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Sports Books of the Year: Hard-hitting and honest rugby reads lead the way

Chronicle of Barcelona’s implosion and fascinating look at gambling business also stand out

The Best

Crossing The Line by Willie Anderson and Brendan Fanning (Reach Sport, €19.99)
The best books this year are rugby books. This, it's fair to say, has not been the case for many years now but in 2021, for whatever reason, they're a bonus-point win clear of the rest. First among equals is Willie Anderson's rollicking memoir, written in conjunction with Brendan Fanning. There is no more enjoyable book about any sport to be found anywhere this year.

What a treat it is. Anderson has been around a long time and so he has lived a life. A few of them, indeed. Older readers will be aware of the scrape he got into in Argentina in 1980 but for any of us under 50, the story of his three months in the judicial system over there for the late-night high crime of stealing a flag is jaw-dropping. Anderson was able to dig out the letters he wrote his future wife Heather at the time, which gives the whole escapade a true sense of jeopardy.

The flag farrago could have been worth a book on its own but Anderson hadn't even played for Ireland at that stage. He went on to become famous for facing down the Haka, he played in the first World Cup, he coached at Dungannon, Leinster, Ulster and Scotland. Everywhere he went, his force of personality propelled him. It didn't always work out but that just makes for a better book.

There’s tragedy in here, there’s addiction in here, there’s trauma, The Troubles and everything else. Fanning has done a brilliant job with the tone and voice – you never doubt that this is the story Anderson wants to tell.

Fight Or Flight by Keith Earls and Tommy Conlon (Reach Sport, €19.99)
Great stories make great books. This being the 14th – fourteenth! – autobiography to come out of the 2009 Grand Slam-winning Ireland squad, you can be forgiven for being wary of the idea that there might be anything left to be said by anyone involved. But set your fears aside. Not unlike Willie Anderson, Keith Earls has lived a life beyond the rugby pitch. It is documented here in all its raw, revealing totality.

At one stage, Earls writes that he has kept the language in the book deliberately plain and easy to read, in the hope that kids who grew up like him in disadvantaged areas like Moyross and who never paid their schoolwork much heed would not be put off reading it. It tells you a lot about his humanity and his social conscience but also about what makes this such a good read – for once, a rugby player is telling his story for a reason, not just because a publisher popped the question.

So there is plenty in here about being from Moyross, plenty about imposter syndrome, plenty about loving rugby but hating how it made him feel. Earls has had to deal with being bipolar, almost certainly being dyslexic, getting through games despite being barely able to breathe because his internal organs have shifted around and so much more.

In the wrong hands, it could be heavy going. But ghostwriting matters. Tommy Conlon is on the plate here and he steers Earls through the telling of his story with empathy and clarity. The chapter on what goes into improving your defence as a winger is fantastic and surely benefits from the fact that the ghost isn’t a rugby writer in his day job.

Barca by Simon Kuper (Short Books, €17.99)
The planets aligned for this one. Simon Kuper had been working around the edges of a possible Barcelona book for a couple of years and then the pandemic hit so he finally sat down to write it. And then, just as he was nearing completion, the rot that he had been documenting caused the floor of the club to fall through, which saw Barca's on-field fortunes plummet. Oh, and Lionel Messi left. The ending wrote itself.

This is essentially three books in one. The first third of it is not the story of Barcelona at all, really. Instead, it's the story of Johan Cruyff and how he came to be such a dominant force, first at Ajax, then with Holland and then, eventually, with Barcelona. This dovetails into the middle third, which is the story of how Barcelona turned itself from quite a small-time provincial club in Catalonia to one of the great superpowers of world football and the role Cruyff had in that evolution.

It was Cruyff who picked out a slow 18-year-old on Barcelona’s B team and turned him into Pep Guardiola. Just as it was Cruyff who masterminded La Masia, who insisted that the received wisdom on jettisoning small players paved the way for Xavi and Iniesta and Messi to come through within a few years of each other. The book draws that line from Cruyff to Guardiola to Messi to the greatest club team ever around the turn of the 2010s.

And if that was all it did, it would have been one of the better soccer books to come out in recent years. But the fall is just as gripping as the rise. The final third of the book gives the most rounded account yet of who Messi is, what makes him such a brilliant player, how his personality works – and doesn’t work – in a team setting. It’s also a devastating account of how Barcelona made such a monumental pig’s ear of their position at the top of the sport. A stunning, timely book.

Punters by Aaron Rogan (Harper Collins Ireland, €15.99)
In one sense, Paddy Power is right up there among the greatest success stories in Irish business of the past four decades. It began as a collection of small Irish bookies clubbing together in the 1980s to stave off an invasion by the big blue-blood British firms. It is now the largest company on the Irish stock exchange and the biggest gambling company in the world. By any measure, it is an amazing story to tell.

But of course, the cloud that hangs over anything to do with gambling is the trail of misery left behind by addiction. In general, it is accepted by both gambling companies and counselling services that problem gamblers only make up somewhere in the region of one per cent of customers. But that one per cent accounts for anything up to 25 per cent of profits in the industry. Therein lies the essential tension of the book and the question neither Paddy Power nor the gambling industry at large has been able to adequately answer.

Aaron Rogan’s account of the rise and rise of Paddy Power is, first and foremost, a business book. But since every step of the way is predicated on finding more and more ways to get people to bet on sport, it is an essential read for any of us with an interest in how sport and betting intersect.

Some of it is borderline dystopian, particularly the realisation that Paddy Power – and presumably all the other firms too – are able to tell after your first 15 bets how much they are likely to make from you over the life of your custom. Gambling companies sell themselves as entertainment but they’re really just data-harvesting centres like all the big tech companies of modern life.

Read this before you make your next bet. It won’t necessarily put you off but it will make you think more broadly about who exactly is enjoying the transaction.

This Is Your Everest by Tom English and Peter Burns (Polaris, €24.30)
The 1997 Lions tour to South Africa lives on in a way that no other modern tour does. It was pure lightning-in-a-bottle stuff. The first Lions tour of the pro era. Beating the reigning world champions. The force of the personalities involved - McGeechan, Telfer, Johnson, Wood, Jenkins. Above all, the Living With Lions documentary that brought it all to an audience that might only have been tangentially interested in the first place.

This is the third Lions book that Tom English and Peter Burns have done and because of everything laid out above, it’s the one that sings the loudest and carries the heaviest punch. The format is the secret sauce – part narrative, part oral history. The authors don’t get in the way, they let their endless interviews speak for themselves.

But when they need to fill in the blanks or set out the various contexts involved, the storytelling is rich and vivid. And so you have the unconscionable waste of the Springboks post-1995 years, in which the facade of unity beaming out from those famous Mandela-Pienaar images falls away. And you have the various sad stories of the Boks in the years after the tour, of James Small’s suicide attempts and Joost van der Westhuizen’s motor neuron disease.

Crucially, you have the story of the documentary crew who made Living With Lions. They arguably put more on the line than any of the players, remortgaging their houses to make a film that all the TV stations told them nobody would watch. Just one of the strands of an almost mythical tour, captured beautifully here.

The Rest

By some distance the most entertaining GAA book of the year is Grassroots: Stories from the heart of the GAA, compiled by PJ Cunningham (Ballpoint Press, €20.00). A compendium of stories, yarns, half-tales and anecdotes from down the annals of the GAA. Officially, there are 136 chapters – some of them are eight pages long, some run to just four paragraphs. From the referee who reffed a game by the hoot of the Waterford-Dublin train to the lengths IRA men went to to play football during the Troubles, all human GAA life is here.

A slew of other GAA books offer up weightier fare, in the main. Devotion by Mickey Harte and Brendan Coffey (Harper Collins Ireland, €21.99) is intense stuff, dealing with the legendary ex-Tyrone manager's faith in the face of the unfathomable tragedy of his daughter Michaela's murder and plenty of football stuff besides. It's a less forbidding read than you might imagine and gives an insight into Harte that he hasn't always been quick to share down the years. For a man who has been in the public eye for two decades and is on his third book, this is a well-rounded and at times fascinating read.

Andy: Lessons learned in pursuit of glory by Andy Moran and Colin Sheridan (Mayo Books, €24.00) is very, very Andy Moran. Unsparing of himself, gloriously effusive and enthusiastic about everyone who influenced him along the way, it is a pleasure to spend time in his company. You can tell he will make a terrific coach. In a similar ballpark, The Players' Advice by Seán O'Sullivan (O'Brien Press, €13.50) is full of nuggets from interviews with 106 hurlers and footballers who are either current players or only recently retired about what goes into playing at intercounty level.

Unbroken by Aidan O'Mahony and Michael Moynihan (Hachette, €16.99) is the sixth book to come out of the Kerry team of the 2000s and is undoubtedly the rawest of them. O'Mahony talks in detail about his mental health struggles, his introverted nature, his embarrassment at his famous dive against Cork and the trauma of his positive drugs test for asthma medication. Compelling stuff.

After 25 years of Season Of Sundays (Sportsfile, €27.95), new ground is broken this year with the first all-female cover, the faces of the historic Meath women beaming out from the front of it.

Finally, Dark Blue by Shane Carthy (O'Brien Press, €16.50) is a triumph, not least because Carthy wrote it himself. There were days in the not-to-distant past when the Dublin footballer couldn't summon up the will or energy to move from his bed in the secure unit of St Patrick's mental hospital. His journey through depression is documented here in precise and forensic detail. To make it from where he was in 2014 to the Dublin panel this past summer and to be able to write so well about it is a moving feat in and of itself.

On the soccer front – or at least straddling the two sides of the sporting coin – Meyler: A family memoir by John and David Meyler with Fintan O'Toole (Hero Books, €20.00) is a warm and innovative book from two of the most popular Cork sportspeople of the past 15 years. Their stories are expertly woven together by Fintan O'Toole, never dwelling too long on one side before explaining how the other shaped around it. An audacious and entertaining feat of storytelling.

In a year that was pretty light on left-field ideas, Emerald Exiles by Barry Landy (New Island Books, €22.00) will have had a few authors smacking their foreheads for not thinking of it first. Landy does a very basic thing – he goes and finds Irish soccer players who have played football in foreign leagues and gets them to tell their stories. From Liam Brady and Robbie Keane to Clare Scanlan and Darren O'Dea – some of them will make your eyes swivel.

A couple of big-name books from England are worth your time. Hooked by Paul Merson and Rob Bagchi (Headline, €24.50) isn't the first time the former Arsenal and England star has told his story but it's the deepest he's ever delved into the horrors of his gambling addiction. On a different tip entirely, And It Was Beautiful by Phil Hay (Orion Press, €22.00) is an essential and often comical account of the rise of Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa.

A few bits and bobs to finish. Two of RTÉ's biggest names have memoirs out this year. It's Marty by Marty Morrissey (Penguin, €21.90) weighs in at a thunderous 518 pages and leaves no yarn untold in the kaleidoscopic life of the country's most famous Clareman. The Nation Holds Its Breath by George Hamilton (Merrion Press, €22.95) is a good 200 pages shorter and the better for it. Hamilton has been everywhere and seen everything and although this only goes as far as 1996, his liquid prose covers so much of our greatest days. It's no hardship at all to join him for the ride.

Even though you wouldn't say that of Above Water by Trish Kearney (Hachette, €14.99), it's no less rewarding a read for how challenging it is. Kearney is one of the victims of George Gibney's abuse and the lengths he went to in grooming her and raping her as a teenager are laid bare here.

Ultimately though, Above Water is no accidental title. This is the story of Trish Kearney’s triumph, of how she got through the worst days of her life and came out the other side. The year’s most inspirational memoir.

Two collections to play us out. Behind The Lines from The 42 team (Journal Media, €12.00) is into its fifth volume, filled to the brim with goodness as ever. Emma Duffy's interview with Ireland soccer player Clare Shine is an especially devastating read, while Gavin Cooney's chat with former Ireland kitman Charlie O'Leary would make any heart soar.

Finally, The Year's Best Sports Writing 2021 (Triumph Books, €18.75), edited by Glenn Stout, is the newest iteration of The Best American Sportswriting series that was brought to an end last year. Highlights this time around include pieces by Wright Thompson, Brian Phillips and Kelly Glock. But the standout piece is probably the best piece of writing about anything anywhere this year, Twelve Minutes And A Life by Mitchell S Jackson. Go find it, whether you buy the collection or not.

The kids

There has never been a better time to be an Irish kid into sport and reading. The array of choices these days far outstrips what was around when we were young. And for some of us, that’s not even that long ago.

Top of the shop for yet another year is Gordon's Game - Lions Roar (Penguin, €14.99), the brilliant collaboration between Gordon D'Arcy and Paul Howard. In this third book in the series, Gordon plays for the Lions and faces the notorious Bomb Squad, ie the South African 'finishers'.

Declan Kirby GAA Star by Michael Egan (Gill Books, €11.50) is a new series aimed at 10- to 13-year olds. Declan is a young footballer with a lot going on, both at home and on the pitch. There are two books in the series – Championship Journey and Away Days – and both truck along with a lot of insight and heart.

The Great Irish Sports Stars series (O'Brien Press, €13.50) has told the stories of Sonia O'Sullivan and Colm Cooper in the past and this year both Shay Given (written by Natasha Mac a'Bháird) and Jason Sherlock (written by Donny Mahoney) get the treatment. A lot of books for this age group are fiction but these are a clever introduction to non-fiction writing, the stories told from the perspective of Given and Sherlock but all shot through actual events.

Finally, the Eoin Madden series goes from strength to strength. Having told seven Rugby Spirit stories, Football Spirit by Gerard Siggins (O'Brien Press, €13.50) sees young Eoin move on to playing soccer and the ghost he falls in with this time is that of Liam Whelan. These books are such a delight, full of sport and history and mystery. They'd nearly make you want to be 11 again. Nearly.