Malachy Clerkin’s sports books of the year

Richie Sadlier and Donald McRae feature among others in the best of 2019

In Sunshine or in Shadow by Donald McRae (Simon & Schuster, €8.00)

The more you think about the Troubles, the more you dig into what daily life was like in such a broken society for so long, the harder it is to get a picture of how normality could have looked and felt. Life in Belfast and Derry was more than bombs and bullets, of course it was. But the stories of how people got on, how something as ordinary as sport managed to survive it all, have been sparingly told. And almost never this well.

Donald McRae has done a masterful job here. He has taken Gerry Storey, the man behind the Holy Family boxing club in Belfast, and walked through the best and worst of it all with him. He is the hub of the book and around him McRae tells the stories of four other great Ulster boxing figures of the times – Barry McGuigan, Hugh Russell, Davy Larmour and Charlie Nash.

Storey is a miraculous figure, nothing short of it. Holy Family was a place where fighters from both sides of the divide were truly welcome and truly safe, even as the horrors of a dirty, trust-less war were a fact of life beyond the door. His family had deep and real IRA bona fides and yet he was able to rely on the protection of the north’s most dangerous loyalists paramilitaries to bring his boxers anywhere in Belfast without having to look over his shoulder. He survived three attempts on his life all the same – somewhere around level par, considering.

With so much violence and tragedy and workaday double crossing, it would be easy for this sort of book to feel too heavy or too worthy. In McRae’s hands, it never does. The key, as ever, are the characters. McGuigan is his usual compelling self. Nash never quite shakes the death of his brother Willie on Bloody Sunday. Larmour and Russell are nearly worth a book in themselves, rivals in the same weight division from either side of the sectarian divide but brothers too, somehow.


It opens with Bloody Sunday and comes to its crescendo with McGuigan's night of nights against Eusebio Pedroza at Loftus Road. McRae doesn't overplay anything – boxing didn't solve the Troubles or bring peace to the province or any of that jazz. No, it just got on with getting on, a small snatch of ordinary life that makes for an extraordinary book.

Recovering by Richie Sadlier and Dion Fanning (Gill Books, €22.99)

Helpfully, Richie Sadlier has lived a few different lives. The footballer who made it to the top – or very near it – before injury whipped it all away from him. The unhappy wanderer who tried to find his way in the years that followed. The son of an alcoholic who became one himself. The abuse survivor. The therapist. The pundit.

He could have done a judicious lucky dip and picked any three or four of these to parlay into a book and it would have been fine. Instead, he gathered them all into a stew, just the right amounts introduced at just the right time along the way. The result is more than fine. It’s by a good distance the best sports autobiography around this year.

There’s a lot of hurt and ache to deal with between these covers but the way it’s written means it’s never a trial or a slog. He comes across in the book much as he does in his public persona – reasonable, sane, curious, likeable. The main added ingredients are vulnerability and self-doubt, which, if overdone, could become annoying. But it’s done so well here that it just makes you root for him a bit more.

He takes you behind all manner of curtains. The cold and hardness of a lower league dressing room is here. The ludicrous excess of pro football is here. The inherently unstable existence lived out by people on the fringes of the big time is definitely here and it’s definitely scary. The doubt and fear and longing that comes with being the son of an alcoholic is in here too – elusive, intangible, manageable without being entirely fixable.

Probably the best indication of the confidence of the writing is that the abuse Sadlier suffered at the hands of a physio when he was 14 is only introduced two-thirds of the way through the book. It’s not used for shock value or designed to jump out at you as a twist. It’s more that a lot of what has gone in his head before – the second-guessing, the anxiety, the self-criticism – starts to make so much more sense in light of it.

It’s the sort of elegant touch you don’t often see in autobiographies like this. But then, there aren’t many autobiographies this good.

The Double by Adrian Russell (Mercier, €17.99)

When you think about it, Cork’s achievement in winning the football and hurling All-Irelands in 1990 is probably under-rated in the general sporting consciousness. Respected, yes. Envied, sure. But you wouldn’t say it’s thought of as a legendary piece of sporting lore or anything. Which is odd, really, given how singular and unlikely a thing it was.

Adrian Russell has done us all a service, then, by producing this book as the 30th anniversary approaches next year. They were two distinct teams, albeit with the crossover figures of Teddy McCarthy and, to a lesser extent, Denis Walsh. And they had two entirely distinct stories, as is summed up neatly and typically by football defender Niall Cahalane in an interview for the book.

“The hurlers came out of nowhere,” Cahalane tells Russell. “They were no-hopers and they just f**king romped out of nowhere and won an All-Ireland and f**ked the pressure completely on us. We were concentrating on getting one over on Meath and the next thing they came out of nowhere and f**ked the whole thing up and brought the whole county down on top of us.”

Russell is blessed in the characters that make up the book. There are times when you can only presume that Canon Michael O’Brien is an invention. Imagine an intercounty manager arriving for his first training session in a brand new car with a personalised number plate. Now imagine it said 90 C 27, indicating that Cork were going to win their 27th All-Ireland in 1990. Now imagine he’s a priest.

And plenty more besides. Billy Morgan is a force of nature – irascible, unreasonable, driven, demented. Larry Tompkins is a game-changer. Cahalane, Kid Cronin, John Fitzgibbon, Frank Murphy, Prince, donkeys, derbies. They're all in here, making for a thoroughly enjoyable account of a monumental achievement.

About That Goal by Séamus Darby and PJ Cunningham (Ballpoint Press, €14.99)

Some people bring out books for the money. Some bring them out because a publisher goes to them and beguiles them (and their ego) into it. And some – the better ones, usually – do it because they want to commit to print the definitive last word on themselves. That’s what Séamus Darby has done here.

Scoring the most famous goal in the history of the GAA made Darby a public figure for the rest of his life. He didn’t ask for it and had no say in it and yet the goal took out an outsized role in how the rest of his life was perceived. When he had a couple of businesses go to the wall in the decade that followed, it became common consensus that he’d drunk his way through whatever goodwill and fortune the goal had brought.

Thing was, the goal had nothing to do with any of it. The reality of it all was much more dull and grim. He bought a pub he shouldn't have, couldn't make it pay, and lost not only it but some properties he'd put up as collateral. Less than a decade after scoring that goal, he was scratching out an odd-job living in London, depending on goodwill a lot of the time. None of it was because he was an alcoholic – he wasn't, as it happens. But that didn't stop years of rumours.

Darby has lived a hard life and has made plenty of mistakes. They’re detailed here, along with his football career, in a direct, no-nonsense style. There are no fripperies in the writing, no lily-gilding. This is his life, ups and downs, black and white, take it or leave it.

Commander in Cheat by Rick Reilly (Headline, €25.99) Chaos is a Friend of Mine by Ewan MacKenna (DeCoubertain Books, €17.95)  

Two books that couldn't be more different and yet they're worth taking together. Both have a central character – Donald Trump in Reilly's case, Conor McGregor in MacKenna's – around whom the world of the book swirls, to the despair of the authors. Both have a certain talent for a certain thing and a greater talent for the lies and the deceptions beyond it. And both, if you accept the premise, are a mirror for society and all its ills, with their conduct in their chosen sport more a feature than a bug.

Reilly’s book is a rollicking, hilarious, unabashed hatchet job on Trump the golfer. If it comes as no surprise to anyone that Trump cheats at golf – the sheer depth and depravity of his transgressions would make you goggle at times. He is so pointlessly petty that he insists – among other things – that his buggy is twice as fast as everyone else’s so he can get to his ball first and sort out his lie for himself.

None of this amounts to a hill of beans, of course. Man cheats at golf – who gives a monkey’s? Reilly’s contention, and the reason this is a book rather than a longform magazine piece, is that the combination of dishonesty and insecurity required to be such a scumbag golfer says everything you need to know about the man himself. As a reader, you can buy all this or let it wash over you. But it’s an entertaining ride one way or the other.

In a similar vein, MacKenna’s book is about far more than just Conor McGregor. It’s about him and his rise and his fall, yes. But it’s about the dumbing down of the world around him too and how society’s empty-calorie obsession with celebrity has sent him on his way.

MacKenna was one of the first people to do a sit-down interview with McGregor back in 2013, when he was on the cusp of breaking through. He came away liking the fighter who had given up life as an apprentice plumber and was drawing the dole while he pursued his dreams. Five years on, MacKenna spends the week in Las Vegas for McGregor’s doomed fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, despairing at the circus the whole thing has become.

As with Reilly, you’re under no obligation to buy all this. It’s entirely possible that you think society is fine. Or that its decline and fall would have happened with or without Conor McGregor. Part narrative, part polemic, it’s an attempt to make sense of what has been – like it or not – a phenomenon.

The best of the rest

The biggest release of any year generally needs to go some to avoid being underwhelming. In that light, the news that Joe Schmidt was writing his own book – ie, with no ghostwriter – naturally rang some alarm bells. As it turns out, Ordinary Joe (Penguin Ireland, €19.99) is fine. The World Cup diary part at the end is inevitably quite dull and feels as rushed as it must have been. But the early chapters, written with his mother, are interesting and the nuts and bolts of rugby coaching that carry the middle of the book are fascinating at times. It's not a barn-burner but then it's hard to imagine how it could have been.

Of the manager memoirs doing the rounds, there's no doubt that Eddie Jones's is the stand-out.  My Life and Rugby, by Eddie Jones and Donald McRae (Macmillan, €13.49), zips along with recognisable Jones wit and he doesn't spare himself along the way. Pride and Passion, by Warren Gatland (Headline, €22.99), has less fizz to it but covers more ground. His account of his time in Ireland is priceless in places, still fairly bitter in others. The main other rugby offering this year is All In, by Jamie Heaslip and Matt Cooper (Gill, €19.99). The well-justified flak it has taken since publication over the confusion surrounding a drug test has slightly obscured the book itself. Heaslip comes across as a driven, detail-obsessed planner, always looking around the next corner to improve himself and his lot.

On the GAA side of things,  Camouflage, by Eoin Larkin and Pat Nolan (Reach Sport, €20.99), is a terrific addition to the Kilkenny cannon. It's structurally inventive, breaking the chapters into months, and Nolan has captured the spiky, cranky side of Larkin to a tee. Larkin's depression is engagingly explored and Brian Cody emerges as a leader of real empathy.  Charlie – The GAA's Lost Icon, by Paul Fitzpatrick (Ballpoint Press, €14.99), is one of those books you'd nearly imagine the GAA ought to be commissioning on a yearly basis. Charlie Gallagher was the pre-eminent Cavan footballer of the 1960s, which made him the best known Cavan person of that decade. He'd be lost to the ages but for Fitzpatrick's meticulous and entertaining biography.  The Pressure Game, by Kevin McStay and Liam Hayes (Hero Books, €20), is as close as you can get to a contemporaneous account of what it's like to be in the maw of the intercounty game. McStay has seen it and done it from every angle and his sensible, intelligent way of presenting it all brings it alive and makes it visceral.

As an insight into the inner workings of a modern top-level football club, there's not much around to match it

As ever, there's any amount of soccer books around the place. As ever, you'd kiss quite a few frogs before you find a prince among them. Pep's City – The Making of a Superteam, by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin (Backpage Polaris, €16.99), is surprisingly revealing for a book that could very easily have been a simple propaganda sheet.  Martin is a Spanish journalist who has known Guardiola – and been friends with him – for 30 years. He moved to Manchester when Guardiola did and his friendship earned him and Ballus enormous access behind the scenes at City over the past three years. Yes, it's a hagiography in places but it's better than that too. As an insight into the inner workings of a modern top-level football club, there's not much around to match it. A few rungs down the ladder,  One Night In Dudelange, by Kevin Burke (Vision Sports, €13.99), is a delightful account of UCD's unlikely Europa League campaign in the summer of 2015. It's a fun little gem of a book, filled with fatalism and the enjoyably have-a-go attitude of those involved.

On a skip through the other sports, you can do worse than alight on Something in the Water, by Kieran McCarthy (Mercier Press, €19.99). The story of how Skibereen Rowing club rose to the top of the sport, it's certainly the best written book of the year. McCarthy has a lovely lyrical style but doesn't waste a word – not a balance that's easy to strike. The O'Donovan brothers and Dominic Casey are the main characters but there are plenty around them to see it to the line. The one golf book worth spending time on is Mind Game, by Thomas Bjorn and Michael Calvin (Yellow Jersey, €23.95). It's really Calvin's book, topped and tailed with contributions from Bjorn, although Calvin credits him with the original idea. A deep dive into the mental and emotional stresses of golf at the highest level, it contains genuine insight into the horrors the best players in the world find regularly themselves in.

For the big and the beautiful, Seasons of Sundays (Sportsfile, €26.99) is the hardy perennial of the GAA year as seen through the eyes of the Sportsfile photographers. Same size and with a lot more story attached is The Dublin Marathon - Celebrating 40 Years by Seán McGoldrick (O'Brien Press, €26.99). The story of the race that has grown from tiny beginnings to the point where next year's entry needs a lottery is superbly told.

Finally, the compilations. The Best American Sportswriting 2019, edited by Charlie Pierce and Glenn Stoute (Mariner, €18.99), is coming up on the end of its third decade and still going as strong as ever. The stand-out piece this year is Kerry Howley's New York magazine article on the victims of Larry Nasser. Tough going, good going. Behind The Lines 2019 (The 42, €10) is the third collection of pieces from the Journal's sports arm, with typically enjoyable contributions from Gavan Casey, Emma Duffy and David Sneyd.  And just make us all feel bad, the best of the best has put out a collection. The Cost of these Dreams, by Wright Thompson (Blink Publishing, €14), is 14 of the ESPN writer's features gathered into one sheaf. There isn't a dud among them, obviously. But anyone who hasn't read Shadow Boxing, Thompson's quest to find a former opponent of Muhammad Ali, should rectify this mistake in their lives immediately.