No Borders – Playing Rugby For Ireland by Tom English (Arena Sport, €31.60)
Oral histories are tricky to get right. An oral history on a subject as amorphous and unwieldy as the last 70 years of Irish rugby ought to have been close to impossible. Tom English interviewed 116 players and coaches and sourced material from another 46 books, articles and journals to stitch it together. The danger in taking on such an immense task is that the reader ends up bearing the load along with the author. That never happens here.
From Kyle to Gibson to Kiernan, from Franno to Claw to Drico, the personalities drive the story here, with English only throwing in the odd paragraph of guidance. Some of the yarns are hilarious, some of them are pitch-dark, almost none of them are superfluous. Which is some achievement, given what must have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Dip in, dip out. Hear of murderous French props who end up blowing their brains out in games of Russian Roulette, drinking tours, penny-pinching union men, hapless gameplans and ham-fisted attempts to implement them, back-stabbing and bitching, barren years and even more barren decades, the slow creep to professionalism and the modern gloss of a game that looks nothing like it did at the start.
Until Victory Always by Jim McGuinness and Keith Duggan (Gill & Macmillan, €19.99)
The stand-out GAA book of the year and certainly the stand-out autobiography across all the sports. The twin strands of McGuinness's life are the glory of Donegal's All-Irelands and the brutal loss of his two brothers – Keith Duggan does a remarkable job of plaiting them through each other. The result is a book that has a terrific momentum to it right the way through, one that never sags or becomes a chore. There are very few sporting autobiographies of which that can be said.
McGuinness has clearly put a lot of effort into self-examination and reflective thought over the years. He is also, very obviously, a perfectionist. Therefore, the picture presented here can only be taken as the one he wants shown to the world. It’s to his credit that at times he comes across as not a particularly likeable man, occasionally paranoid, often contradictory in the space of a few pages. In different hands, those edges might have been smoothed over but they are the making of the book.
The writing changes with the years. The 2012 chapter is written in urgent, staccato sentences, Donegal’s season of seasons rat-a-tatting from paragraph to paragraph, from page to page. At other times, it’s more leisurely and McGuinness’s natural feel for an anecdote comes across. All in all, it’s a totally compelling story, expertly told.
Slaying The Tiger by Shane Ryan (Ballantine Books, €25.75)
The first piece of advice with this book is to get it on Amazon and get the American version. By all accounts, some of the material had to be watered down in the face of UK libel laws for the version on the shelves this side of the Atlantic. And if that's not a recommendation for a golf book, it's hard to know what is.
Ryan has done A Good Walk Spoiled for the modern era here (he thanks John Feinstein in the acknowledgments) and if you're going to rip off an idea you best make it a good one and you best do it well. He succeeds on both counts. He sets out with the suspicion that the PGA Tour golfers aren't all just the clean-cut, spick and span robots TV makes them out to be and – whaddya know? – it turns out he's right.
Turns out Bubba Watson is easily the least popular player on tour. Turns out Patrick Reed isn't far behind/ahead of him. Turns out Keegan Bradley has a monumental chip on his shoulder. And that after reading this book, you will root for journeyman Matt Every whenever you see his name on a leaderboard on a Sunday night.
Dub Sub Confidential by John Leonard (Penguin, €18.99)
From out of nowhere, the year's best surprise of a sports book. You would want to really know your Dublin football for the name John Leonard to ring a bell but he was Stephen Cluxton's understudy for a couple of years under Pillar Caffrey. He was also an abuse survivor who blew the whistle on Fr Ivan Payne, a drug addict, an alcoholic and – unknown and unsuspected – an engaging writer behind it all.
Shot through with the graphic clarity of the recovering addict, it is a few different books in one.
If it was just the story of a man in his 20s necking pills and exploring life, it would get pretty boring pretty quick. Even if it was just that plus an occasional peek into the dressing room of an underachieving Dubs team for a couple of years, you’d still need a bit of convincing to stick with it.
What elevates it is Leonard’s natty turn of phrase. He calls the point where one drink becomes a few drinks becomes a few lines, “Hitting the F**k-It Button”. He sums up an under-21 game where the Dubs won after an all-in brawl by writing, “We beat them fair, square, and a little bit crooked”.
Highly enjoyable stuff, for author and reader alike.
Living On The Volcano by Michael Calvin (Random House, €25.50)
The best books have tension at the heart of them. Sometimes resolved, sometimes not. This book is a walk through the terrible, awful, insanely stressed, deeply unhealthy world of English football management alongside the men who love it more than anything in the world. There is a completely intractable tension driving it, that of men trapped in a fatal attraction because the only job they want to do just happens to be one of the worst jobs imaginable.
It makes for a fantastic book, albeit one whose most compelling parts are almost macabre. The roll-call of people interviewed is impressive – Brendan Rodgers, Alan Pardew, Roberto Martínez, Ronald Koeman, Mark Hughes, Gary Monk, on down the leagues to Shaun Derry, Martin Ling, Chris Hughton and more. Everybody's story is different and everyone's is the same – nobody is more than three defeats in a row from being unemployed.
And so there are stories of mental illness, heart disease, stress, broken marriages, estranged families.
There are very funny anecdotes about lives spent trying to understand young men. Calvin keeps himself out of the way and lets the managers spill their guts so there are long tranches of quotes, giving the book a confessional and even intimate feel.
Somebody somewhere clearly decided that this was the year to make money out of rugby books. Indeed, quite a few somebodies in a fair whack of somewheres all appear to have had the same thought. There must have been a big tournament on or something. The amount of rugby books in 2015 goes beyond a plethora and far outweighs a glut. The best, as detailed above, is No Borders by Tom English but there are others worth a look.
Six Nations, Two Stories by Peter O'Reilly and Kate Rowan (O'Brien Press, €16.99) is a parallel telling of the triumphant springs enjoyed by Ireland's men and women's Six Nations team. The Whistle-Blower by Alain Rolland and Daragh Ó Conchúir (Hero Books, €17.99) is a no-nonsense trip through the career of Ireland's most high-profile rugby referee.
Pulling The Strings by Peter Stringer and Gerry Thornley (Penguin, €23.99) is a worthwhile addition to the Munster library, as is The Story of Thomond Park by Charlie Mulqueen and Brendan O'Dowd (Collins Press, €17.99).
Elsewhere, there are books by Tony Ward, Dan Carter, Stephen Ferris, Michael Lynagh and Reggie Corrigan. Rugby readers will not be stuck.
No shortage of hurling and football tomes either. Of the two major autobiographies on the shelves, Standing My Ground by Brendan Cummins and Jackie Cahill (Transworld, €18.99) probably edges Henry Shefflin, The Autobiography (Penguin, €26.50) in terms of frankness and depth.
Cummins, in fairness, had more to be frank about, since constant success invariably makes for a less interesting subject than occasional success mixed with the low hum of frustration that soundtracked a lot of Cummins's career. But you do get the feeling reading both that the Tipperary goalkeeper was willing to lay more of himself bare to his ghostwriter than Shefflin did with Vincent Hogan.
A not dissimilar scenario will be familiar to readers of with The White Heat by Tomás Ó Sé and Michael Moynihan (Gill & Macmillan, €19.99). Ó Sé is very obviously a natural storyteller – he's a Sé, after all – but all his best yarns here are about other people.
The chapter on his uncle Páidí is a riot, for example. But it would be hard to argue that you come away from the book knowing a lot more about Tomás than you did at the start.
There are a couple of very fine historical works around this year. Jimmy Doyle died just a month before The Boy Wonder of Hurling (Sliabh Bán, €20.00) was published, but his book, written with the help of Diarmuid O'Flynn is a treat for anyone of the vintage to have seen him play. The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923 by Géaróid Ó Tuathaigh (ed) (Collins Press, €29.99) contains an invaluable spread of essays on arguably the most tumultuous decade in the history of the association.
Finally, Relentless by Mary White (Currach, €14.99) is the story of the best team in Irish sport, the Cork women footballers. White was there from the start, so she brings an outsider's eye with an insider's knowledge and is by a distance the best person to put this book together.
Possibly the most fun of all the books around this year is Men In White Suits by Simon Hughes (Bantam Press, €28.99). And yet, the feeling never leaves you through it all that Hughes doesn't particularly mean it to be fun. It's the story of how the mighty institution of Liverpool FC crumbled through the 1990s and into the 2000s, told through interviews with 11 players and coaches. Some of the anecdotes are priceless but over-hanging it all is a deep sadness at how something so great was allowed to become so ordinary.
Otherwise, the soccer offerings this year are only grand and not much more. The biggest hitter is My Story by Steven Gerrard and Donald McRae (Penguin, €30.00). McRae had 100 days from his first meeting with Gerrard to write the book but you wouldn't know it by the result. He has captured the former Liverpool captain in all his morose glory and some of the detail – as in how Brendan Rogers would get Gerrard to make the initial approach to big-name transfer targets – give decent insight into the workings of modern football.
Sport and Ireland: A History by Paul Rouse (Oxford University Press, €30.00) is one of those books you feel you have to steel yourself for before being entirely glad you did. Rouse has been, for better or worse, researching and writing about the history of sport in Ireland for the guts of 20 years now and this gorgeous work is the result. History books by their nature can be tough going but Rouse takes in such a broad spectrum of sports and people that there's always a new thing to raise an interested eyebrow at.
Can I Carry Your Bags? by Martin Johnson (Constable, €22.50) is a world-weary account of a sportswriter's life by one off the funniest sports hacks in England. Johnson's moaning won't win him many friends among folk who do actual work for a living but there isn't a word wasted here.
Finally, this year's edition of The Best American Sports Writing (Houghton Mifflin, €22.99) is edited by Wright Thompson. The only downside of such an arrangement is that it keeps Thompson from including anything of his own but nonetheless there is plenty to recommend here, with Don Van Natta's profile of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones a masterpiece.