Malachy Clerkin’s sports books of the year for 2020

Live sport may have gone missing during the pandemic but there was always plenty to read

The Best

Champagne Football

by Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan

(Penguin, €12.99)

We’re a mad little country at the back of it all. Where else would the year’s most anticipated sports book be about the rise and demise of the holder of what’s usually a fairly dull administrative job? Chief executive of a sport’s governing body is not a position that has a lot of juice in most countries but we do things a little differently here.

So there was a lot riding on this, the definitive account of how John Delaney ascended within the FAI, his eventual fall from grace and the largely toothless supporting cast that facilitated it all. Part thriller, part warning from history, part social diary, Champagne Football is a forensic and often tragicomic investigation into the biggest story in Irish sport.

It's a fantastic read. Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan tell a story that has a lot of numbers without it getting too dense. They detail a lot of connections and internecine feuds without losing their thread. On occasion, they become part of the story themselves – as when Tighe goes to the High Court and when Rowan gets escorted out of Delaney's office by security – but it's never self-aggrandising or misplaced.

In time, the ballad of John Delaney might all seem a bit too wild or over-egged to be true. This is a book to enjoy now but also to look forward to rereading again in a decade, just to see how stranger than fiction it all was.


When The World Stops Watching

by Damian Lawlor

(Black & White, €18.99)

Retiring from sport brings about a fundamental change in identity, in a way that only a tiny percentage of the population ever have to deal with. Damian Lawlor’s excellent book lays bare just what an adjustment it can be and the level of grief it can involve. He interviews 16 Irish sports stars to tell their stories of dealing with walking away.

The result is one of the most honest and raw books about sport you are likely to read this year or any other. We get stories like that of Paul McGee, the former Wimbledon player who got hurt just as he was on the verge of the big time and whose career never quite recovered, leading him to the verge of a suicide attempt when it was all over.

Or Gary Murphy, the Kilkenny man who was so bound up in being a professional golfer that he couldn't bring himself to wear golf gear in public after he stopped playing, out of pure embarrassment. Or Nikki Symmons, the hockey Hall of Famer who had panic attacks after retiring and couldn't bring herself to go and watch the Ireland team qualify for the Olympics fully six years after she quit because the pain of not having made the games during her own career was still all too real.

Lawlor gives each life its own chapter and glues them all together with insights from the likes of Gary Keegan, Tony Óg Regan and Marcus Horan, whose work takes them into the realm of preparing an off-ramp for athletes and getting them ready for the rest of their lives. All in all, a vital and eye-opening read.

Why We Swim

by Bonnie Tsui

(Rider, €17.99)

In this year of incarceration, a book like Why We Swim is a godsend. Nothing feels as free as those moments that swimming gives you, when you glide along, weightless and devoid of worry, no part of you earthbound, no thought wasted on the concerns of the world beyond the water. As the author notes at one stage, “The swim is something that largely takes place inside my head.” It has never been more needed.

Bonnie Tsui’s book is a both celebration of swimming and a serious, in-depth examination of what makes humans want to do it. She breaks it up into five sections – survival, wellbeing, community, competition and flow. It’s not a memoir but it’s not not a memoir either – she plots some of the crucial landmarks of her life around the swimming she marked them with.

Along the way, we meet some extraordinary characters. There's Kim Chambers, a New Zealander who almost had to have her leg amputated after a fall down the stairs and used her rehab to become a world-record-holding distance swimmer. There's Gudlaugur Fridthorsson, an Icelandic fisherman who became a national hero after swimming six kilometres in five-degree water in 1984 to survive his trawler capsizing.

There's Jay Taylor, an American cultural attaché who found himself accidentally becoming a swimming coach in the Green Zone in Baghdad for two years at the end of the 2010s. In the pool of Saddam's presidential palace, everyone's rank, nationality and threat level dissolved as soon as they got in the water.

Tsui is a beautiful writer, thoughtful and enquiring with her language and determined throughout to leave no sea, lake or pool unexplored. Most of all, Why We Swim is a balm for the soul.

The Hill by Bernard Brogan and Kieran Shannon

(Reach Sport, €13.99)

Bernard Brogan isn’t the first of the five-in-a-row Dubs to publish a book but it’s fair to say he’s the first to come out with a conventional one. Philly McMahon’s The Choice hit the shelves in 2017 but it’s a different kind of book telling a different kind of a story. This one is a more standard autobiography, an account of one of the greatest Gaelic football careers there has ever been.

Along with Kieran Shannon, Brogan weaves an often compelling tale here. His public persona being that of a brand-conscious, milquetoast sort of chap, the fear going into a book like this is that there would be no tension to speak of. But as ever, we on the outside really have no idea what goes on in the heads and lives of the players we go to watch. Brogan had plenty of hills to climb over the years.

Along the way, he supplies some decent insights into the changes in the culture of the Dublin football team over his time on the inside. By a distance the most interesting chapter is the one where he details the planning, the hours and the work that went into weaponising the Dublin football team to create the commercial behemoth that exists today. Nobody can read it and be in any doubt as to how important those on the inside consider Dublin’s financial muscle to be.

The Breath Of Sadness

by Ian Ridley

(Floodlit Dreams, €17.99)

Ian Ridley's wife Vikki Orvice was a football and athletics writer for The Sun, up until her death from cancer in February 2019 at the age of 57. As he waded through the fog of grief, Ridley decided to spend the summer attempting to distract himself by following cricket's County Championship, taking himself to various little grounds in various little towns around England.

The result is an account of their life together, before and after her death. It is, as a consequence, at times a difficult read. As the grief becomes almost too much for Ridley to bear, so too does reading about it.

There’s an especially tough section where his paranoia is sparked as he’s sorting through Vikki’s old photos and diaries. It’s brave of him to include it all, especially since it paints him in an unflattering light and tests the reader’s sympathy. But admirable as that choice is, it doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to endure.

What elevates the book and ultimately makes it a triumph is, of course, the cricket. Ridley, who has been a notable and insightful soccer writer for over 30 years, makes the point early on he wouldn’t be able to process his grief by going to a succession of football matches with all the anger that rains down from the stands.

Cricket, with its long periods of quiet and its many distractions, gave him a warm home throughout the worst summer of his life. Against all odds, the cricket makes it a book of small and crucial wins, which is all anyone can ask for from life.

The Rest

Three big rugby autobiographies this year, including the 12th and 13th offerings from the 2009 Grand Slam winning Ireland squad. No Hiding by Rob Kearney and David Walsh (Reach Sport, €22.50) and My Autobiography by Rory Best and Gavin Mairs (Hodder & Stoughton, €28.00) inevitably suffer as a result – there isn't an awful lot in either book that hasn't already been covered elsewhere.

Of the three, Fuel by Seán O'Brien and Gerry Thornley (Penguin, €15.99) is easily the most readable and most interesting. O'Brien's background as a country boy from outside the private school circle automatically makes for a different sort of rugby story. Add in the hardship of growing up in a house where his parents' marriage was falling apart and there is genuine insight into what drove him to be the player he became.

His brushing off of the incident at the end of his Leinster days in which he urinated on a punter in a bar – accidentally or not, he was still taking a slash in a doorway – leaves a bit of a bitter taste. But it shouldn't overshadow the book, which is one of the better entries onto Irish rugby shelves over the past few years.

On the GAA front, Liam Hayes's Hero Books label has supplied a slew of releases this year. The best of them is undoubtedly Everything by Denis Coughlan and Tadhg Coakley (Hero Books, €20.00). The former dual player who won five All-Irelands with Cork in hurling and football has produced a book that is gorgeous, lyrical and redolent of a different time in some places but also strident and insightful about modern GAA tensions in others. Coughlan played with Christy Ring, was courted by Jack Lynch as his political successor and mediated the Cork strikes in the 2000s. Quite a life. Quite a book.

Elsewhere, Chiselled From Ash by Len Gaynor and Shane Brophy (Hero Books, €20.00) is suffused with a love of hurling and his devotion to the betterment of every team he was involved with. It's expertly pickled with testimonies of players and managers who learned at Gaynor's feet down the years and is all the better for it. Believe by Larry Tompkins and Denis Hurley (Hero Books, €20.00) might not scale the same heights but is nonetheless a long overdue rendering of one of the immortal Irish sporting lives.

Beyond Champagne Football, we're not exactly coming down with soccer books to shout about this year. The Greatest Games by Jamie Carragher (Bantam,€15.99) is certainly the pick of them, delving into 15 classic games through the eyes of some of the big names involved and giving them a fresh analysis. And for the year that was in it, Believe Us by Melissa Reddy (Harper Collins, €16.99) is an illuminating look behind the scenes of Liverpool's famine-ending Premier League title.

On the racing side of things, True Colours by Barry Geraghty and Niall Kelly (Gill, €22.99) is a highly enjoyable rollercoaster ride through a spectacular career. Geraghty's self-confidence was his trademark but Kelly does a fine job in delving deeper into his mindset and getting him to own up to some of the worries and anxieties that we knew had to be there all along. As well as that, it's one of the better insights into the always elusive character of JP McManus that has so far been committed to print.

There is one stand-out coaching book among the multitudes that always fill the shelves. Be The Best You Can Be In Sport by Paul Kilgallon (Bookhub, €20.00) is a coaching book with a twist. Clearly conscious of the habit of some books in this genre of lapsing readily into jargon and drills and so on, Kilgallon has included short coaching essays by 50 of the best known coaches, players and sports scientists in the country. It's a brilliant way of keeping the narrative from getting too dry or too theoretical and makes for an exceptional book.

A few odds and sods to finish. The Second Life Of Tiger Woods by Michael Bamberger (Avid Reader Press, €28.00) is a massively enjoyable romp through the life of post-2009 Tiger Woods, all the way up to and very much including the 2019 Masters. Bamberger is one of the most experienced and least-easily impressed golf writers around and he has enjoyed himself writing this one. Behind The Lines (The42, €10.00) is the fourth collection from the lassies and lads on Golden Lane, with highlights this year coming in the shape of pieces by Paul Fennessy, Gavin Cooney and Emma Duffy.

With the All-Ireland finals being pushed back until late December, A Season of Sundays, a staple of the Christmas market, will not now be released until January 25th. Vouchers are available, however, on which can be redeemed when the book is published.

Finally – and sadly – the last ever edition of the Best American Sports Writing series (Houghton Mifflin, €25.00) has dropped. The 2020 collection is edited by Jackie MacMullen and lives up to its usual insane standard, with Andrew Keh's New York Times piece The Champion Who Picked A Date To Die a particular standout. It was a magnificent series. Here's hoping another publisher picks up the baton.

For the younger reader

The range of sports books for kids has exploded in size and quality in recent years. Fiction and non-fiction, books for boys and especially books for girls. RTÉ presenter Jacqui Hurley's Girls Play Too (Merrion, €14.95) is a wonderful collection of the life stories of 25 of Ireland's best known female sports figures, all of which begin, "Once there was a girl called…"

Along similar lines, albeit for readers around the 10-13 mark is Aim High by Donny Mahoney (O'Brien, €16.50), telling the stories of Irish sports stars from Roy Keane to Rhasidat Adeleke to Easkey Britton. The thread of possibilities runs through both books, unapologetically making the case for what can be done by anyone who puts their mind to it.

On the fiction front, Gerard Siggins is back with the latest in the Eoin Madden series. Gaelic Spirit (O'Brien, €8.99) takes Eoin to Tipperary for the summer and with no rugby to play, he gets involved in the GAA and, as ever, meets the ghosts of figures from the past. Given the year that's in it, Michael Hogan is one of them and the story of Bloody Sunday is told along the way.

Blue Thunder by Gordon D'Arcy and Paul Howard (Penguin, €14.50) is the second instalment in D'Arcy's half-memoir/half boy's own adventure series. There's a kind of Pixar-style joy to be taken from the Gordon's Game books in that you get them to hand over to a niece or nephew or son or daughter but you can't help flicking through it yourself and next thing you know, an hour has gone. They're far too enjoyable to leave solely to kids to have all the fun.

Two novels for young adults emerge from the GAA fields. All To Play For by Donn McClean (O'Brien, €8.99) is a 13-year-old girl's story of loss and life, shot through her experiences with her new football team. It is poignant in places, inspirational in others and a reminder that life is never straightforward.

Finally, Up In The Air by Paddy Stapleton (Orla Kelly publishing, €9.99) is an absolutely rollicking tale of a young hurler who wants to be captain of his under-13 team, told through a straight narrative interspersed with his diary entries. The dialogue is hilarious and knowing and the action barrels along. Stapleton won two All-Irelands playing for Tipperary and has clearly found his calling here.