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Looking for some Christmas reading? Here are the best sports books of 2022

From Roddy to Kellie to Limerick hurling and beyond, it has been a bumper year for sports books

The Best

The Game by Tadhg Coakley (Merrion Press, €16.95)

The big themes are hard to tackle, in sport as in life. So hard, in fact, that they’re generally best left alone. You tell a big story by telling a small story first, by narrowing the focus, slimming it down. Anything – anything – but trying to write your way around the big amorphous blob.

But then a book like this comes along, in the hands of a sportsman poet, and just like that it clicks into place. Tadhg Coakley was good enough in his youth to play minor hurling for Cork and win an All-Ireland. He was a fine soccer player too and once scored 30 goals in a title-winning season for local side Mallow United. As a grown up, he’s a much-admired short-story writer, poet, novelist and essayist. This book is all of that tossed into a pot, reduced down to a warming, layered sauce and served on a bed of sport.

At brass tacks level, it’s a collection of essays. The common thread running through them is Coakley’s attempt to understand sport, to explain it both as it relates to him and to the wider world, to sketch its contours and kick its tyres.


If that all sounds a bit woolly and undefined, you are encouraged to go with it. Coakley brings rigour and curiosity and a frankly disturbing breadth of reading to his pursuit of sport, often – and possibly a mite too often, actually – leaning on the writings of others to explore his feelings on any given subject.

The book is best when he sits alone, ruminating in his own humble, lyrical way on everything under the sun. On losing, on connections, on writing and fathers and danger and sideline cuts and every last little thing that comes into his head and the way that sport explains them and the way they explain sport.

A book of wisdom, love, mania and truth. Read our review.

The Rodfather by Roddy Collins and Paul Howard (Penguin Sandycove, €20.99)

Maybe the best way to get a sense of this book is to open it at random and read through the two pages spread out before you and count the yarns. For instance, pages 184-185 in which Collins, then manager of Bohemians, signs former Celtic player Paul Byrne, gets his sister-in-law to sew an extra couple of inches into Byrne’s shorts to get them to fit him and watches him lift a can of beer thrown at him by a fan during a game, take a drink out of it and run on down the wing.

Meanwhile, Roddy endures endless abuse from the Bohs crowd and the boardroom despite going on a league-winning run, spends half his time in Lillies Bordello and has to deal with the absolute certainty he and his wife Caroline have that there’s a ghost in their house, eventually getting a priest in to bless it.

The whole book is like this. It’s a Naked Gun movie for anecdotes – don’t worry if you don’t like this one, there’s another coming up right behind it. Here’s one about the 50 grand in cash Roddy kept in the attic that his kids dipped into so often they came to call it The Hole in The Wall. Here’s one about him finishing up a high-profile football job in England and training Travellers in bare-knuckle boxing to turn a pound. Story after story, no let-up at any stage.

Laugh after laugh, too. There isn’t a funnier sports book this year – there might not be one for the next decade. The life and times of Roddy Collins: journeyman footballer, coulda-been-a-contender manager, plasterer, chancer, dreamer, messer. Expertly told by Paul Howard, who corrals the endless yarns into a cohesive story and does justice to a mad, mad life. Read our review.

Kellie by Kellie Harrington and Roddy Doyle (Penguin Sandycove, €19.99)

Down through the years, whenever an interviewer would try to push Kellie Harrington into the rougher-around-the-edges part of her story, she’d always flash a smile and duck and move, joking that she was keeping all that for the book. Maybe she knew then that she was going to get Roddy Doyle to help her with it. If so, she’s a better strategist than even those of us who have watched her career blossom were giving her credit for.

And what a story it is. She was a teenage tearaway from Dublin’s north inner-city, a gay, not especially sporty troublemaker who had to be sent away to live with an aunt in England to knock the edges off her. Doyle coaxes the journey from there to Olympic gold out of her with warmth, wit and tenderness.

Those qualities are what jump off the page. You can feel her sense of community coming through, even while she is hanging about doing little more with her life than teenage drinking and shoplifting. How do you get from there to the life she has now – role model, national treasure, all that stuff? You do it with humility and talent and grabbing on to something good with everything you have.

There’s plenty of boxing in here too. Doyle is clearly fascinated with the gritty nuts and bolts of the game and so you have gorgeous passages where he gets Kellie to explain the minutiae of wrapping your hands or making weight. The last 50 pages build and build through the Olympics, to the point where your heart is bursting all over again for her.

There’s a scene late on where she sits alone in the vast Olympic food hall after winning, trying to make sense of her world flipping upside down. Reading it all this time later and all these thousands of miles away, you want to jump into the book and hug her. That’s writing, kids. Read our review.

Limerick: An Autobiography In Nine Lives by Arthur James O’Dea (Hero Books, €17.99)

There aren’t many original ideas in sportswriting so it’s always a pleasure to come across one, especially one executed with such élan. This is the story of Limerick’s rise to hurling world domination, with nine biographies woven around and through each other like plaited puff pastry. It’s at the same time deeply personal and exhaustively universal – the author and his family are arguably the 10th biography here.

And so you have a wide spectrum of personalities, from Mick Mackey (born 1912) to Shane Dowling (born 1993). The historian in O’Dea comes out in the Mackey stuff, told through song and story. Eamonn Cregan emerges as a fascinating figure, so burned by the years of heartbreak that he still can’t watch Limerick matches now, even as they own the hurling world. Nickie Quaid’s mam is a gas woman altogether.

The structure of the book is its compelling genius. O’Dea will start a section with a quote from a classic novel, then stitch in a bit of an interview with, say, Ger Hegarty, then link it to a conversation with his father, then follow up with paragraphs torn from match reports from a league campaign in the 1990s.

Written down like that, it sounds like a ludicrous way to put a narrative together, more scrapbook than sports book. But it works. The story flows smoothly and a device that could have been discombobulating instead enhances the experience.

The whole thing is suffused with love and longing for Limerick hurling. The thorns came before the rose for most of O’Dea’s life, albeit these are days of endless bloom and colour. That yin and yang was always going to make for decent subject matter – O’Dea’s diligent inventiveness has given it the book it deserves. Read our review.

Second Sight by Ian McKinley and Gerry Thornley (Reach Sport, €13.99)

There’s something glorious throughout this book about the dogged, cussed way Ian McKinley doesn’t accept his lot in life. He lost his eye playing rugby and, not to put too fine a point on it, it messed him up royally for a while. But then he found a way to swim back upstream and didn’t allow his rugby career to die because of it. At certain points, you want to punch the air for him.

This could have been a sob story or a tale of anger and bitterness. It’s anything but. McKinley takes a more nuanced and subtle view on the ups and downs of life. He doesn’t hold the disastrous incident against the player who caused it but at the same time, he made sure to move on from playing for UCD as he couldn’t bear to play in the same team as him any more.

Later, as he brings his campaign to play in specially made goggles around the various unions, he feels particularly let down by the IRFU. But he makes sure to turn up to a crucial meeting with them in his old Leinster suit and his IRFU tie, just to remind them that he’s one of their own at the back of it all.

Through it all, he and Gerry Thornley tell a story of defiance and ultimately a refusal to be told no. McKinley isn’t always flattering about himself – his obsession with fashioning a rugby career out of such unpromising circumstances makes the reader sympathise endlessly with Cordelia, his girlfriend at the time of the incident and eventually his wife. She put up with a lot.

In the end, they got there. He found his way back, he jumped all the hurdles and became the thing nobody imagined he would. A pro rugby player, an international, a Six Nations starter. All with one eye.

Rugby book of the year.

The Rest

Biography of the year is an easy one in 2022 – Phil by Alan Shipnuck (Simon & Schuster, €14.99). This is a rip-roaring, thoroughly fair portrait of the golfer Phil Mickelson and though it has caused Mickelson and Shipnuck to fall out after 30 years of knowing each other, it’s no hatchet job. The opening chapter, in which Shipnuck gets 30 golf personalities to tell their best Mickelson story – is worth the cover price alone.

Fifteen Rounds In The Wilderness by Dave Hannigan (Pitch Publishing, €15.99) is the third Muhammad Ali book by The Irish Times columnist and is, by turns, both his most fascinating and depressing. Going year by year, it chronicles the great man’s search for a post-boxing life between 1981 (his last fight) and 1996 (lighting the flame at the Atlanta Olympics). The research is incredible, the writing spare and precise and the picture of Ali we get is sympathetic, often riotously funny and yet, in the end, so, so sad.

On the GAA front, Why Not A Warrior? by Gemma O’Connor and Sinead Farrell (Hero Books, €15.99) is a deep and soulful telling of the life of the legendary Cork camogie player. Her nine All-Irelands provide the obvious scaffolding for the story but underneath it all, she deals with family illness, life in the army and her own sexuality in thoughtful, genuine prose.

Grassroots: The Second Half edited by PJ Cunningham (Ballpoint Press, €18.99) is a second volume of GAA stories, poems, essays and miscellany from around the country. While it has plenty of laughs and the odd bit of whimsy thrown in, this is actually a deeply important project undertaken by Cunningham. Only for books like this, endless oral history from every corner of the association would be lost.

The same can be said of the Hero Books stable, from where a seemingly endless line of GAA books are emerging each year. This time around, depending on your allegiances and interests, you can treat yourself to Born To Save by former Leitrim goalkeeper Martin McHugh and Jason Byrne (Hero Books, €14.99) or Life, Glory and Demons by Donegal’s Anthony Molloy and Frank Craig (Hero Books, €14.99) or – and arguably the pick of the lot – Dooley: A Family Memoir – by the Dooley brothers of Offaly, helped by Kevin O’Brien (Hero Books, €14.99). As ever, the GAA can count itself fortunate in its storytellers.

The other notable GAA production of the year is the terrific After The Storm by Damian Lawlor (Black & White Publishing, €17.99). On the face of it, it’s the story of how the GAA got through the pandemic. But it’s more than that as well. Lawlor’s gift as a GAA journalist has always been finding people who didn’t even know they had a story to tell until he has coaxed it out of them. And so we get everyone from the Taoiseach to the lowliest S&C coach reliving a two-year stretch where nobody could be sure of anything and everyone was just trying to get through the day.

History of the GAA in 100 Objects by Siobhán Doyle (Merrion Press, €19.99) is the perfect dip-in-and-out book, 100 small chapters on the nation’s largest cultural institution told through everything from letters to trophies to jerseys to Brian Cody’s cap. Life Begins In Leitrim by Zak Moradi and Niall Kelly (Gill Books, €18.99) is the singular story of how Moradi, a Kurdish refugee who arrived in Ireland as an 11-year-old without a word of English, went from a camp in Iraq to hurling in Croke Park for Leitrim.

All On The Line by Pádraic Maher and Michael Moynihan (Hachette, €18.99) is the great Tipperary hurler’s account of a career that was brought to all-too premature an end earlier this year. Maher is modest to the last drop and that humility and genuineness drips from his memoir.

The world turns. Last year the best books were on rugby, this year there are a slew of really high-quality soccer books to tuck into. Top of the shop is Expected Goals by Rory Smith (HarperCollins, €17.99), telling the story of the people behind the data analysis revolution that has shaped modern football. It’s not a book about numbers, it’s about the people who crunch those numbers and how they found a home in a hostile sport. You’ll never look at soccer the same way again.

Three Irish books are worth everybody’s time. In The Shadow Of Benbulben by Paul Little (Pitch Publishing, €14.99) is a gorgeous gem of a book detailing the short spell in 1939 when Dixie Dean came to Ireland to play for Sligo Rovers. Scoring Goals In The Dark by Clare Shine and Gareth Maher (Pitch Publishing, €18.99) deservedly made the William Hill longlist, laying bare the former Ireland international’s struggles with mental health and addiction. Maher has evidently been busy – his Away Days (New Island, €15.99) interviews 30 Irish soccer players, one from every season of the Premier League so far. The Matt Doherty and Seamus Coleman chapters are especially fascinating.

Further afield, 1999: Manchester United, the Treble and All That by Matt Dickinson (Simon & Schuster, €22.90) is a rollicking slice of near-history nostalgia. A book on this subject has to be good to overcome tribal biases – and it is. As Dickinson points out, some English club will surely win a treble again somewhere along the way but there’s zero chance of them winning it the way United won it in ‘99. Interviews with the likes of Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham, Gary Neville and more are dotted through Dickinson’s own recollections in 99 giddily readable chapters. Not to be missed.

On the rugby field, Scrum Queens by Ali Donnelly (Pitch Publishing, €16.99) went a little under the radar when it was released in the summer and deserves a much wider audience. Donnelly has been pushing the rock up the hill on women’s rugby for years so nobody was better placed to trace the long, long road the female side of the house has travelled to establish a foothold in the sport. Filled with jaw-dropping detail and a brilliant sense of history, it’s both a timely reminder of how we’ve come and how far there is still to go.

A few bits and bobs to finish. One of the more intriguing books of the year is Faith by Gerard Gallagher (Hero Books, €15.99), a collection of interviews with sportspeople about the role religion plays in their life. The roll-call is impressive – Katie Taylor, Josh van der Flier, Ciara Mageean and plenty more. Everyone’s take on it is different and plenty of them cast a new light on a side of people previously unexplored.

Two photographic offerings catch the eye. The hardy annual Season Of Sundays (Sportsfile, €27.50) captures the first post-pandemic GAA season and the return to full houses in all its glory. And Point To Point by Pat Healy and Richard Pugh (O’Brien, €25.50) is a thoroughly gorgeous portrait of a slice of rural Ireland that most people never get to see.

My Hidden Race by Anyika Onuora and Jonathan Drennan (€18.99) made the shortlist for the William Hill prize and is a brutally honest telling of the story of the British sprinter’s career. Onoura overcame sexual assault, racist abuse and mental health problems to make the Olympic podium in 2016. Bracing stuff.

Threads by Paul Galvin (Gill Books, €21.00) is maybe not a sports book but it’s not not a sports book either. It’s a book about fashion, a book about history, a book about athletes and designers and GAA men and a million other places worth a visit too. Plenty of people have plenty to say about the former Footballer of the Year but he’s never not interesting.

A couple of memoirs to round the thing out. Chased By Pandas by Dan Martin and Pierre Carrey (Quercus, €21.99) is an insider’s look at the world of elite cycling, told through the eyes of the recently retired all-rounder. The Ref’s Call by Owen Doyle (Hodder & Stoughton, €18.99) is an entertaining look at the life spent in top-level rugby refereeing by The Irish Times columnist.

And finally, as is tradition, The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2022 is edited this year by JA Adande. As ever, the breadth and scope of the writing is astonishing but to pick one out, Jacob Stern’s piece for The Atlantic, Can A Boxer Return To The Ring After Killing? is pretty special.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times