kenny hodgart

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Schleck must be more ruthless

This article appeared in The Herald

One incident above all in this year’s Tour de France, which finished in Paris on Sunday, provoked obsessive debate among cycling fans: an alleged breach of etiquette by the ultimate winner Alberto Contador that allowed him to gain 39 seconds – the margin of his eventual victory – on his rival Andy Schleck after the latter’s chain came off in the Pyrenees.

The argument that had Contador stopped riding and waited for the Luxembourger he might not have been in the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees is at best a facile way of looking at a 3600km race. Schleck may have seemed like the stronger rider throughout the race – by Saturday’s final time trial stage Contador was suffering from a fever – but little has been made of the fact that his rival was not without mechanical troubles of his own during the Tour: on the cobbles of northern France in the first week, he rode 30km with a back brake rubbing against his wheel. No-one waited for him then, and indeed for all those queuing up to condemn the Spaniard, there are plenty former riders who admit observance of the convention has always been the exception rather than the rule.

In any case, it was the Team Saxo Bank rider’s own poor decision to make a big gear change when he did that caused his chain to come off, and a certain lack of astuteness has plagued the 25-year-old’s career to date. After finishing 12th in his first Tour de France, in 2008, however, he has improved year on year: this year’s gap from the now three-time winner Contador was a significant improvement on the 4 minutes 11 seconds by which the latter beat him into second last year.

Race director Christian Prudhomme has wasted no time in identifying the beginnings of a captivating new chapter in the history of big Tour rivalries. For him the pair are the new Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocana, or Bernald Hinault and Greg LeMond. “They are almost at the same level and that promises new, extraordinary duels”, he said at the weekend, throwing in the names of another pair – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – just in case non-aficionados weren’t paying attention.

One name he failed to mention – perhaps because he was later implicated in a doping scandal – was that of Jan Ullrich, one of the youngest Tour winners ever in 1997 but then never able to repeat the feat once Lance Armstrong started his run of seven wins in a row from 1999. But the Anquetil-Poulidor rivalry may be the one Schleck has most to worry about replicating: Anquetil won the Tour five times between 1957 and 1964; Poulidor was the eternal podium bridesmaid, coming second on three occasions and third five times.

Conceivably, Contador and Schleck might continue their rivalry for another decade: the Astana man is the senior competitor at just 27. But will their relationship ever be reversed? And will Schleck have a better chance of winning than he did this year? “This race has been so close not because Andy has been a lot better, but because I’ve been a lot worse,” was how Contador saw it on Sunday, his greatness now beyond doubt after his latest victory placed him in a select group of riders (including only himself, Anquetil, Hinault and Merckx) to have won all three Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain) at least once, and the Tour de France at least three times.

One reason he has given for being “worse” than last year was the fact that he was on a course of antibiotics the week before the race. But Schleck also had another mitigating factor to contend with: his team-mate and brother, Frank – whose attacks in the Alps and Pyrenees would doubtless have tired Contador – crashed on the cobbles on stage three and had to retire from the race.

The younger Schleck’s own tactical naivete didn’t do him any favours, either. He failed to sense that Contador was tired and so failed to attack until the last kilometre in the first mountain stage, Morzine-Avoriaz, and could have again made time on the stage 17 Tourmalet summit finish if he had only made another charge after he and Contador went clear in front together. “He was too clever for me”, Schleck admitted that day.

Laurent Fignon, the two-time Tour winner, gave his own assessment in yesterday’s l’Equipe. “Contador manipulated Schleck by playing with him on a psychological level,” he opined. “He compensated for his bad spells with great mental strength and by bigging up their friendship. Over the course of the Tour, he succeeded in making his rival switch off.”

The message was clear: Schleck must be more ruthless. Champions tend to be capable of learning from their mistakes. It’s up to Schleck to do so now.

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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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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.

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An Highland fling

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

It was a beautiful morning in Dingwall yesterday, the kind of morning that sends city dwellers scarpering up mountains and the like in pursuit of solitude and unspoilt vistas.

And after about 9am it will have been quiet, too – quieter probably than at any time, not counting Sabbath days, since the old king chucked it. The Scottish Cup final kicked off in Glasgow at 3pm, but an exodus of military efficacy had been put in train on Friday with a bag-piped send-off for the players of Ross County that would have done the region’s martial ancestors proud.

Their mission ultimately failed, but few from the Ross-shire town were ever likely to miss the occasion for all the Highland sunshine of a dozen summers. It is no exaggeration to suggest that almost an entire community made for Hampden Park yesterday: the population of Dingwall is about 5000, but more than 18,000 “Staggies” – young and old, very young and not-so-very old – found their way to the south side of Glasgow.

In Dundee United, First Division County were up against a team who, by dint of not being one of the Old Firm pair, would ordinarily be underdogs themselves at a cup final. As I mixed with the County fans, I was reminded of that great novel about Scottish football by Robin Jenkins, The Thistle and the Grail, in which a small-town Lanarkshire club makes it to Hampden, uniting rich and poor, friend and foe along the way. But this was the fairytale romance of the cup made real and updated for the 21st century – Ross County diehards are as likely to be women as they are men with war-wounds and bad chests from smoking roll-ups.

There was a buzz in Dingwall – a buzz eagerly stoked and taken measure of by local and national media – that built to a crescendo all last week but which began the moment County knocked Celtic out of the tournament in last month’s semi-finals.

The May 6 general election and its aftermath didn’t get a look in: the town had special pies and cakes to bake, shop windows to dress, processions to organise. There was also a record out, a version of a Proclaimers song by a local band called Torridon. It was a missed opportunity for someone to form a duo called Ross and Cromarty – along Flanders and Swann lines – and shut the Reid twins up for good.

Cakes and pies are thrust in front of television cameras whenever a provincial club achieves any degree of success in the cup, but there’s nothing stage-managed or fake about Ross County. “It’s a community club, a family club, all the way,” according to Lynn Lonnen, a supporter I met on Friday night in the Mallard, a pub on the very platform of Dingwall Railway Station. “We’re a small town, people know one another, we don’t lock our doors. You see the chairman about town, or the players, and they’ll speak to you.”

County, in other words, are a nice football club, the antithesis of, say, a Millwall. They can’t not be nice even when they try: one of the songs in the fans’ repertoire makes it clear to opponents that they will be left “crying in their mammy’s soup”.

They even have an amicable relationship with their local rivals, Inverness Caley Thistle, who yesterday hung out a banner emblazoned with the words “ICT wishes Ross County all the best”. “There’s very occasionally fisticuffs with some of the younger supporters, but usually it’s because of the drink,” Arnie, Lynn’s husband, told me.

He also told me County play “probably the best football in Scotland”, and it’s true that in 2007 they did – despite topping Division Two at the time – get rid of Dick Campbell as manager because the football his team were playing was insufficiently attractive.

Sadly, yesterday they had an off-day in a game that never really sparked to life as a contest. Maybe the supporters were too nice about their team’s failings – certainly, the accustomed choruses of disapproval at misplaced places were conspicuously absent from the West Stand.

It was for the “buzz” and the much-vaunted Highland hospitality – the drink, essentially – that I was in Dingwall. Unfortunately the drinkers seemed to have been headed in the other direction as I journeyed north.

I know this because I saw what a Friday night out in Glasgow had done to them as I made my way to the National Stadium before kick-off. Our rigid laws against drinking on supporters’ buses meant, on the other hand, that there was no-one making a proper fool of himself to be amused at on the road down.

It is reassuring to report, nevertheless, that the feeling in the aftermath of defeat was that the party simply had to go on. County’s manager, Derek Adams, and their director of football, his father George, are tee-total for religious reasons and the local Wee Frees had decreed that an open-top bus parade in the event of victory wasn’t to go ahead until Monday (this in an area of the country that elects the renowned toper Charles Kennedy as its MP), but celebrations planned for last night were not being cancelled.

One woman from Dingwall told me before the game that if County won, “the town won’t sleep for a week”. Afterwards, a man confided he was merely planning on “a wee dram.” Katie MacKenzie and Jilly Murray were unwavering in their intentions, however: “We’re staying out in Glasgow tonight, without a doubt”, said Katie, with a grin that sadly I hadn’t the chance to misinterpret as an invitation. For with that, they were off into the dusk, “family final” done and dusted and mammy’s soup not even on the menu.

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Must-see sporting events. No 18: An Old Firm match

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

WHAT IS IT? There is a lot of misinformation put about regarding the Old Firm. First of all, there are those who will tell you that the Celtic-Rangers (or is it Rangers-Celtic?) fixture is mired in religious and political animosity, but this is wide of the mark. Any religious element is of the most benign order, and matches tend to feel almost like hippy love-ins from the 1960s. There can sometimes be violence away from games, but this is only because the people of the west of Scotland are very demonstrative in expressing their love for one another. Also, there are never refereeing controversies, matches are played in a spirit of goodwill redolent of a bygone age of amateurism, and Rangers are one of Scotland’s best examples of financial probity and good governance.

HOW TO ENJOY MATCH DAY: Tuesday evening’s match (7.45pm) is to be played at Celtic Park, in the vicinity of which there are a number of great bars and restaurants. Many Celtic supporters like to take some refreshment in nearby Bridgeton, but if the rain stays off, it is often pleasant to stop off at Lidl and buy a few cans to drink on the 20-minute walk from the city centre.

WHO WILL WIN THIS ONE? Nobody really bothers about the result so long as it is a good game of football, and often, if the early exchanges are a bit one-sided, the referee will ask one of the players to leave the field in order to make it a fairer contest. Neil Lennon, a man who brought the city of Glasgow closer in appreciation of his flair in midfield when he played for Celtic, is currently the club’s interim smanager, and there is no doubt that everyone at Rangers will wish him well.

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Pearls of Wisden

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Neither the passage of 13 months nor a similar terrorist outrage before this year’s African Cup of Nations football tournament have made the details any less shocking.

The murderous attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last year should never have been allowed to happen. But it did; and its survivors will be haunted by it for the rest of their lives.

The account of those awful minutes inside the team bus contained in the 2010 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac leaves us in little doubt of that. Written by Scyld Berry, the Sunday Telegraph’s cricket correspondent (and for the third year running Wisden’s editor), along with an Indian colleague, Nagraj Gollapudi, it includes interviews with many of the men who came under siege that morning, and it is incredibly moving. Right-handed batsman Tillakaratne Dilshan, we learn, risked his own life by daring to pop his head up and navigate as the driver got the bus moving towards safety. Mahela Jayawardene, too, dodged bullets, as he sought to assess the situation, while in the minibus carrying the match officials to the Gadaffi Stadium, the English referee Chris Broad helped save the life of Ahsan Raza, the fourth umpire, by stanching the flow of blood from a bullet wound.

“On a very basic level, it’s interesting how some of these guys reacted,” says Berry. “It’s a matter of conjecture how ordinary people might react in similar circumstances, but basically they had to take it lying down, which is not something sportsmen do easily. They don’t like to hide. That’s what they found so difficult looking back afterwards – they hadn’t been able to fight this enemy back.”

According to Berry it is the “duty” of Wisden to recapture the event for posterity, a view that is in-keeping with the publication’s significance in the cricket world. Wisden is no officially sanctioned gospel: it is known as cricket’s “bible” because it does not flinch from telling the sport the truth about itself. “It’s the game’s summary of itself,” says Berry, who wrote for the Herald in the 1980s. “Few human activities summarise, analyse and chronicle themselves as coherently and articulately.”

John Wisden, a pioneering cricketer in Victorian times, published his first Almanac in 1864. The book, which cost five shillings, ran to only 112 pages and included non-cricketing information such as dates of battles in the English Civil War, an account of the trial of Charles I and a list of winners of The Oaks to pad it out. This year’s Wisden runs to 1728 pages and retails at £45, but for many of the game’s followers, at least in England, it is indispensable.

There is, in fact, no better indication that the cricket season is entering full swing than Wisden’s arrival on the shelves. This year, Englishmen have the added bonus of being able to look back on 12 months of solid achievement. One of the book’s major draws is a piece written by the England captain Andrew Strauss in which he claims the home side’s Ashes success last summer can be attributed to collective will: “What people like to call the unity, or spine, of the team.”

“It was a good year for England,” says Berry, “particularly I think as they didn’t lose in South Africa over the winter. In 2005, after winning the Ashes, they lost everything for a long time afterwards but this time they didn’t suddenly go from fourth gear into reverse. And they kicked on in 50-over cricket as well, beating South Africa 2-1 out there, only the second team they had lost to at home in 50-over cricket.”

But it’s not all a case of jolly good show, chaps. In his Editor’s Notes, Berry does not shy away from the problems facing English cricket, or indeed where the England and Wales Cricket Board have let the game down.

“We really ought to have an inquiry into why England have never won anything in limited-overs cricket,” he says. “They’re the only major Test-playing country never to have won either a World Cup or Champions Trophy. The ECB shouldn’t get away with such a history of failure. Their response has been to cut the 50-over format from the domestic programme and replace it with a 40-over structure that’s wholly absent from the international stage, which is a very good way of making sure you never win anything.”

Berry also voices concern that England’s reliance of late on batsmen born or bred in South Africa exposes a frail underbelly in terms of county cricket’s record of developing young talent.

“You just have to be a promising 18-year-old without ever having performed at senior level and you can be on a contract of £40,000 a year for three years, so what’s the incentive to go and play in the under-19 World Cup for England if you have a good living at such an early age?” he wonders. “English players born in England have to be nurtured into winners.”

But while there is a place for gripes, the overall tone of Wisden is more celebratory than reproachful. In that spirit, we find Michael Parkinson writing, in praise of Ricky Ponting, that “he has always been a particularly Australian mongrel, an unflinching cross between battler and maestro”.

And in the “Chronicle” section, the editor has culled all manner of jocose tidbits from the world’s sports pages, including the news that in Pakistan a team of eunuchs beat a side of “normal” male cricketers in the first match of its kind, and that 500 prisoners in Kolkata went on strike after the authorities refused to install cable TV so they could watch IPL matches.

There is also an excellent article by Stephen Chalke about how cricket helped boost morale in communities throughout England in the post-war years. It is a reminder that while geopolitics – and even atrocities – may occasionally cast their pall on sport, it will take more to extinguish its spirit.

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Must-see sporting events. No 13: The Boat Race

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

WHAT IS IT? It is the day they cannot spoil, the day when honest oarsmen toil! Once a year along the Thames, scholars are prone to losing their boaters, such is their excitement as crews from Oxford and Cambridge compete in an event which one team of eight wins and the other generally loses. As John Snagge famously relayed in his commentary on the wireless in 1949: “I can’t see who’s in the lead but it’s either Oxford or Cambridge.” In 1877 the thing was declared a dead heat, but only because the judge, “Honest John” Phelps, had fallen asleep under a bush near the finish. The other great tradition around race day is for young gentlemen to attempt to steal policemen’s helmets, a task made significantly harder now the Peelers all ride around on mountain bikes.

WHAT’S THE COURSE? Starting at Putney and finishing at Mortlake, the teams follow an S Shape, from east to west. The coxes, usually boys of about eight or nine, compete for the best current, in the middle of the river. A crew that gets a lead of more than a boat’s length can cut in front of the opposition and few races have a change of lead if this happens. In 2002, however, the favoured Cambridge crew led with only a few hundred metres to go when one of their oarsmen collapsed from exhaustion and Oxford rowed through to win. The fellow is now most likely in charge of a hedge fund.

WHO WILL WIN? Well, Oxford won last year, but Cambridge have had marginally more victories overall. Of course, fewer and fewer Englishmen “get their blues” these days: Germans and Americans – including the abominably named twins, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both Oxford) – account for half the rowers this year. It should be noted that on the only two occasions when crews have mutinied – 1959 and 1987 – Americans were the orchestrators. Hugh Laurie, who rowed for Cambridge in 1980, now also pretends to be American on television, evidence surely of England’s general decline.

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Remembering Gil Heron

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Even into the post-war era, the number of black players who had plied their trade in British football still stood in the single figures. When Celtic signed their first non-Caucasian player, Gil Heron, the press, ever prone to glibness, dubbed him “the Black Flash”. And the received wisdom regarding Heron is that he was rather a flash in the pan, an exotic wayfarer who briefly tantalised but ultimately failed to deliver on his promise.

So abbreviated in fact was the Jamaican-born striker’s impact at Celtic that there was little fanfare when he died a year ago, aged 86. Unquestionably, however, the memory of him resonates in Celtic folklore. When Heron came to Glasgow he left a son – Gil Scott-Heron – at home with his mother. Now 61, Scott-Heron would go on to become a radical jazz poet and soul singer and write a whole new chapter in the history of American music in the 1960s and 70s, but his father’s own life was, in many respects, just as remarkable.

Besides being a footballer, Heron was by turns a pilot, a boxer, a cricketer and a football referee. He was also a photographer and a jazz aficionado and later became a published poet in his own right. Born in Kingston, he moved with his family to Canada and as a young man enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. He showed promise both as an athlete and a boxer but in 1946 signed full-time for Detroit Wolverines and was their top scorer as they won the North American Professional Soccer League in its inaugural season.

By the time he was spotted by Jimmy McGrory’s scouts on a summer tour of North America in 1951, he was already 28 and playing for Detroit Corinthians in the more prestigious American Soccer League. Invited over to Celtic Park for a trial, he was offered a contract and made a scoring debut in a 2-0 win over Morton in the League Cup. But after netting twice in his first three games for his new club, Heron only made two more appearances before being released the following summer. And after short spells at Third Lanark and Kidderminster Harriers he soon returned to the States.

Sean Fallon, now 87, was Celtic goalkeeper at the time. “Gil had a lot of ability,” he says. “He was big, over six feet, slim, and he had good skill, but he didn’t really get on in the team for whatever reason.”

Tom Campbell, the Celtic historian, offers one reading of the situation in his book Charlie Tully, Celtic’s Cheeky Chappie. In it he states Heron was “a victim of the cliques operating within Celtic Park”, making it clear that Heron and certain others were not popular with Tully, winger Jock Weir and striker John McPhail.

“Five games and two goals is not a bad return,” Campbell says. “And they were two beautiful goals. I remember being in the jungle for his first game, a soaking wet night, and he beat Jimmy Cowan, who was the Scotland goalkeeper, from 20 yards. The next one, against Airdrie, again in the League Cup, was another spectacular goal.

“He was a wee bit of a phenomenon – I think there was an element of it being a publicity stunt when he signed. But to be perfectly honest I thought he had good potential as a player, he was tall and athletic and he had a good burst of speed, but his team-mates didn’t support him.

‘The official view was that he lacked persistence, he wasn’t chasing every ball or making wild tackles, and maybe he wasn’t quite adapted to the physical nature of Scottish football. He was probably more akin to a modern-day striker than the old-fashioned kind in that regard; he was a stylish player. But when John McPhail came back from injury Heron only played two more games.

“There were definite cliques within the club. McPhail was a charismatic character, he was the centre forward and he’d won the Cup for Celtic in 1951, but I think the other players kind of played to him, and almost visibly resented any player trying to take his place. There wasn’t quite the professionalism there should have been.”

Another of the surviving members of Celtic’s 1951 side, Willie Fernie, now sadly has Alzheimer’s, but his wife Audrey, who was McGrory’s secretary at the time, remembers Heron as “a very pleasant chap” who often carried photographic equipment with him and once took pictures of herself and others in the billiards room at Celtic Park.

And photography was but one of his interests: while in Scotland he managed to play cricket for both Poloc and Ferguslie, and when he stopped playing football, following a second spell at Detroit Corinthians, he became a referee. Later in life he devoted himself to music and poetry and in 1993 published a collection of verse which included a eulogy for the Celtic of his day (“a bit doggerel but very effusive about Celtic”, according to Campbell).

“We used to call him Mr Music,” says Fallon. “I think he was into the music more so than the football probably, which I think let him down a wee bit. He liked the bright lights.”

It is possibly true then that Gil Heron made as much of an impression on drab post-war Glasgow with his zoot suits, his yellow shoes and his appetite for jazz as he did with his football: besides being skilful and quick on the park, he was a dandy off it, a “flash” of colour indeed in a world of grey.

“He was exotic for the time,” says Campbell. “And he would be seen around town. The Celtic players used to hang around after training in Lewis’s on Argyll Street, where you could play the records on the pretext that you were going to buy them later on.

“Footballers in those days weren’t the peacocks they’ve become. They just had a couple of suits and a sports jacket. This guy was a bit different.” A fleeting presence in Scottish football, Gil Heron was nevertheless a pioneer, and in more ways than one.

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Cult hero No 40: Ilie Nastase

This article appeared as part of a year-long weekly series by the author in the Sunday Herald

Sir Jackie Stewart famously compared women to motor cars, but in his autobiography Ilie Nastase, Romania’s most famous sportsman, lit upon an even less romantic analogy when he likened them to showers. In his pomp Nastase tended to have a different girl every day, see. He later estimated his total number of showers at around the 9,000 mark, on hearing which his current and third wife, Amalia – whom he met at a Sting concert – declared she was happy to have conquered such a clean man.

In the 1970s women literally threw themselves at Nastase, so you can decide for yourself whether to deplore his utilitarian approach to sex, but there were other reasons for his dividing opinion. For this long-limbed, raven-haired tennis champ’s illustrious playing career was blighted by fines and disqualifications brought on his head by an inability to control his temper and a fondness for giving umpires the bird. He was, however, a good-natured sort off-court by all accounts – all the sex probably saw to that – and ever the entertainer, amusing spectators with mimicry and horseplay. And the ‘Bucharest Buffoon’ also happened to be one of the most naturally gifted players in tennis history – lightning quick, a masterful shot-maker, devastating from the baseline but equally adept at serve-and-volley.

Nastase was World No 1 for a year in 1973-74 and in a career spanning almost two decades won over 100 pro titles, including seven Grand Slams (albeit five of those were in doubles, either with Jimmy Connors or with countryman Ion Tiriac). He beat Arthur Ashe in five sets to win the US Open in 1972, won the French Open the following year without dropping a set and won the end-ofseason Masters Cup four times. After his retirement in 1985, Nastase wrote two novels and made an unsuccessful run for mayor of Bucharest. Earlier this year he followed in the footsteps of his doppleganger, that other great “swordsman” Gerard Depardieu, when the French made him a Knight of the Legion d’honneur.

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The pardoning of Jack Johnson

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Kansas Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins’ timing really couldn’t have been any worse when, in August, she called on a “great white hope” to emerge from Republican ranks and challenge Barack Obama. She hadn’t been aware, she subsequently claimed, of the origins of a phrase that was first used by the writer Jack London in 1908 willing the restoration of white ascendancy after Jack Johnson had had the audacity to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Her gaffe was made all the worse, though, for the fact she’d not long before voted in favour of a resolution calling for Johnson – who was sent to prison on somewhat equivocal charges after putting several “great white hopes” in the shade – to be given a presidential pardon.

Spurred on by the campaigning of film-maker Ken Burns, whose 2005 documentary Unforgiveable Blackness charts the boxer’s life, and the sponsorship of Senator John McCain, a boxing aficionado, that end now looks to be within reach, Senate and Congress both having given their seal of approval. Fevered debate in cyberspace in the wake of President Obama’s silence on the matter to date, coupled with reactions to Jenkins’ blunder, have served as a reminder, however, of just how deeply Johnson’s career divided America, and how issues of race continue to map onto boxing to this day.

By the time London – a man of the political left – was citing the white man’s “30 centuries of traditions … all the supreme efforts, the inventions and the conquests” as evidence of his racial supremacy, Johnson, the son of freed Texan slaves, had won dozens of fights against both black and white opponents. Already World Coloured Heavyweight Champion, in 1908 he took the belt that mattered, from Canada’s Tommy Burns. Revelling in his status as America’s first black superstar, he then laid waste to several challengers before James J Jeffries, who’d refused to fight Johnson and retired undefeated in 1904, agreed to a comeback “for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

When they eventually fought, in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, the ringside band played a song called “all coons look alike to me” and an all-white crowd chanted “kill the nigger.” But Johnson, faster, stronger and smarter than his opponent, knocked him down twice before Jeffries’ minders called time, after 15 rounds, in order to avoid a knock-out. His title now undisputed, Johnson walked off with $225,000 and black America erupted in spontaneous rejoicing. In more than 50 cities, however, there were riots, as the celebrations drew a violent response from white mobs. At least 20 men were killed in what was the most widespread racial turbulence the US would see until after the 1968 assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.

The day after the fight the Los Angeles Times intoned: “A word to the Black Man… No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of your victor at Reno.” Johnson, meanwhile, refused to condemn his fellow blacks for having “provoked” whites and was not forgiven: two years later he became the first person to be prosecuted under the Mann Act, which forbade the transportation of women across state lines “for immoral purposes” and was designed to stop the “white slave” trade in prostitutes. The charge involved a young white prostitute, Lucille Cameron, whom Johnson subsequently married. She refused to co-operate and the case fell apart, but another prostitute with whom he’d been involved four years previously testified against him and the authorities got their man: he was sentenced to a year and a day in jail but chose to flee, first to Europe and then to Mexico, before eventually surrendering seven years later and serving 10 months.

While in exile Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard in Havana after being knocked out in the 26th round. He tried to resurrect his fighting career on his release from jail but Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion from 1919 until 1926, refused to fight him, and in 1928 he retired, aged 50, having lost seven of his last nine bouts but with an overall record of 91-14-12. In 1946, he died in a car crash after racing away from a diner in which he’d been refused service.

The recent resolution on Capitol Hill stated that “the racially motivated conviction in 1913… unduly tarnished his [Johnson’s] reputation.” Others, though, deny this version of events. In April the Chicago Daily Observer noted that Johnson certainly violated the spirit, if not the letter of the law, “as he openly consorted with prostitutes” and even bankrolled a brothel madam.

Like Muhammad Ali half a century later, Johnson made boxing an act of defiance and he was loved and hated for it in equal measure. He refused to know his place in white man’s America, lived his life as he saw fit and courted controversy by marrying three white women. The first, a Brooklyn socialite named Etta Duryea, he beat up several times. The second, Cameron, he wed less than three months after Duryea’s suicide. Johnson’s career unfolded against the backdrop of religious revival in America but there are few yardsticks by which he could be judged a saint.

Some have argued that a pardon in this context would amount to an empty gesture and that it is too late to do “the right thing.” Others go further, resenting the impugnation of the whole of white society at the time and pointing to Bernard Hopkins’ outburst before he fought Joe Calzaghe in 2007 (“I would never let a white boy beat me… I would never lose to a white person”) as evidence that boxing is a sport in which race seems still to count and in which racism cuts in various directions.

Johnson wrote in his autobiography that he had been determined to “act as if prejudice does not exist.” Obama has been clear that it did, and does. Whether that’s enough for him to see a pardon as meaningful remains to be seen.