Sports books of 2018: The best, the rest and all in between
Malachy Clerkin looks at some of the volumes taking up the sports sections this year
‘Between you and me and the post’ – Like sentry guards, Jack McCaffrey and umpire Tom O’Kane watch the ball squirm away from the goal, one of the few moments of danger for Dublin in a relatively straight-forward semi-final win over Galway. Photo: “A Season of Sundays 2018”/Sportsfile
Tony 10 by Declan Lynch and Tony O’Reilly – Gill Books, €16.99
The story of Tony O’Reilly, the Carlow postmaster who stole €1.75m from his Gorey post office to feed a chronic gambling habit would probably be just too depressing in most hands to make a book out of. Or to make a good book out of, at any rate. But because Declan Lynch is (a) such a skilled writer and (b) has, in O’Reilly, the perfect cautionary tale to illuminate his crusade against the insidiousness of gambling in modern sport and society, Tony 10 is probably the most compelling read of the year.
The detail is terrifying at times. On the day he opened his Paddy Power online account, O’Reilly placed a bet for €1. For most of the first few years he had it, he indulged in nothing more serious than the normal gambling a lot of us do – a tenner here, a score there, the odd win, the odd loss, no harm done. And then it spiralled off into an untethered, nightmarish frenzy that hollowed out his life and sent him to prison.
The most repulsive scene in the book involves Paddy Power, the well-known spokesman for the firm itself, phoning O’Reilly on a Monday morning to tell him that the site is down but if he wants to get a bet on, he can do so directly by ringing Paddy’s mobile. O’Reilly’s winnings for the weekend just gone had reached €465,000 and they needed him to keep punting so that he could give it all back. Which, of course, he duly did.
Lynch walks us through it all, step by gruesome step. The indelible links between gambling and sport in today’s world are a surprise to nobody and yet it’s still fairly bracing to see it all laid bare. A chilling, jaw-dropping bruiser of a book.
The further you get into this biography of Belfast boxer Eamonn Magee, the more you come to admire the achievement of Paul Gibson in producing it at all. It will be no surprise to anyone who came across Magee through his career that there is a book in his life but cat-herding it all into a single, sustainable narrative was clearly an outlandish job of work.
Actually, ‘biography’ might not even be the right word for it. Gibson writes the book with and through Magee but goes beyond him to piece together the thousands of strands that make up his world. And that world is complicated, never less than dramatic, never anywhere close to neat or tidy or straightforward. If Magee was a more stable, reliable individual, this would surely have been an autobiography. Because he isn’t, we’re left with a book that defies classification and is all the better for it.
Magee is a hard character to like, even though Gibson clearly does and counts him as a friend. The picture painted here of the Ardoyne in which he grew up during the Troubles is raw and unsettling, as is the influence of his father who was exiled from the area by the IRA but snuck back to live in the attic unknown to anyone outside the family. Magee is an alcoholic, a drug addict, a serial womaniser and someone rarely on the right side of the law.
In the middle of it all, he is somehow a brilliant boxer too. The drama is relentless throughout, the feeling of another shoe about to drop is constant. It’s hard going at times and completely hilarious at others. Sets the bar incredibly high for anyone sitting down to capture a life in a book.
You will wait a long time and go through a lot of sports books before you find one that drags you in from the very beginning like this one. The prologue is a run-on, stream-of-consciousness account of what it’s like to be there, to be in that place before a fight happens when all the people around you and beyond you are here because of you and the other guy and the fact that you’re going to get it on. It’s only a few pages long but by the time you get to the end of it, you’re cancelling everything else in your life. This has to be read.
Andy Lee and Niall Kelly have done something magical here. This is by a distance the best-written ghost-written book to land on the sports shelves in years. It’s a meld of three love stories – Andy and boxing, Andy and Manny Steward, Andy and his now wife Maud. Through it all, Lee’s innate decency and likeability sings out, making it a not overly-taxing read. Not everything has to be miserable, after all.
But where this book really nails you is in the short passages of boxing insight. There’s a chapter – again, only a few pages long – on his right hand, the punch that saved him and made him several times in his career. It’s a poem to his punch, the best friend that has got him out of trouble so often and it’s a thing of genuine beauty and lyrical perfection. Time and again, the book lights up a small corner of boxing like this, teaching you things you didn’t know you didn’t know. Can’t ask for much more from a sports book.
Dublin: The Chaos Years by Neil Cotter – Penguin, €14.99
As the eternal empire rumbles on and on and ever on, it’s no harm to be reminded that it wasn’t always thus. Not all that very long ago, the Dublin football team went seven years without so much as winning a Leinster title. They were the England soccer team of the GAA – all hype, all mouth, all but assured to crash out as soon as they came up against a decent team. This book is the story of that era, the barren years between 1995 and 2011.
Neil Cotter was – is – a Dublin fan, a Hill 16 man going back the years. A news reporter for The Irish Sun, he comes at this subject with both a journalist’s eye and a supporter’s instinct. He bore the brunt of the down years, took the ridicule, wrung his hands like the rest of the city when everything inevitably went to pot. And now that it’s all hunky-dory, he wants to drill down into how and why it got so bad – and how and why it turned around.
The best parts of the book come early. Cotter has done some terrific interviews here, most obviously with Keith Barr, and the raw, hard-nosed nature of the Dublin dressing room at the end of the 1990s jumps from the page.
As it progresses, Cotter has less and less access to some of the major players in the Dublin revival – Pat Gilroy and John Costello in particular are notable for their absence. But he nonetheless does an fine job of drilling into the money issue and the Bertie Ahern stuff is enlightening and entertaining in equal measure. Well worth anyone’s time.
Hands-down, no-contest, the most enjoyable book of the year. It’s no exaggeration to state that there are more laugh-out-loud moments between the covers of this than in all the other books on this page combined. From the casually self-deprecating first paragraph, Crouch and Fordyce walk you through the mad, mad world of top-level professional football with a piss-taker’s eye for detail and an everyman’s sense of the absurd.
There have been books like this before –The Secret Footballer series went a bit of the way towards demystifying the roped off universe of Premier League and international soccer. But Crouch goes all the way in. It’s story after story, yarn after yarn, each as funny as the last. Crouch knows he lives in a gilded world and delights in sharing it with the great unwashed.
Best of all, he names names. In 90 per cent of the anecdotes, he has no problem laying out exactly who did what to whom and when. So you read about Djibril Cissé’s Chrysler with the black and white picture of his daughter sprayed across the bonnet. And how Joe Hart used to hand out bottles of shampoo to anyone who wanted them on the back of his Head & Shoulders deal. And how Noel Gallagher signed Gary Neville’s guitar with the message ‘How Many England caps did you deserve? Fu**kin’ none! Lotsa love, Noel.”
As ever, there’s no end to the number of Gaelic games books doing the rounds. The Obsession by Seán Cavanagh and Damien Lawlor (Black & White, €17.99) is well-named and well-paced. Cavanagh doesn’t stint on his regrets for the man football turned him into, neither does he duck his sometimes difficult relationship with Mickey Harte. Also up north, The Boys of ‘93 by Eamonn Coleman and Maria McCourt (Merrion, €12.99) is an unexpected delight, a short and often blistering account of the late, great Derry manager’s All-Ireland win and the ugly fall-out from it a quarter of a century ago.
The Hurlers by Paul Rouse (Penguin Ireland, €21.99) is ostensibly the story behind the first All-Ireland hurling championship in 1887 but really it’s a piece-by-piece account of how hurling got off the ground. It flows along far more merrily and lightly than any history book has a right to and is especially enlightening when it comes to drawing the founding fathers Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin.
At All Costs by Davy Fitzgerald and Vincent Hogan (Gill Books, €19.99) is Davy to the max. Davy is here, in all his complicated glory, never less than interesting, always ready to fight his corner. Game Changer by Cora Staunton and Mary White (Transworld, €17.99) is an often fascinating account of another complicated individual, detailing the Mayo forward’s life as the first crossover star of women’s football. Dubs To The Four by Gerry Callan (Ballpoint, €19.99) is an amazing resource, comprising a complete record of Dublin football from 1887 to the present day.
The soccer shelves are notably thinner this year. After Crouch’s sublime offering, the next port of call should be The Boy On The Shed by Paul Ferris (Hodder & Stoughton, €23.00). Ferris was a will-o-the-wisp winger in Lisburn in the early ‘80s for whom football looked a way out right up until it wasn’t. He went to Newcastle, played for the first team at 16, fizzled out and faded away, only to come back for a second life as the club’s physio a decade and a half later. Football ate Ferris up and coughed him out but he found his way through it all the same.
Otherwise, Red Card: FIFA and the Fall of the Most Powerful Men In Sports by Ken Bensinger (Profile Books, €21.00) is an eye-opening account of some of the chancers who rotted football from the inside. And My Life In Football by Kevin Keegan and Daniel Taylor (Pan Macmillan, €19.99) is a typically thoughtful account of a sport to which the former England and Newcastle manager always gave more than he took.
A couple of rugby books catch the eye. Dark Arts by Mike Ross and Liam Hayes (Hero Books, €20.00) reveals the former Leinster and Ireland tighthead prop to be a ravenously intelligent and multi-layered soul who overcame early tragedy to forge a solid career for himself.
And The Last Amateurs by Jonathan Bradley (Blackstaff Press, €12.99) tells the unlikely story of Ulster’s European Cup win in 1999 with great élan, stuffed as it is with yarns from the last grey area in rugby just as professionalism was taking root. Bradley’s book is a lot of fun and a welcome throwback to a time before everything was so po-faced and serious.
The best golf book around is Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyin (Simon and Schuster, €20.00). Woods’ life has never been picked apart in such pain-staking detail as this, although close observers of Tiger down the year will be familiar with fair chunks of it. But it’s by far the best portrayal of Woods’ relationship with his father Earl, who it’s fair to say does not emerge well here.
A completely different life – and a still extraordinary one in its own way – is captured in Driven by Rosemary Smith and Anne Ingle (Harper Collins, €17.99). A Monte Carlo rally driver in the 1960s and 70s, Smith was one of the most famous people in motorsport and a flick through the index tells you the sort of world we’re dealing with. Everyone from Jimmy Greaves to Salvador Dali to Ollie Reed to Charlie Haughey feature along the way in a memoir that has to be read to be believed.
Play It Again, Des by Des Cahill and Mary Hannigan (Sport Media, €19.99) has a bit of that too. Above everything else in Des Cahill’s life, he was there, always there. Name a big Irish sporting moment of the past 30 years and Des was in amongst it, yukking it up with the great sporting figures of the age and making himself their conduit to the people. He will never run out of anecdotes, each of which essentially amounts to him admitting that he’s a chancer who keeps getting away with it. More power to him.
Finally, some bits and indeed bobs. The Man Who Was Never Knocked Down by Seán Mannion and Rónán Mac Con Iomaire (Rowman & Littlefield, €16.00) is the third iteration of Mannion’s story, previously told in Irish and as the documentary Rocky Ros Muc. On a completely different tip, Coaching Children in Sport by Paul Kilgannon (BookHub, €14.00) takes an in-depth, holistic approach to a vital building block of modern society. And as ever, A Season Of Sundays by the Sportsfile crew is a gorgeous look at the GAA year from some of the best snappers in the game.
Some collections to finish. Behind The Lines Volume 2 by the staff of The42.ie (Journal Media, €10.00), The Seventh Day – 30 Years of Sportswriting from the Sunday Independent (Mercier, €23.00) and The Best American Sports Writing 2018, edited by Jeff Pearlman (Mariner, €17.50) are all, in their own way, worth the time of anyone who has got to the end of this page.
For a taster, here’s one from each to check out – Gavan Casey’s incredible piece with MMA fighter John Phillips, Eamon Dunphy’s exquisitely tender account of an afternoon with George Best in 1990 and Lars Anderson’s horrifying The Death of a Teenage Quarter-Back. Each of them an adornment to the collections that house them.