is almost certain, we will wake up to the news that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have bought Tibet, or that Bruce Willis has invaded North Korea or that Robin Williams is to send a Ugandan family to the moon.

And when the film guys start doing all that, it should come as no surprise that a blue-collar worker from Colorado wants to be Rambo. Gary Faulkner, 52, was nicked in Pakistan this week trying to cross into the Taliban stronghold of Nuristan, on a mission to kill Osama bin Laden. The authorities declared he was “ill” (which means “mental”, I seem to think). Perhaps they were worried in case he managed to achieve what they’ve spent a decade failing to, but they should have let him have a go. It would have made for an excellent film some day.


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PC language and the fuzz

This article appeared in The Herald

However mandatory it may have become to complain about declining IQ levels in the modern police force, it remains my own conviction that the plod of this country are, on the whole, an excellent body of public servants, without whom anarchy would predominate.

Moreover, the obstructions put in the way of ordinary officers doing their jobs by meddling panjandrums serve only to augment my affection for these saintly men and women; indeed, I am stiffened in my resolve to live a blameless life by the thought of how lucky we are that anyone should still wish to join them.

Having said all that, if IQ levels within the fuzz really are on the wane, it’s probably just as well for the charlatan directorate within Lothian and Borders constabulary which saw fit to produce the Appropriate Language Guide. The document, in which it is presumed officers know no better than to use the word “spastic”, was correctly labelled “condescending” by one MSP this week, at which point the force’s PR department, for some reason desperate to stress that the guide has been in existence for several years, kicked into overdrive. It is logical to wonder why on earth the police need a PR department, but the reason is fairly obvious: seeming to be fit for purpose these days matters more than actually doing the job well.

I cannot say how good or bad Lothian and Borders police are at policing, but if one takes, say, the Labour Party as an example, it may be that there is an inverse relationship between the political correctness of an organisation and its competence. Harriet Harman herself might in fact have drawn up the coppers’ list of proscribed words: “spinster” is out, as are “dear”, “love” and “pet” when talking to women; which discriminates against Geordies, who call everyone “pet”.

A nose for right and wrong would once have served a young rozzer well; nowadays the whole business must seem very confusing. People who defend themselves against violent housebreakers end up in jail, muggers are victims, and more effort is put into counselling, mission statements and condemning sexist bonhomie in the canteen than anything to do with arresting miscreants.

One imagines it is only a matter of time before the police come up with new words for such outmoded terms as murderer and thief. Sadly, however, there will always be those who insist on referring to “the filth” in demeaning and uncharitable ways.

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Talking tempo with Andy Roxburgh

This article appeared in The Herald

When Barcelona beat Celtic 3-2 at Parkhead two years ago, Gordon Strachan simply couldn’t believe the visitors had made a total of 700 passes. No amount of previous experience in European campaigns or fraught encounters with their domestic rivals in Old Firm matches had prepared his side for an opponent so utterly in control, not only of possession, but of the rhythm of the game.

Inter Milan may not have not won this year’s Champions League by playing the kind of free-flowing, expressive football Barca specialise in, but in last month’s final against Bayern Munich they showed a similar kind of mastery in their ability to control the game’s rhythm and tempo. Indeed, it was such that their manager, Jose Mourinho, said afterwards that he knew the game was over when his side went 2-0 up, despite the fact that 20 minutes remained.

Forget, for a moment, the quality of players at Barcelona’s and Inter’s disposal. In Scotland it is almost an article of faith that we play fast-paced football, but rarely do we think about how our teams might dictate or vary the tempo of a match. We may wish we could do this or that differently, but the high intensity of our game is something we tend to put store in. Year on year we hear claims that signings from abroad have struggled to adjust or will take time to adjust to the pace of the game here.

It is unlikely that homegrown players are really any fitter than their team-mates from elsewhere, however. And it is with some confidence that we can state that the majority of Scottish players would find it doubly difficult to adjust to the more controlled version of the game played in Spain, say. One might even conclude that the frantic pace at which Scots have traditionally learned to play football – make a tackle, win the ball, get it away – mitigates against the nurturing of a greater technical skill level.

Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager, and since 1994 UEFA Technical Director, does not believe that assessment to be entirely fair. “Coaches have to play football the best they can with what they’ve got, and in the conditions they’re given,” he says. “There are aspects which work against Scottish players, whether it’s the surfaces we play on, or the weather, or the facilities to train on. And there’s also the competitive element of a small league, which puts its own pressure on teams.”

He does believe, however, that the Scottish understanding of tempo is somewhat incomplete. “Scottish football is hectic – it’s all about power-running,” he says. “If you watch a Scottish league match, you see the ball getting played forward quickly and people racing in to pressure the ball, but that’s only part of the game. It’s not a simple equation. There are also a whole other raft of considerations – explosive power, speed of thought, the ability to pass the ball at speed. Teams like Barcelona and Arsenal are not only busy about the pitch, their passing speed is phenomenal.”

Roxburgh’s job is one that puts him in regular contact with the continent’s top coaches and managers. In anyone else, the roll-call of figures – Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, Marcello Lippi, Juande Ramos – whose views he can quote from personal conversations might seem like name-dropping, but it’s clear that he is simply immersed in thinking about the beautiful game.

“You can talk about a game being hectic, everyone clattering in with tackles and so on, and it’s quite hard to live with that if you’re not used to it,” he adds. “But foreign players may be more used to a change-of-rhythm type of game, which is something our players find it very difficult to play against. They have you chasing all over the place.

“If you watch the top sides in Europe, transition speed is a key thing. When you’ve lost the ball, you quickly reform and immediately press the ball, but also when you’ve just won the ball back, it’s about the ability to go from defence into attack, to immediately run with the ball or find the right pass. That transition speed is not necessarily something we’re good at in Scotland – possession might change very quickly, but there’s not the same transition into a very controlled fast break. So it’s not just running, but also the speed of the ball and the speed at which you react to winning the ball – a quickness of perception, and then the ability to interpret that. I spoke to Zinedine Zidane recently about this, and he said the first place players are now fast is in their head, the ability to see situations quickly, and then to have the technical ability to implement the answer very quickly.”

It is often argued that English football has seen a “coming together” of styles in recent years, that under the influence of continental managers the traditional British way of playing – a basic 4-4-2 with wingers haring it down the flanks – has become diluted. Does this mean that the English game is less hectic or physical than it used to be? “Well, Fabio Capello has been successful with the national team in varying things; it’s not just quick-quick. And in English football generally, teams have become better at controlling the tempo. But the ball speed is phenomenal if you look at the top sides, and they’re also very good at exploiting space on the counter-attack.”

Roxburgh adds that this is something Scottish teams have never been particularly good at – “We were always at our best in Scotland playing off a tackle. A Scottish player gets a ball in a lot of space in he’s never quite sure what to do with it” – but he is not, by and large, a pessimist. Scotland can still breed and nurture gifted players, he says. Our football culture can still adapt and evolve.

“You can’t change it at the top level overnight; it has to be over a period of time. I think we do still have players with technical ability in Scotland, and we’ve always had them. I used to say when I was managing Scotland that guys like Gary McAllister and Paul McStay and Pat Nevin could easily play in the Italian league, just from a purely technical point of view. But since the Bosman ruling we’ve tended to look for that technical quality elsewhere, instead of on our own doorstep. I think now there is a swing back, but it takes time.”

Over the next four weeks, managers will pit competing football philosophies and their own tactical wits against one another on international football’s most prestigious stage; but the sides who reach the latter stages of the World Cup are likely to have certain things in common – among them the ability circulate the ball well, control the tempo of a game and attack quickly from “the depths”.

The current Scotland manager, Craig Levein, has many people’s confidence that he will make a decent fist of things with the squad available to him when qualification for the next major tournament, Euro 2012, begins later this summer. But if Scottish football does not, collectively, ask important questions about what it would rather its players were able to do and how it would like them to play, then the odds on us competing at the highest level will only lengthen.