THE BEST The Bloodied Field by Michael Foley (O'Brien Press, €16.99) A sports book, a history book, a thriller. Like a quietly determined geek with an old computer, Foley takes Bloody Sunday 1920 apart bit by bit before putting it back together as the last word on the subject. The depth of the research is stunning and exhausting – the bibliography alone runs to nine pages at the back of the book. On top of which, the writing is a treat. Probing without being too cold, lyrical without getting lost in itself.
Bloody Sunday is a day from history that few really know the ins and outs of. Foley tells the story of it through the characters on both sides. Mick Hogan from Grangemockler, Johnny McDonnell from Seville Place. Luke O'Toole from Wicklow, who ran the GAA for three helter-skelter decades from his house in Albert Villas beside Croke Park.
Nevil Macready, the British commander in chief trapped in a country he couldn’t stand, waging a war he had no interest in. Spies and soldiers, footballers and civilians, all bound up in as dangerous a time and place as the country has ever known. Foley weaves every strand together with an expert hand for a book that makes everything else look unambitious.
The Second Half by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle (Orion Books, €21.50) By a street the most enjoyable read of the year. No sports book has a right to be this funny or have as many anecdotes for you to pass around afterwards. Dancing Queen in the dressingroom, Robbie Savage's voicemail, Raimond van der Gouw's sandwich. The very idea of multi-millionaire Roy Keane sitting his kids down after he quit playing to tell them that there'd have to be cutbacks and them looking straight through him because they wanted to watch TV.
The rows with Alex Ferguson are the least interesting thing here. There's nothing new in them, nothing he hasn't said before in interviews. What does turn out to be unexpectedly riveting, however, is his time at Sunderland. On a purely sporting level, it's a portrait of what it takes to be a mid-market football manager in the shadows of the Premier League. The thousands of tiny battles won and lost that go to make up a football season.
There is some introspection here but, as ever with Keane, only just enough to leave you wanting more. Roddy Doyle’s touch is flawless and the book skips along at a fair clip, never particularly sagging. A fun time all round.
Night Games by Anna Krien (Yellow Jersey Press, €19.40) A girl goes back to a house party after an Aussie Rules Grand Final. She has consensual sex with four players from a major club. The next day, police arrive at the door of a fifth player – one a lot further down the footy ladder – saying he's been accused of rape. So is the scene set for the trial of Justin Dyer for the rape of Sarah Wesley (both names changed), or, as the book's strapline has it, a story of sex, power and a journey into the dark heart of sport.
The winner of the William Hill this year, Night Games is dense, complicated and conflicted throughout. The case is messy, the night drink-fuelled and accounts of it blurry. Krien branches off from the trial to delve into tricky areas like the nature of masculinity, the boundaries of consent, groupie culture, feminism, sexism, celebrity and more.
It’s a book with exponentially more questions than answers. Krien opens it with the scene from the verdict – Dyer is found not guilty. “Despite the verdict,” she writes, “I still don’t know who is guilty and who is innocent, and yet here I am, hugging the grandmother in the defendant’s corner, and that’s a problem, don’t you think?”
Despite it being an almost impossible subject to write about, Krien has produced a brilliant, disarming, thought-provoking book.
Dalo by Anthony Daly and Christy O'Connor (Transworld, €16.99)
It’s no slight on either of the authors here to say it would be hard to write a bad Anthony Daly autobiography. If you cover Gaelic games to any extent, you can’t but be drawn to his openness, his warmth, his feel for a yarn.
Though he has the charisma for TV and the analytical skills for radio, the written word – with its room to spread out and explore – is his best medium. O’Connor has some of the best GAA books ever written under his belt and has shared dressing rooms with Daly in both Clare and Dublin. They are a match made in heaven.
What makes this so good is the depth of it, the inquiring mind Daly brings to his work and the thorough ransacking of that mind by O’Connor. For a man who has been a leader all his life, the Daly of this book is relentlessly self-questioning, self-doubting and self-examining. It makes for one of the most thoughtful, engaging reads all year.
The Race To Truth by Emma O'Reilly and Shannon Kyle (Bantam Press, €14.99) Most of us are Roy Keane's dead fish. We go with the flow. Not Emma O'Reilly. Just when she looked to be settling in for a benighted life of being the whistleblower who took Lance Armstrong down, she decided she'd had enough and swam against the tide again by getting him to write the foreword to her memoir.
That book is a constant reminder that there is always more than one truth. O'Reilly's truth is that she left Tallaght to join the circus of professional cycling at the age of 21 and found herself caught up in the sport's morass as Armstrong's soigneur. Being anti-doping was her first act of rebellion, talking to David Walsh about what she'd seen and done was her way of doubling down.
The book is fascinating. Nothing is tidy, much of it seems counterintuitive. She has far more affection for Armstrong than she does for Walsh. This despite her life having been a hell of lawsuits and threats and worries about Armstrong destroying her. And not just financially – at one point, she was told she should move to a safe house.
It’s a book with a message that has nothing and everything to do with Lance Armstrong. Everybody’s truth is their own.
It's hard to remember a year with so many books hitting the shelves. Normally in a given year there might be five or six at a push but it's well into double figures this year. In My Own Words by Paul Galvin (Transworld, €16.99) is beautifully written by the former Kerry star, depressingly so for those of us who've nominally been trained in the field. Galvin could have done with a ghostwriter to probe him a bit more and force him to reveal more of himself but this is plainly the book he wanted to write and that has to be respected.
Cake by Shane Curran and Tommy Conlon (Penguin, €18.99) is rollicking fun, which you'd expect, and quite deep and thoughtful in places, which you might not. Conlon has done bang-up job in capturing Curran's voice (f*ckn mighty, as the man himself might say). The only disappointment is that they didn't call it 'Let Them Beat Cake'.
Ballpoint Press has been home to the best GAA books in recent times (Fairytale In New York, This Is Our Year and The Godfather Of Modern Hurling should be in everyone's collection). Two offerings this year to add to the pile. The Furlongs by Pat Nolan (€14.99) traces the lives of the remarkable Offaly football family all the way from Tullamore to Croke Park to the NFL. And The GAA In My Time by Eugene McGee (€16.99) is the Irish Independent columnist's observations on our ever-changing-never-changing national institution.
Fields Of Fire by Damian Lawlor (Transworld, €22.35) is a deeply researched portrait of the last decade of inter-county hurling and as close as anyone has come to getting to the core of what has made Kilkenny great. Hell For Leather by Dermot Crowe and Ronnie Bellew (Hachette, €22.10) is a gorgeous compendium of 100 hurling matches down through history. And Season Of Sundays by the Sportsfile photography team (€24.95) lives up to the high standards it has set itself over the years.
Arguably the two most interesting soccer managers on the planet have had books written about them this year, one with his permission, the other without. It will come as no surprise that the unauthorised one is the better outcome.
The Special One by Diego Torres (HarperSport, €19.40) is a devastating insight into the borderline-madness with which Jose Mourinho's last season with Real Madrid played out behind the scenes. Whereas Pep Confidential by Martí Perarnau (ArenaSport, €22.50) is an access-all-areas behemoth of a book on Pep Guardiola's first season with Bayern Munich, written by an author who comes across as being far too grateful for all that access.
A Different Shade Of Green by Alan McLoughlin and Bryce Evans (Ballpoint, €13.99) is a sometimes flinty account of the former Ireland player's career, the most interesting parts of which deal better with issues of nationality than the usual clumsy attempts. Luis Suárez, Sergio Agüero and Rio Ferdinand all have autobiographies out with plenty to recommend them to fans of Liverpool, City and United respectively but not a huge amount besides.
Probably the best concept soccer book around this year is The Invincibles, by Amy Lawrence (Penguin €21.50), the inside story of Arsenal's unbeaten 2003-2004 season. And a quixotic one (possibly for the bathroom) is A Matter Of Life And Death by Jim White (Harper Collins, €24.99), telling the stories behind 100 famous soccer quotes.
The biggest release in the Irish sports scene this year was, of course, The Test by Brian O'Driscoll and Alan English (Penguin, €19.99). After the brouhaha of the split with Paul Kimmage melted away, what remained was a book that barely scratched the Driconian surface – which is as the man himself doubtless wanted it. One fantastic New York story aside (and it says something very sweet about O'Driscoll and his friends that the story never got out before he was ready to tell it), this is a relentlessly chronological account of the career of our greatest rugby player.
A Life With Claw by Anna Gibson-Steel (Hero Books, €15.50) is a slightly odd offering, written by the wife of Peter Clohessy and telling some stories of his from his life in rugby. Not really a biography but not really not a biography either, this was hard to get a handle on.
Proud by Gareth Thomas and Michael Calvin (Ebury, €28.99) is the former Wales captain's account of how and why he came out a couple of years ago and the inner struggles that got him to that point.
Fictionwise, Rugby Warrior by Gerard Siggins (O'Brien Press, €8.99) is a treat. The latest in the series of novels for young adults following under-14 rugby captain Eoin Madden, Siggins weaves in the history of Lansdowne Road in this follow-up to Rugby Spirit.
The whole not judging a book by its cover thing is tough sometimes and it's very hard to come to a book like No Limits by Ian Poulter and Ollie Holt (Quercus, €17.99) without preconceptions. But in fact it is a surprising and at times endearing yarn about a guy who has made the very best of himself and doesn't mind telling you about it. However much you may want to hate him, the book won't let you.
Good boxing books are thin enough on the ground this year, although Best Of Enemies by Barry Flynn (Liberties Press, €13.99) stands out as a notable exception. A friendship and rivalry story about two of Belfast's greatest back in the middle of the 20th century, Freddie Gilroy and John Caldwell, it is crafted with obvious care and reverence by Flynn. Bouts Of Mania by Richard Hoffer (SI Books, €27.50) covers a fair bit of Ali-Foreman-Frazier ground that has already been done but Hoffer is a stylish enough writer to pull it off.
Fans of America sportswriting can further plug into two pieces of work from across the pond in particular. The always reliable Best American Sportswriting (Mariner, €20) is edited by Christopher Born To Run McDougall this year and it shimmers with quality all through. And the greatest of all golf writers, Dan Jenkins, has cracked out a laugh-along memoir called His Ownself (Doubleday, €27.00).