From Philly to Jackie to Kelly and Roche - the Sports books of 2017
Malachy Clerkin’s lowdown on the best books for sports fans this Christmas
The Best The Choice by Philly McMahon and Niall Kelly (Gill Books, €14.99) The thing a lot of sports books lack is a story. Not stories, plural – most of them have loads of them. But a story, a tale, a beginning-middle-end narrative – you’d be amazed how many of them come out each year without that element. When one comes around that is as good as this, it really stands out.
Philly McMahon’s book is the story of his life and that of his brother John. They got the same upbringing in Ballymun but one went on to win five All-Irelands (and counting) with Dublin and the other became a heroin addict who was dead before he turned 30. The choice in the book’s title isn’t just as blunt as that between playing football and taking heroin but it faithfully conveys the divergent paths they took.
The book is human to its core. It’s as eloquent a depiction of the circumstances that breed drug addiction as you could hope to find. The destruction it leaves in its wake, the crushed hopes, the demented family waiting in the wings, hoping for one day different – it’s all here. And the aftermath, the loss, the absolute need for a change in the way we look at the problem, that’s here too.
It’s a jaw-dropping read at times, completely authentic and clear-eyed all the way.
The Warrior’s Code by Jackie Tyrrell and Christy O’Connor (Trinity Sport Media, €17.50) It’s fair to say we presumed we’d never really see behind the curtain with Kilkenny. Brian Cody did a book, Henry Shefflin did a book and they were both exactly what you expected them to be.
By those standards, Jackie Tyrrell’s book is a glorious departure. In a way, there’s nothing too surprising in it – he reveals the Kilkenny mindset in their glory years to be more or less what we imagined it to be. They were ruthless, they were laser-focused, they were relentless in their dealings with those they considered not in their league. The only surprise is to see it written down.
But the real nourishment in the book comes from Tyrrell’s portrait of Cody. It’s not damning, it’s not glowing, it’s somewhere in between and it feels all the more insightful for that.
“Brian completely understands the power of calculated instability,” he writes at one point. “He might say five or six lads aren’t pulling their weight and no matter how well you’re playing you will think he’s talking about you.”
Cody has been managing Kilkenny for two decades and it’s hard to recall a better description of him written down anywhere. There’s plenty more here in a terrific book.
Ali by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster, €14.99) If nothing else, this is by a distance the best value of any book released this year. It feels like pure larceny to only have to pay €14.99 for Jonathan Eig’s monumental portrait of Muhammad Ali, which runs to over 600 pages. Based on hundreds of interviews and a lifetime’s trawl of newspapers cuttings, archives and books, it is a stunning piece of work. The world surely doesn’t need another Ali book – but if it did, this would be it.
Comprehensive barely covers it. This is the life of the most famous sportsman in history picked over, placed in context, illuminated in minute detail. If you’ve read a sports book, you’ve surely read an Ali book. This is all of them and more, woven together by a brilliant storyteller. If Eig wasn’t such a good writer, it would be a chore. But he is and it isn’t.
The Ascent by Barry Ryan (Gill, €23.00) The glorious mystery of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche and the Irish cycling miracle of the 1980s has always deserved a book. Luckily for Barry Ryan, none of the various biographies and autobiographies from the time or even in the years since have really cut the mustard. Either the subjects were too close or too closed to tell the story properly.
Ryan comes to it all after the fact and does an excellent job of digging and reporting and laying it all out. All the main players are interviewed here – Kelly, Roche, Paul Kimmage, Martin Earley, Pat McQuaid, David Walsh. The warts are all here too, be it doping allegations, broken friendships, ultra-expensive court cases, the lot. It’s possible a little dense in places for non-cycling buffs but that’s a small nit to pick.
Centaur by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao (Doubleday, €18.50) Always nice when a book comes out of the blue unheralded to blow you away. This is arguably the best-written sports book anywhere this year and certainly the most surprising. It’s the story of Declan Murphy, a Limerick jockey who came so close to death after a fall in Haydock Park in 1994 that he was given the last rites and the Racing Post wrote up his obituary. But it’s more than that as well.
It’s a beguiling read, one that switches here and there between writing styles, sometimes breaking the fourth wall between jockey, ghost-writer and reader. The passages that deal with the feeling of being a race-rider and communing with the horse underneath are some of the best descriptions of the art you’ll ever comes across. And even if it wasn’t so well put-together, the story itself is compelling enough on its own.
The First Major by John Feinstein (Doubleday, €24.50) If there’s a reasonable argument to be made that every John Feinstein book has been a variation on his classic A Good Walk Spoiled, this one sometimes feels a lot like what he wished AGWS could have been. The 1993 Ryder Cup made up such a significant chunk of Feinstein’s signature work that it was only a matter of time before he devoted a whole book to one of the biennial trans-Atlantic bunfights. The 2016 version gets the full treatment here.
It takes a little while to warm up – the first 140 pages or so is a bit Ryder Cup For Dummies. But once they get to Hazeltine, it’s full of nuggety, insidery goodness. Feinstein has great access here – everyone from McIlroy to Spieth to Love to Mickeslon and plenty more have given him time and insight. On top of it all, it might be the first time Tiger Woods has come across as a likeably human character in a book. Highly enjoyable.
As ever, the great publishing conveyor belt continues to spill books about our national games by the new time. Biographies, autobiographies, compendiums, photo-books – we could fill the rest of the page with them. By contrast, there are basically three rugby books this year and two of them are only tangentially Ireland-related. Not sure what this means – if it means anything. Does seem a little odd, all the same.
Anyhow, The Pursuit of Perfection by Donal McAnallen (Penguin Ireland, €14.50) is a meticulous account of the life and death of the great Cormac McAnallen. His brother’s background as a historian serves him well here and the virtually minute-by-minute account of the days around his death is as painstaking as it is painful.
Gooch by Colm Cooper and Vincent Hogan (Transworld, €18.99) does a fine job of conveying the innate toughness of the great Kerry genius and how it stood to him over his career. Gooch was always steelier of mind and body than his delicate brilliance with a ball suggested and his autobiography captures him to a tee.
A Land of Men and Giants by Tony Doran and Liam Hayes (Hero Books, €20.00) takes a fresh approach to the autobiography genre, splicing straight biography from Hayes with recollections from the iconic Wexford full-forward.
Jayo by Jason Sherlock and Damien Lawlor (Simon & Schuster, €16.49) is a sometimes harrowing look inside the mind of a player who clearly never truly got how much he was admired by football fans at large, whatever about inside his own county.
The Sportsfile photography stable have two offerings this year. Season of Sundays (Sportsfile, €24.50) is in its 35th year and lives up to its usual standard. And Great Moments In Hurling (O’Brien Press, €24.99) follows up its football equivalent from last year.
In many ways, his time managing the ill-fated Ireland team of the early 1980s is the least interesting part of First Hand by Eoin Hand and Jared Browne (Collins Press, €14.99). Hand has lived quite a life – one he very nearly lost a couple of times, once to a gunman in South Africa, later to pancreatitis in the Mater, for which he was given the last rites. His book is unsparing – both of himself and of some of his critics down the years.
The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover (Biteback Publishing, €28.00) tells the remarkable story of Bela Guttmann, the Holocaust survivor who went on to become European football’s first superstar coach, taking Benfica to back-to-back European Cups in the early 1960s. It’s a found pleasure, a little-known story that makes for tough reading in places but is all the better for it.
Two biographies of Liverpool managers past and present are worth a look.
Quiet Genius by Ian Herbert (Bloomsbury, €28.00) is an account of what made Bob Paisley so successful. It’s far from a hagiography and is actually quite unflattering in the odd spot, which is only to its credit. On a more modern tip, Klopp – Bring The Noise by Raphael Honigstein (€13.49) is a knitting pattern of small but interesting information points about the making of Jurgen Klopp. If nothing else, it’s worth it for the hilariously bananas approach from Manchester United chairman Ed Woodward trying to entice Klopp into following David Moyes to Old Trafford.
Green Shoots by Michael Walker (deCoubertain books, €24.99) is a typically in-depth and diligently reported trip through Irish soccer on both sides of the Border by one of the best in the business. And That’s Right: You’re Fired by Tim Healy (Ballpoint Press, €14.99) is a fascinating deep dive into the evolution of football management worldwide over the past century and more.
Tour diaries aren’t always worth the dust jacket they come in but so much happened during the summer’s Lions Tour to New Zealand to easily sustain In The Line Of Fire by Warren Gatland and Gerry Thornley (Headline, €14.25). The relentless attacks from the New Zealand media wear on Gatland as the book progresses and even the most hardened heart can only have sympathy for him as a result.
A thoroughly enjoyable companion piece is When Lions Roared by Tom English and Peter Burns (Polaris, €22.50). It’s an oral history of the 1971 Lions tour against the All Blacks and there’s a mystical quality to it, carried along by greats such as JPR Williams, Barry John and Willie John McBride.
Finally, Rugby Runner by Ger Siggins (O’Brien, €8.99) is the fifth in the Eoin Madden series of novels for young adults. Sports fiction is a curiously under-explored genre but this series has been at the forefront of the market for a few years now and the latest offering confirms its place.
To finish, a hop, skip and jump around the other sports. Boy Wonder by Dave Hannigan (Gill Books, €12.99) is a gorgeous, nostalgic portrait of a Cork childhood doused in sport. In less skilled hands, the subject matter could easily have invited an abundance of mawkish reminiscence but Hannigan is too good for that. Instead, it’s a brilliant evocation of a time and a place and a state of mind that we’ve all lived our own version of. A delight.
New York Fight Nights by Thomas Myler (Pitch Publishing, €18.50) drips history from every page. Split into chapters dealing with fights that took place in New York going back to the late 1880s, it’s a deeply-researched and brilliantly-realised book for all boxing fans. In a similar vein, albeit vastly different in style terms, A Ringside Affair by the James Lawton (Bloomsbury, €25.00) is the great English sportswriter’s account of his time covering boxing at the close of the 20th century.
Form by Kieren Fallon and Oliver Holt (Simon & Schuster, €18.99) is an unexpected revelation. The quiet, painfully shy Clare jockey has clearly lived a life worth chronicling but it’s a little surprising – not to mention a tribute to his ghostwriter – that this version of it is so readable and so engaging. It’s certainly his version of events – whether you choose to believe them all is up to the reader. But the book is genuinely compelling, wherever the various truths lie.
A couple of collections are unignorable. Behind The Lines by Staff of The42 (Journal Media, €10.00) is a collection of 14 feature articles by the likes of Paul Dollery, Gavan Casey, Fintan O’Toole and more from The42.ie stable. A few of the pieces stand out a mile – Eoin O’Callaghan’s piece with Brian Kerr’s under-20s team from 1997 and especially Casey’s amazing story on Robert Gorman, in which he turns out to be far more than just ‘The toughest white boy ever to step in the ring with Floyd Mayweather’.
The other collection is the hardy annual Best American Sportswriting 2017 (eds Howard Bryant and Glenn Stout, €17.50). The quality is as high as ever this year, with Rick Telander’s piece on William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry and Wright Thompson’s on Tiger Woods especially top class.