A handy way of judging sports autobiographies has always been to weigh the stories against the story. Without the story, it’s unlikely that any book of any genre will be that great but you can paper over plenty of cracks if the stories are good enough.
In reality, the majority of them are sold by the face and name on the cover and not a whole lot more. Their story is important to them, of course. When you come to the end of a sports career and a publisher reckons you are worth a book, then it is obviously tempting to embrace a narrative arc for yourself.
You have lived a life that a tiny percentage of the population have ever come close to so it will feel obvious to you that your story must be interesting. You know what you went through, what you were prepared to do, what you gave up, all that good stuff. Why wouldn’t that make a book?
Problem is, people generally already know the story. Or the bare bones of it anyway. And boiled right down, it’s not really a new story, regardless of how unique you think yours is. You were nobody, then you were somebody and now you’re an ex-somebody. The colouring in between those lines covers what you won, what you didn’t win, the whys and whats that fed into it all. Without a heap of good stories to liven it up along the way, it will be Just Another Sports Book.
It is in this context that something such as Recovering by Richie Sadlier and Dion Fanning shines like a gem. It is a rare and precious example of a sports book that has both story and stories in abundance. If you’re after a dose of tell-all pro footballer gossip, there’s plenty in here from behind the curtain to keep you going. If you want more, if you want something with a through line, a guide rope to take you from beginning to middle to end, that’s here too.
In a way, the best thing that could have happened to the author Richie Sadlier was one of the worst things that happened to the footballer Richie Sadlier. He made it and then he didn’t. He did everything you need to in the early stages of his professional career with Millwall and climbed all the way to playing for Ireland and being on the verge of a transfer to the Premier League. And then his body gave up on him and he had to retire.
How do you rebuild a life that had been constructed for one purpose only? Footballers who’ve had long and lucrative careers find real life a dreadful imposition when the time comes; how do you go about it when you’re 24 and they rang the bell on you before you got to make the money that would set you up and sort you out? There is a ready-made story there for the telling, one that might not have been as interesting had he stayed intact and made his millions and had a solid career.
When it comes down to it, however, just as Sadlier’s life hasn’t been defined by not living out the football career he’d dreamed of as a boy, neither is the book. Instead, it’s a judiciously layered and thoughtful examination of how to live a life and develop as a person despite everything. And if that all sounds a bit dry and worthy, it’s a tribute to his personality and his writing that it doesn’t read that way.
Sadlier’s book is raw without ever being miserable. Partly that’s because he makes for an appealing central character – thoughtful, reasonable, constantly trying to deepen his understanding of life as it swirls around him. Not alone do you find yourself rooting for him, you occasionally find yourself wishing you could react to life’s setbacks with such curiosity and self-questioning.
For a man who suffered genuine trauma in his both professional and personal life, Sadlier has a way of writing it all down without crying it all out. His internal monologue is mercilessly harsh on himself and in the wrong hands that kind of self-immolation can be tough on a reader. But mostly here, all you want to do is give him a hug.
With co-writer Fanning steering him along, the book is masterfully paced. Sadlier’s relationship with his father, himself a recovering alcoholic, is an elusive, intangible thing all the way to the end.
Of all the emotional staging posts along the way, there’s a particular text exchange between them ahead of the 2002 World Cup that will catch in the throat of plenty of Irish males when they read it. Sons and their fathers isn’t easy work. But at no stage does he bail out and paint their relationship as any less complicated than it is and the book is the better for it.
It is the better too for another choice. Much of the publicity around the book has centred on the sexual abuse Sadlier suffered at the hands of a physio when he was 14. This is his first time going public with it and it has understandably swallowed up broad swathes of the commentary. But although it is lightly hinted at in the introduction, the incident itself isn't introduced here until well over two-thirds of the way through.
You can read between the lines as you’re going along and presume to guess that there’s more to his relentless coursing of himself than meets the eye. But the net effect of leaving it until that late is to tie everything that has gone before together and it elevates the book in doing so. It is storytelling of the highest calibre.