kenny hodgart

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Cult hero No 38: Hugh Dallas

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

Was there ever a more beloved arbiter, a more respected peacemaker, a more venerable man in polyester black, a more just custodian of the cards in all of Scottish life? Hugh Dallas united Old Firm supporters, soothed their hatreds and made placid bilateralists of the most rabid partisans.

Dallas, born in a schoolbook depository where as a child he nearly talked Lee Harvey Oswald out of a red-card offence, first brought his tranquil presence to bear in an Old Firm match at Ibrox in 1995. With the likes of Andy Goram, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Paul Gascoigne all playing, it was not a contest many considered governable. But Shug of the Beatitudes, for such was his handle, held tight to his peawhistle and kept proceedings in order, dispensing only nine yellow cards.

However, it was in a championship-deciding fixture at Parkhead in 1999 that Dallas demonstrated the full scope of his equability. With Rangers 1-0 in front, a flare-up in which Stephane Mahe responded angrily to being fouled by Rangers’ Neil McCann resulted in the Celtic man being sent off. Mahe, recognising the referee’s inherent rectitude, apologised for his effrontery, and one Celtic supporter manifested his esteem for the offical with a cash donation. Unfortunately, his proferred coin nearly took Dallas’s eye out. But if the target was put in fear of his own safety, he did not show it: moments later he gave Rangers a penalty when Tony Vidmar decided he didn’t like the look on Vidar Riseth’s face and went down in the box.

In 2002, Shug was Scotland’sole representative at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. After receiving a ticker-tape sendoff at Hampden, however, he was to alienate his American fans by declining to award the USA a penalty when Germany’s Torsten Frings handled the ball on the line. Dallas was later awarded an MBE for his services to Scottish football and is now generally regarded as an avuncular Tony Benn-type figure.

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Down with sporting cheats

This article appeared in The Herald

Following Eduardo da Silva’s recent display of bare-faced simulation against Celtic last month, a friend told me he was thinking of giving up being a football supporter.

A Celtic fan based in England, he was, in fact, in the habit of attending the Emirates with some Arsenal-supporting friends and, even before their Croatian superstar’s coup de theatre, he’d been grooming a justifiable chip on his shoulder over the disparity in the size of the jackpot on offer contingent on which of the sides won that tie. Had Celtic got to the Champions League group stages they stood to rake in £12m if they were lucky; Arsenal will rack up at least £35m. The answer, said my friend sorrowfully, was to go and watch cricket instead. I can only imagine he hadn’t heard about all the sledging, ball-tampering and match-fixing.

The level playing-field we like to fantasise about in sport is akin to a brownfield site in a run-down part of town that’s about to be redeveloped as a call centre. The Corinthian spirit may yet exist but it’s a shy, shrivelled, elfin thing; it tends to stay at home, embarrassed by all the cheating it sees on television. Perhaps it was ever thus, but what is undeniable is that, as sport has become more saturated with finance, as its elites have grown more dominant and as the rewards on offer at the sharp end have grown, so the temptation to cheat has grown commensurately.

As the Renault scandal broke these past few days, the conclusion was unavoidable that the only reason it did so was because the whistleblower himself, Nelson Piquet Jr, wanted revenge after being given the heave-ho. As a result of Piquet deliberately crashing, his team-mate at the time, Fernando Alonso, was able to win a race he would otherwise have not. Under normal circumstances these things do not emerge at all, which is why when egregious cases do come to light, punishment from the relevant authorities must be swift, decisive and retributive.

Over the last decade or so, the scale of doping in cycling has emerged bit by bit. The signs now are that the sport has started to reform itself but so widespread and intractable was that form of cheating that the tipping point only really came when the whole thing threatened to become a PR bloodbath. Other sports may be yet to face such self-immolation; other forms of cheating we may not consider to be so heinous. There are degrees of cheating, but to what extent, if any, does the absence of prima facie pre-meditation mitigate against the seriousness of the crime?

Was the Spygate affair in NFL, where the New England Patriots were caught videotaping the New York Jets’ coaching signals – the sporting equivalent of espionage – a more reprehensible instance of foul play than Diego Maradona scoring past Peter Shilton with his hand? Was the “bloodgate” scandal in rugby less intolerable than the “Calciopoli” match-fixing debacle in Italian football?

What is certain is that, the more cheating occurs and the more it is plain to see – whether because whistle-blowing has become more profitable or because televisual evidence is more dependable than ever – the less we are inclined to trust sportsmen and women, umpires, coaches, clubs or directors of sport. The court of public opinion is a powerful chamber and if people perceive that they are being duped they will make themselves heard.

Instances of the opposite of cheating – magnanimous gestures of fair play such as Paolo Di Canio’s when, playing for West Ham United, he opted to catch the ball rather than score past the injured, and grounded, Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard – are so rare that we cherish the memory of them.

Equally, cheats go unforgiven. Eduardo’s reputation will remain tarred. When Aberdeen play Rangers, their supporters will remind Kyle Lafferty of how he contrived to have Charlie Mulgrew sent off at Ibrox last season.

When people cheat in exams or in relationships, or when governments defraud their citizens or banks their customers, our sense of fair play demands a reckoning. We may hope for one but we do not expect it.

Sport is different: it’s neither love nor war; it’s not supposed to be about the dictates of the market or winning at all costs. If it takes retribution, retribution, retribution to preserve what sport should be about, then so be it.

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Cult hero No 29: Robert Millar

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

Great British cyclists tend to come along with all the regularity of flu epidemics. And as the podium at this year’s Tour de France dangled the promise of sporting immortality under the nose of an inspired Bradley Wiggins over the last week, it seemed apt to remember that it is now 25 years, almost to the day, that a taciturn yet charismatic young Glaswegian was crowned King of the Mountains and gained fourth in the overall classification, an achievement never bettered by a British rider.

Robert Millar was a oneoff: a lad born in the Gorbals who devoted himself to a somewhat alien sport, a prodigious talent who dripped native sarcasm. Millar moved to France at the age of 21 and started riding for the Peugeot team. In his first Tour, in 1983, he won the Pyrenean stage from Pau to Luchon and finished 14th overall, a prelude to his greatest achievement in the sport a year later. He would finish in the top 20 in six Tours, finished second twice in the Vuelta a Espana and once in the Giro d’Italia. He also won the Dauphine Libere in 1990.

His descent from such pinnacles was to be rocky, however. In 1992, a drug test revealed abnormally high testosterone levels in Millar’s body. He dismissed the result, seeming to suggest his vegetarianism had something to do with it, and got back on his bike. But in 1995 he left his family and, when his team went bust, retired from cycling, resurfacing briefly as British national road coach the following year but thereafter becoming ever-more reclusive.

In 2000, a tabloid tracked him down and ran a report claiming he’d had a sex change; two years later he turned up at the Commonwealth Games very much his old self, but sightings of this strangest of birds have since been rare. When the journalist Richard Moore tracked him down by e-mail for his 2007 book In Search of Robert Millar, his subject complained of the “morbid attitude to privacy in this country”. Millar’s King of the Mountains jersey can be seen hanging in Billy Bilsland’s cycle shop in Glasgow’s Saltmarket.

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Cult hero No 28: Ronald Ross

IN the beginning there were only sticks and balls. And God decreed the sticks were called camans and said let there be shinty, but not on the sabbath. But lo, Kingussie were rubbish with their camans, being a place of but a few score men, and beasts like to be rustled by knaves and anyway it looked like a bit of a rough game. But then Ian Ross, he of the Rosses of that place, made an oath to instruct the young men in being fleet of foot and hand so that other men would look upon them when they held their camans and be afraid. And this Ross took to him a wife, Mrs Ross, and they did bring forth a son, Ronald, some time in the 1970s, ’75 to be precise.

And when Ronald, son of Ian, came to be a man, Kingussie had by then become feared and were making light work of Fort William and Oban and Newtonmore and the other team that plays shinty. But what they lacked was a man hewn of the substance of his maker, like Eric Cantona, and so Ronald spake forth and said let me show you all how it’s done, but probably in Gaelic.

And Ronald took his caman and scored more goals by himself for Kingussie than the other teams could score among them, and all who beheld him said he was the Ronaldo of the Glens. And he did it with a smile around his face, and was virtuous and never took strong drink before games and was an example even to the kiddies, who saw that he valued health and safety by wearing a helmet and did follow suit sharpish.

And then after many years of scoring goals at shinty, Ross did reach his 1000th goal, equalling the feats of the great Romario, but in fact bettering them because some of Romario’s goals were in pub games. And Hugh Dan McLennan, verily the Moses of shinty, did call it a staggering achievement for Scotland, even though shinty does not exist outside of Scotland. And Alex Salmond threatened to put it on television instead of the cricket. But Ross did shrug and put his helmet on and score some more goals.

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

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An interview with Blowers

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

In interviews with sportsmen and women, the talk is often incidental: we’re interested more in what it tells us about battles won or lost, opponents better or bested, than the talk itself. In the case of Henry Blofeld, talking is the sport. And few are better at it than he.

Regarded variously as a “national institution” and “the voice of English cricket”, Blowers, who turns 70 in September, has been talking since 1972, the year he joined Test Match Special from The Guardian. He has talked a lot, too much for some of the cloddish contrarians who’ve written in to the BBC over the years; but for the remainder of his auditors there is good news: “I shall never retire,” he says. “I may be incapacitated and therefore have to stop working, I don’t know, but I shall never deliberately retire. Work is more fun than fun.”

So the voice endureth, though it be of a vanishing timbre, plummier than an orchard garden, delectably upper class. Blofeld’s anecdotes swarm with swashbuckling references to wonderful chaps and extraordinary matches. He is painstakingly polite, his humour gentle and Wodehousian, his delivery rat-a-tat-tat, all so much so that his on-air gaffes – “Ryan Stringfellow” for Ryan Sidebottom, “Monty Python” for Monty Panesar and “Yasser Arafat” for Pakistan’s Yasir Hamid – are both in-keeping and somehow explicable.

In further mitigation, 400-odd Test matches is a lot of talking hours; it is a great many innings, not to mention rain delays, to bring to life. But while Test Match Special remains a big part of Blofeld’s life, – “I enjoy it immensely” – like his old friend and former colleague, the late Brian Johnston, he has been able to develop his interest in talking away from cricket. “My main life is on the stage now,” says the man who, it should be recalled, grew up with Noel Coward as a family friend. His one-man show, An Evening With Blowers, has now been staged some 130 times. Last month he performed it in front of 2,500 people at the Royal Albert Hall, and in August he will bring it to the Edinburgh Fringe.

“There’s hardly anything about cricket in it at all,” he says. “It’s all about people I’ve met and people I’ve known.” His life is “good value”. Besides Coward, the people he has known include the actor Tom Courtenay, Ian Fleming (the friend of his father’s who borrowed the family name for James Bond’s arch-enemy), Johnston and the other mainstays of Test Match Special, and cricketing friends Keith Miller and Fred Trueman.

“It’s funny,” he says. “Even if say so myself. It makes people laugh.” Laughter there may be but Blofeld’s formative years weren’t all japes and mirth. His Edwardian mother he describes as “a cross between Queen Victoria and Attila the Hun.” “It was quite a tough upbringing actually, incredible when you compare it today. I never saw my parents practically until I was about 14. It was all nannies and boarding schools.”

At Eton, Blofeld scored a century for the Public Schools against the Combined Services at Lord’s but in 1957 had the misfortune of being run over by a bus. “I was incredibly lucky not to be a cabbage,” he says. “In fact, I was lucky to be alive.” He spent 28 days unconscious and his eye socket had to be reconstructed, and though he recovered well enough to play first-class cricket for Cambridge University, his career as a sportsman soon fizzled out.

A brief spell in the City followed an unspectacular academic career before a “lucky break” gave Blowers the chance to write his first cricket match report. The rest, besides the foregoing, is all in the show, although if his radio commentary is anything to go by there will also be plenty of tangents, encompassing everything from pigeons and cakes to ‘elf and safety. But there is also a postscript to Blofeld’s own cricketing career. England, on tour in India in 1963/64, were bedevilled by injury and illness when, on the eve of the Bombay Test, David Clark, the tour manager, took Blofeld to one side and told him he might have to play. “I would certainly play if needed,” replied Blowers, “but if I scored 50 or upwards in either innings I’d be damned if I would stand down for the Calcutta Test.”

In the event vice-captain Micky Stewart hauled himself out of his hospital bed and turned up at the cricket ground, thus denying Blofeld. Any regrets? “I was rather thankful, actually,” he admits. “I’d have made an idiot of myself probably.”

He may never have played for England, but neither did he sledge. “No, you never saw sledging when I played cricket,” he says. “But I’m the wrong generation. Different times produce different customs and I think cricketers probably respect each other less than they used to. Cricket, like any other sport, reflects society at the time. There’s far less discipline than there was 50 years ago.”

And so he is off on an agreeably arch critique of modern sport. Sledging, greed, bad manners: all are ripe for a clobbering. But for all he is unmistakeably of the old school, there is a telltale hint of relish too, an element of tilting at windmills in the best, most entertaining, traditions of Test Match Special.

“It’s no good people my age saying this or that didn’t happen when we were young,” he relents. “We lived in a very different world in the 1940s and 1950s.” What of Twenty20? “I like the Twenty20, I think it’s good fun. The danger is it mustn’t be allowed to swamp cricket. Players can’t learn the lovely cricket strokes and techniques through playing a game that is about bottom-handed slogging.”

Time’s up and we haven’t got round to talking about the Ashes, other than to establish that it’s all very evenly-matched. Not to worry. Twenty20 matches are over in a flash, but Test cricket brings you hours and hours of talk, pigeons and cakes inclusive.

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Football supporters have fewer rights than animals

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

What will it be like, watching football, say ten years from now? The Great and the Good like that sort of question, probably because they get to sound like Barack Obama without having to grapple with their own impotence, contradictions or doubts. A seat for everyone and everyone in his (or her) seat? Well, they’ve got that one nailed down already. Family-friendly atmospheres? Sure, we all like families. No sectarianism, racism or homophobia? Even better.

But wait. It’s important to get this straight, because it is surely obvious to all but fools that once social ills are eliminated from sport they’ll soon up and evaporate from the rest of life too. How are we to achieve this eradication of nastiness? The answer, of course, is via CCTV, dossiers of offensive chants and lip-synch technology; by herding, stifling, monitoring and ultimately spying on supporters. They tend to be quite big on civil liberties, the Great and the Good, but not when it comes to people attending football matches. And going on burgeoning evidence, fans around the UK are frequently beheld with a presumption of guilt.

For the most part they are suffered like naughty children, enjoined to turn up, sit down and shut up. One supposes that is progress from the days when they were caged in behind fences like animals, but just as in the aftermath of the G20 protests and the Damian Green affair people are wondering what exactly the police are for, it’s worth noting that patrons of what is one of the country’s biggest leisure industries still seem to have fewer rights than animals.

Last year, Cliff Auger took his two teenage sons to Stamford Bridge to watch their team, Chelsea, beat QPR in the FA Cup. When, after the game and walking away from the ground, 16-year-old James was bitten by a police dog, Cliff instinctively jumped in and kicked it, only to be set on by officers wearing riot gear, who broke several of his ribs and landed him in hospital for the next four days. He was then found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering to a protected animal and fined £500.

“There was a simple presumption on the part of the police that he was a trouble-maker because he was a football fan,” says Michael Brunskill of the Football Supporters’ Federation, a body which represents 142,000 registered members in England and Wales. “There was no acknowledgement that a father protecting his son is a natural instinct.”

Policing and stewarding in and around football grounds is one of the FSF’s main areas of concern and they receive complaints from fans about mistreatment every week. Stewards, says Michael, are often little different to bouncers: “An example of that is at Newcastle, who decided they would have a singing area but, of course, there was to be no standing. If you sing in church, you stand, it’s natural, but these guys go in and effectively man-handle people, which they’ve no more legal right to do than you or I.”

The FSF are also worried by the new ploy of locking supporters in pubs near stadia so that they miss the game. Section 27 of the Violence Crimes Reduction Act 2006 allows police to restrict the movements of individuals in this way but the law has been misapplied. In November a group of around 80 Stoke City fans were kept in a pub in Manchester for two hours, even though, according to the publican, their behaviour was exemplary.

I haven’t heard of the tactic being used in Scotland, but Steve Sutherland of Aberdeen’s Red Ultras supporters’ group, which was set up almost a decade ago with the aim of putting some colour and passion back into Scottish football, recognises the intent behind it. “We’ve had guys arrested for as little as handing out bags of confetti, or for standing up, or for not moving where they’re told. It’s the same for other groups like ourselves around the country. It’s amazing that something so innocent as wanting to support your team can become so complicated.

“The issue of standing is a bit of a sticking point. When Elton John played a concert at Pittodrie, the whole place was standing; but then there’s a football game in front of a half-empty stadium and all of a sudden it’s considered dangerous.”

Gone today are the swaying terraces of yesteryear, and with them much of the chorused banter and vitriol that formed part of the cultural experience of watching football. A generation has grown up for whom watching on television either at home or in the pub is the authentic ticket, and if you do go to the game, at whichever identikit stadium your club or their opponents were forced to erect to keep the bureaucrats happy, it’ll be made quite clear that if ever football was the people’s game it is no longer. Having forked out handsomely to watch men who care more about wresting ever-greater sums of money from the club’s chairman than they do about its traditions, you won’t know much about what your fellow fans are shouting or singing anyway because your ears will still be hurting from the Robbie Williams song they played when the teams ran out.

It’s not this uniformly drab in other parts of Europe, mind. When Spurs travelled to Wisla Krakow in the Uefa Cup recently, the Polish crowd mocked the atmosphere at White Hart Lane the week before by sitting behind their newspapers for the first 15 minutes of the game. And in Germany most grounds have designated safe standing areas where fans can jump around, sing and do all the other stuff that would have the authorities here spitting feathers and clutching for the health and safety manual. Not even Lord Taylor, let’s remember – in his report in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster – was able to argue that standing at football matches is inherently unsafe.

Football clubs and their governing associations in the UK have instead assisted in the stifling of passion and spontaneity at grounds. They have done so to placate sponsors and politicians and, perhaps, because like everyone else they must be seen to reinforce political correctness. “We’re not saying we want a return to the bad old days and there should be no place for racism or homophobia in football, but it’s arguably naive to think that football supporters can or should be made to behave like boy scouts,” says Brunskill. “How far do you go? Shouldn’t we have a debate, for example, before people who’ve verbally abused this or that player are named and shamed on Crimewatch?”

In Glasgow it is well known that chorused invective can be as an overture to real violence, but in most cases it is understood that going to the football involves a partial suspension of the rules of everyday life. Spurs fans, case in point, do not go about calling Arsenal supporters “HIV c***s” at work, do they? Tribalism, rivalries and petty antagonisms are all realities on which the game thrives. If they’re being honest the Old Firm clubs know this full well. And where there is no real social basis for a vicious footballing rivalry, one evolves anyway – how else do you explain Kilmarnock versus Ayr United?

I remember going as a boy to the football with my dad and hearing, for the first time, all manner of swearing and vitriolic abuse. It didn’t put me off going back, but nor did it set me on the path of recidivism. It told me, I think, that football could be a bit rough around the edges, that here was a man’s game. Is that really so bad?

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Cult hero No 21: Dickie Jeeps

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

Dickie Jeeps – his name so evocative of an era of good eggs, amateurism and the Corinthian spirit – was also a rugby visionary.

His name might have come straight from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel, redolent as it is of companionship with William Boot and Chatty Corner, but his Be Prepared philosophy was ahead of its time in his chosen sport.

In 1962 he was due to captain England in a trial match against The Rest. “I wrote to all the team and told them, ‘As far as I am concerned I want to play for England and I hope you are all with me in wanting to do the same,'” he later recalled.

“If you want to play for England versus Wales we need to win this trial match. I want you all to meet at Richmond at 2.30 next Friday [for a practice session],” he continued in his letter. “When Col Frank Prentice, the secretary of the Rugby Football Union, got to hear about that, I got a bollocking. A terrible bollocking. He told me, ‘This is not a professional game’.” The get-together seemed to work, however, as England won the match.

It was, indeed, Jeeps’s readiness that marked him out from the start. In 1955, uncapped for England, he travelled to South Africa as the British Lions’ third-choice scrum-half. Welsh stand-off Cliff Morgan liked Jeeps’s service from the base of the scrum, however, and he ended up playing in all four tests in the series, which the Lions drew 2-2.

A year later he won his first England cap, in a game at Twickenham that Wales won 8-3. (Jeeps only played in a winning side against Wales once. In 1967, he said of the Welsh scrum-half Gareth Edwards: “The sooner that little so-and-so goes to rugby league, the better it will be for us.”) He captained England 13 times in 24 appearances and also played in 13 Lions tests, a record until it was surpassed by Willie John McBride.

It was reported this week that Jeeps has had his England and Lions memorabilia stolen. Professionalism: the harbinger of foul play.

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Cult hero No 15: Willie Watters

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

Usain Bolt won three sprint gold medals at last year’s Olympics Games on a strict diet of chicken nuggets. His feats in the field of turning saturated fat into sporting achievement pale, however, in comparison to the exemplary efficiency with which Willie Watters performed the task.

Watters was a footballer who made no secret of his fondness for a pie – opposition supporters enjoyed vocalising opinions on the effect this had on his physique, so there would have been no use his denying it. He also liked a good bucket when the opportunity arose, which was not infrequently.

Such qualities in a man have always guaranteed at least grudging respect from the patrons of Scotland’s lower divisions. But the fact that Watters was simultaneously, albeit sporadically, prolific in front of goal, made him an absolute legend at most, if not all, of the clubs he played for.

At Queen of the South and Alloa Athletic he disappointed, but at Hamilton Academical, Kilmarnock, Stirling Albion and a host of other senior sides he perfected the art of standing about waiting for the ball to come to him, then scoring with it.

A tubby striker in the Joey Harper mould, he professed that the secret to scoring goals was “to be fat and lazy and just hang around the box,” but unlike Harper he was satisfied that in Division One, or maybe Two in a bad year, he had found his level.

In his first season at Kilmarnock, 1988-89, his five goals in a 6-0 win over Queen of the South on the last day of the season were not enough to prevent the Rugby Park club from dropping down to Division Two after an injury-time penalty secured Clyde’s survival.

He then scored 23 the following season – including a hat trick in Tommy Burns’ Kilmarnock debut, against Arbroath – as the Ayrshiremen yo-yoed right back up, but opted to leave that part of the world for Stirling Albion in 1991.

In four seasons at Forthbank he scored 56 league goals, but the reasons for that move were never abundantly clear. It should probably be remembered that this was the era before the advent of the Killie Pie.

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Cult hero No 14: Bill Werbeniuk

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

BILL Werbeniuk was a fat man. In the days when snooker was sponsored by snout, he smoked on television, and he drank. A lot. At least six pints of lager before a match, then a pint for each frame.

When he was scheduled to play at 10am, he had to get up at six to get his starter pints in; then after a hard day’s work at the table, he’d retire to the bar for a social one.

For reasons deeply ingrained in the British psyche, this meant that when he moved over here from his native Vancouver in the late 1970s he quickly became the very essence of a cult hero.

Werbeniuk drank to counteract a condition which made his cue arm tremble; another condition meant he never really got drunk, and he even acquired a medical certificate which allowed him to offset the cost of his booze against income tax.

The highpoint of Werbeniuk’s career came when he, Cliff Thorburn and Kirk Stevens won the Snooker World Cup for Canada in 1982. The following year he was a beaten finalist in the Lada Classic – this was snooker’s glamorous heyday, mind – and in the Winfield Masters in Australia, but it was downhill from then on. Later, in a televised World Championship match against David Taylor in 1986, an attempt to lean across the table resulted in his trousers splitting. The flatulent ripping noise provoked laughter in the audience, but Werbeniuk took it in good spirit: “Who did that?” he demanded to know.

Eventually, concerned about the effect of his drinking on his health, Big Bill’s doctors recommended that he switch to the beta-blocker Inderal.

Unfortunately, the substance was subsequently banned and he was fined and suspended for continuing to take it. He went bankrupt in 1991 and returned to Canada, where he lived with his mum and played pool before his heart gave out at the age of 56, in 2003. After his last professional match, in 1991, he revealed: “I’ve had 24 pints of extra strong lager and eight double vodkas and I’m still not drunk.” Impressive.

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Cult hero No 12: James Hunt

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

James Hunt, the bad-tempered public shoolboy who had a penchant for blonde totty, smoked 40 a day and was prone to spectacular accidents, was never taken seriously by Formula One – until he started winning races. With his unkempt hair and shambolic demeanour, he always looked like he had just stumbled out of a nightclub.

That very scattiness was what endeared him to the British public, however.

Hunt entered F1 in 1973 with Hesketh Racing, a romantic concern bankrolled by the eccentric Lord Hesketh and by then managed by the excellently-named Anthony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley.

Hesketh initially entered F2 with little success but decided he might as well fail in F1 as it wasn’t significantly more expensive and would allow him to show off his yacht, helicopter, Porsche and Rolls to better effect.

Hunt won World Championship and non- Championship races before joining McLaren at the end of 1975 when Hesketh ran out of funds.

That was the year of Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident in Germany, and though the Austrian recovered well enough to be able to finish the campaign, Hunt beat him to the Drivers’ Championship by a single point. He remained with McLaren for a further two years before moving to the Wolf team, but then retired midway through the 1979 season, declaring that he’d never really enjoyed driving anyway.

Back in those days F1 regularly left its participants dead or dying and the fear of crashing regularly made Hunt physically sick. Missing the immediacy of that danger, perhaps, he was prone to depression in the early 80s and for a while drank heavily – it is said he polished off two bottles of wine during his first broadcast as an F1 commentator for the BBC, in which role he distinguished himself with comments like “the trouble with [Jean-Pierre] Jarier is that he’s a French wally.” Latterly, Hunt did manage to cut out the booze – and the smokes – and channelled his energies into becoming a champion breeder of budgies and parrots, but he died, sadly, of a heart attack in 1993, aged just 45.