Malachy Clerkin’s sports books of the year

Muhammad Ali, Adrian Doherty, Paul O’Connell, others make up 2016’s best reads

 

Six of the best

Forever Young

Oliver Kay (Quercus, €28.00)

Adrian Doherty came from Strabane and for time in the early 1990s, it looked like he could make it anywhere. When the hierarchy at Manchester United – still without a league title since the ’60s, remember – played for time by talking of the glorious future coming up through the ranks, they pointed at Ryan Giggs and they pointed at Adrian Doherty. Can’t miss, won’t miss.

They were half right. Oliver Kay’s excellent biography accounts for the other half. When a book gets under an author’s skin, an enjoyable reader experience isn’t always guaranteed, especially when the subject is more or less completely unknown. Doherty died at the age of 27 and it would have been tempting for this to turn out as a maudlin lament for a lost ghost. But it’s so much more than that.

Kay went looking for Doherty the footballer and became smitten with Doherty the person. Shy, kooky, bit of a weirdo in football terms but remembered with unmistakable fondness by everyone he came into contact with. The research is exhaustive. Indeed, if there’s one minor quibble, it’s that the detailing of his teenage career pre-Old Trafford could have done with maybe 20 pages trimmed off it to save it getting repetitive.

The book really kicks into gear with Doherty, on the verge of making his United debut as a 16-year-old, and the injury in a reserve game that began the end. There’s an extraordinary lost month in New York where he tiptoes around the edge of finding himself a music career, even as he’s under contract with United. There’s a few attempts at a comeback, a stint in a chocolate factory in Preston, a few years working in bars in Galway, never far away from someone going, “Aren’t you the Adrian Doherty who . . . ?”

Ultimately, it’s a sad story with a tragic end but through the charm of Doherty’s personality and Kay’s herculean determination to do it justice, we end up with a sparkling gem of a book.

The Battle

Paul O’Connell and Alan English (Penguin, €18.99)

Famously a voracious consumer of sports books himself, O’Connell was always a reasonably sure bet to produce a worthy effort of his own eventually. The sports autobiography is a fairly battered old genre these days but in the hands of O’Connell and Alan English, this is typically insightful, rounded and well-crafted. It’s certainly the most engaging autobiography in the mix this year.

When you’ve lived your life in the public eye like O’Connell has for the past decade and a half, you have to make a decision with your book. Most choose the easy way – a retread of old games, a few yarns, a settling of the odd score, we know the drill by now. O’Connell goes the other way. 

Momentous days like Heineken Cup finals or Grand Slams or World Cups are dealt with almost off-handedly. For as much as they meant to him, they are not the focus of the battle in the title. Instead, pretty much the whole thrust of much of the book is the mental turmoil he put himself through and the physical toll it all took. He is obsessive. He is urgent. He is a pain in the arse for his teammates. He worries about all of these character traits and goes back and forth with himself as to how effective he is being.

If there is a slight drag towards the end, it’s because the battle got so much tougher for O’Connell as the years began to beat him down. 

It all adds up to an enlightening nosy around the mind of a high-performance zealot.

Drama in the Bahamas

Dave Hannigan (Sports Publishing LLC, €23.99)

Muhammad Ali died in 2016 but if there’s one unavoidable takeaway from Dave Hannigan’s outstanding account of his last fight against Trevor Berbick in 1981, it’s that he was dying 35 years ago and he was doing it in full view of the world. He was doing it because he couldn’t stop himself and in the absence of anyone around him strong enough to prevent him going ahead with it, he took Berbick on in a squalid, nothing fight whose only saving grace was the final bell.

Famously, that bell was a cowbell snatched at short notice from a local farmer when the organisers realised they didn’t have one for the fight. The greatest career in sport ended in farce and Hannigan presents it here in minute, damning detail.

Hannigan has written about an Ali fight before – the Croke Park encounter with Al Lewis in 1972 – but while that book was a royally entertaining caper filled with rich characters in innocent times, this is just depressing. James Cornelius is no Butty Sugrue.

Ali, more to the point, is no Ali. Not anymore. He is fat and slow and slow-witted. He is jealous of the new wave – the Hagler, Hearns, Leonard, Duran generation that is bewitching the boxing public and, as he sees it, profiting from a world he created. Above all, he is a danger to himself and it’s impossible to read some of the medical stuff in any context other than how his life turned out afterwards.

It’s a brilliant piece of reportage, full of quirks and factoids from an almost unrecognisable time and place. If it was fiction, it would be thoroughly enjoyable. The fact that it’s all appallingly true makes it too grim for that.

What Do You Think Of That?

Kieran Donaghany and Kieran Shannon (Trinity Mirror, €19.99)

It’s a tribute to the force of Kieran Donaghy’s personality that although his relationship with his alcoholic father led to some particularly bleak and dark times, this book of his life is never dragged down for too long as a result. Oliver Donaghy is introduced to us in the second chapter and pops up from time to time as we go along, sometimes in Kieran’s good graces, more often not. But this isn’t misery-lit – or at least it never feels like it.

Instead, it’s an enjoyable, knockabout skip through one of the best and brightest GAA careers of the past decade. Donaghy is a thoroughly likeable host for the journey, full of positivity and handy with an anecdote. It will be while, for example, before the image of a late-night Colm Cooper having to be dragged away from some local hoods in San Francisco for his own safety fades away. Gooch wanted to play them in basketball, they thought he wanted a fight – and only Donaghy’s fast-talking saves him from getting one.

The basketball years are threaded through the book as skilfully as you would expect, given his choice of co-author. The other side of Donaghy that wasn’t as well known is the dyslexia that prevented him from progressing through the ranks as a bank worker. As a result, the book is visually different to most sports books, with illustrations at the start of every chapters and more photographs than usual. These are deliberate choices by Donaghy, aimed at making it less daunting for people with similar reading difficulties. It’s a classy touch.

Out of Control

Cathal McCarron and Christy O’Connor (Simon & Schuster, €18.99)

Not an easy read, on any number of levels. Cathal McCarron and Christy O’Connor have combined for the year’s most uncomfortable book, a brutal and often desolate wander through a life that unravelled under the spell of a chronic gambling addiction. The sort of work that is easy to commend but hard to recommend. Christmassy it ain’t.

The Tyrone corner back is unflinching with his story, unsparing of himself, of his family, of those around him. He makes no particular effort to present himself as a nice guy brought low by a disease over which he has no control. You get the sense that while the gambling was the reason for extremes of behaviour, even without it he has always been capable of general, workaday badness without much of a backward glance.

He makes for an unsympathetic central character. This is clearly done by choice in the name and pursuit of honesty, which is obviously to his and O’Connor’s credit. There was more than enough known about McCarron before the ever wrote a book and if they’d only covered those areas, it would still have been lauded for its frankness. That they don’t gloss over the unknown stuff says only good things for them.

But man alive, it makes for tough going. The slow, grim grind of thievery and dishonesty and connivance is so dark that you immediately perk up when he gets to an actual football chapter. Even a chapter about the brutality of the Tyrone county championship comes as light relief, which is saying something.

McCarron eventually turns his life around and given the depths detailed here, it took incredible reserves of strength and courage to do so. Getting it all down on a page feels like part of that process and good luck to him for it. He has produced a fine book, even if it’s one you have to steel yourself to read.

Walking Tall

Rob Heffernan and Gerard Cromwell (Collins Press, €18.99)

There is an elephant stomping and clomping around the room here so we may as well get it out of the way first. The doping ban served by Paco Fernandez, Heffernan’s long-time friend and training partner, can’t but colour the rest of the book, purely for Heffernan’s refusal to condemn or distance himself from him.

Fernandez is so close to Heffernan that he’s worth a paragraph of thanks in the acknowledgements. There is even a point towards the back end of the book where Heffernan wants to send a couple of younger Irish walkers to go train with the Spaniard and loses his temper with Athletics Ireland for not allowing it.

Loyalty to a friend is one thing. But Heffernan’s blithe refusal to see how it’s any sort of big deal is jarring. Particularly because he spends plenty of the rest of the book writing with undisguised contempt for some of the Russian walkers he is competing against, even confronting them after major championships to ask them why they do it. 

It’s a shame because the book is otherwise a fascinating and eye-opening read. Heffernan fought a lot of wars just to be able to compete. He reached the top of the sport despite an initially disinterested – and sometimes actively hostile – attitude within his family, despite regular bouts of penury, despite there being almost no expertise or architecture in Irish athletics to help him along.

The sheer will and Cork belligerence that carried him through his career to eventually win a world gold and belatedly be upgraded to Olympic bronze makes you want to cheer for him unreservedly. It’s just a pity that his blind spot towards Fernandez makes that impossible.

And the rest . . .

GAA

The list gets longer each year when it comes to our national games and there’s no end of tomes to get stuck into in 2016. Despite its author overcoming a serious health scare, Hand On Heart by Ken McGrath and Michael Moynihan (Black & White, €17.99) wouldn’t be as weighty or po-faced as some of its contemporaries and certainly doesn’t suffer as a result. Arguably the most beloved member of that freakishly popular Waterford team, McGrath’s story is superbly put together in Moynihan’s expert hands.

The Best Is Yet To Come by Alan O’Mara (Hachette, €18.99) is the story of the former Cavan goalkeeper’s journey through depression. O’Mara is a lovely writer – self-aware, sparse, never over-flowery – and that skill married to a compelling story makes for a rewarding read.

Hard to believe it’s 20 years since the first Season Of Sundays (Sportsfile, €29.95) came out. The 2016 version is as rich and textured as the 19 that went before and it remains an annual treat. Finally, The Heart And Soul Of Kerry Football by Weeshie Fogarty (O’Brien, €19.99) is a nugget-filled dance through Kerry’s history by the legendary broadcaster.

Soccer

The Spirit of ’58 by Evan Marshall (Blackstaff, €13.99) is a follow-up book to Marshall’s 2015 documentary on one of the great lost teams, the Northern Ireland side who went to the 1958 World Cup. Initially, their toughest opponents were on home soil, the Sabbath observers within the IFA. But they fought on and with characters like Danny Blanchflower to carry the story, Marshall’s book more than does them justice.

Second City by Neal Horgan (Sportsproview, €14.99) is the second part of Horgan’s Death of a Football Club book on Cork City, taking up where the first one left off. Part diary of the 2009 season, part polemic on the state of Irish football, part rip-roaring jamboree, it lurches between the frequently hilarious and grimly frustrating throughout.

Of the biggies across the water, Angels With Dirty Faces (Orion, €27.95) by Jonathan Wilson carries the author’s seal of quality as it tells the story of Argentina’s footballing life, for good and for ill. Jack Charlton: The Authorised Biography by Colin Young (Hero, €20.00) captures everyone’s favourite honorary Irishman in reflective form and fills in the gaps he can’t anymore with help from those who can.

And Ring Of Fire by Simon Hughes (Bantam, €22.95) is the third in his series of interviews with Liverpool players past, this time focusing on the 2000s. It’s fair to say it isn’t as much fun as the 1980s or 1990s versions but that’s an inevitable function of just how recent all this stuff is and it’s balanced out by the fact that it’s more appealing to the floating reader as a result.

Rugby

The avalanche of rugby books in 2015 has slowed to a more manageable pebble-slide this time around and the offerings are far better for it. Front Up, Rise Up by Gerry Thornley (Transworld, €25.95) is the ultimate account of Connacht’s improbable rise from the unloved problem child of Irish rugby to Pro-12 champions. It’s a hell of a yarn, told with precision and élan.

On a similar theme, John Fallon, the freelance journalist and former Connacht chairman who has covered the team since 1984, has teamed up with the Inpho sports photography agency to produce The Team That Refused To Die (Inpho, €19.99).

The major autobiography to come out this year is My Life In Rugby by Donal Lenihan (Transworld, €22.90). Always a writer of authority, Lenihan tells his story in the careful, meticulous way that any readers of his columns will recognise. There’s a steel to him that shines through here, whether dealing with the political situation in Ireland during his playing days or the dreadful tragedies that robbed him of two of his children at an early age.

Other

And so to the remaining hotchpotch, where once again this year some of the best and least heralded offerings are to be found. Eat, Sweat, Play by Anna Kessel (MacMillan, €18.20) is a long-overdue treatment of women and sport and the various tensions, obstacles and awkwardnesses at play in a world where sport is still such a predominantly male pursuit. Everyone should read this book – at a very basic level, it will change how we think.

After that, the possibilities are endless. Win or Learn by John Kavanagh and Paul Dollery (Penguin, €18.99) is the life story – so far – of the man behind the rise of Mixed Martial Arts in Ireland. Kavanagh reveals himself as more than just a coach with a famous pupil. Bullied at school, desperate to impress a father with a reputation for being able to handle himself, he taught himself to fight and then led an unlikely revolution in a sport that was unheard of when he started out. A remarkable story that has plenty of juice in it yet.

To finish, a couple of compendiums for dipping in and out of. Everything To Play For – 99 Poems About Sport by John McAuliffe , Ed, (Poetry Ireland, €16.80) is a delight, comprising works by everyone from Kavanagh to Kennelly and from Yeats to Heaney. That said, a personal favourite would obviously be Elaine Feeney’s ‘Ryan Giggs Is A Ride’.

And lastly, the perennial mention for The Best American Sports Writing (Houghton Mifflin, €22.99), this year edited by Rick Telander. It’s been going for 25 years by now and the 2016 vintage is as varied and inventive as ever. Highlights this time around come in the shape of Michael Rosenberg’s “A Woman Fell From A Stadium” and Sam Borden’s “He’s The Last Boxer To Beat Floyd Mayweather Jr And He So Regrets It.”

Journalism may be going to hell in a handcart but evidently headline writing is in decent shape.

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