Reading the game: Our writers select 29 sports books from 2017...
Not the full story of Cody’s Cats but a revealing read
The Warrior’s Code by Jackie Tyrrell with Christy O’Connor (Trinity Mirror, €22.99)
Not the best GAA-related tome of the year but unquestionably the most newsworthy. One can only imagine Brian Cody’s reaction to the revelation that his fellow James Stephens man had decided to lift one or two of the blinds in the Nowlan Park dressing room. Et tu, Jackie?
The book is based on the diary Tyrrell kept in 2016.
From the reader’s point of view it was the best possible season for him to do so. Instead of a Kilkenny at their remorseless best and a Tyrrell in the prime of his career, bold and brazen and making it part of his moral code to throw shoulders at every forward within a five-mile radius, we get a declining team and an ageing hero. Tyrrell is injured, peripheral, unsure of himself, badly in need of reassurance from his manager — and receiving absolutely none.
Did we suspect Cody would be like that? So apparently cold, remote, and aloof? Of course we did, but now it’s official. Therein lies the book’s unique selling point.
One of its weaknesses, on the other hand, is the testosterone overdose. Oooh, everyone, look at me! I was so tough! We were so tough! We wanted to hammer teams into the ground and put hurling out of their heads for years afterwards! And so on and so forth. Yawn. The chest-beating stuff frankly gets wearing after a while.
That the book went down like a lead zeppelin in the homes of Tipperary is no surprise. Tyrrell’s lack of regard for Tipp — his studied lack of regard, perhaps — is both unedifying and simply illogical, all the more so in view of Tommy Walsh’s recent assertion that the reason Kilkenny kept beating Tipperary was not because they didn’t rate them but rather because they rated them so highly and were afraid of them. Our man doth protest too much, and his description of one Tipp forward as “flaky” should have been omitted. In any case, surely the regularity with which Tipperary kept coming back for more was proof of ample mental fortitude rather than the lack thereof.
A couple of more books will be required to tell the full story of Cody’s Kilkenny. It’s doubtful they’ll ever see the light of day, particularly in view of the reaction to this one. Pity. Yet for all its macho posturing The Warrior’s Code is an important and valuable document.
The rise of Irish cycling, told with insight, knowledge and verve
The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish cycling’s golden generation by Barry Ryan (Gill Books, €22.99)
Cycling being the niche sport it is, not everyone will gravitate towards this book. That’s unfortunate, as it’s a story long overdue and one tackled with insight, knowledge, and verve. Younger readers are unlikely to be aware that at the 1972 Olympics in Munich the men’s cycling road race featured two Irish teams: The official iteration and the unofficial, uninvited one from the rival NCA organisation. The first item on the agenda was, literally, the split.
How did it get from there to Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France only 15 years later, to Sean Kelly with his triumph after triumph? Barry Ryan fills in the gaps.
“At a time of mass emigration they were Ireland’s most beloved ambassadors on the continent.
In an often grey decade back home they provided colour. And yet, though often used as props by politicians, they espoused no ideology. It was, it seems, only ever about the bike and the life to be made from it.”
In addition to Roche and Kelly the star interviewees include David Walsh, Paul Kimmage, and Pat McQuaid. Nor is this a whitewash job; one of the chapters is entitled ‘Pills, Drugs and Medicine’. The opening chapter, incidentally, is entitled ‘The Munich Bother’, a reference guaranteed to instantly win over Patrick Kavanagh fans and an indication that no common or garden domestique is behind the handlebars here. Dense, detailed but never less than engaging.
Redeemed by his love of horses
Form: My Autobiography by Kieren Fallon (Simon and Schuster, €18.99)
Kieren Fallon was one of the most gifted jockeys of his or any generation. He was also one of the most controversial.
Consequently, his autobiography was always likely to make riveting reading. And it does.
Fallon deals in depth with the various controversies that dogged his career, the most serious and traumatic of which saw him before the Old Bailey, accused of race fixing.
Although the case against him unravelled, the damage to his reputation was irreversible. He also writes candidly about his alcohol issues and lifts the lid on the taboo subject of ‘flipping’, a process where jockeys eat and then throw-up in order to ensure they make the weight to ride.
But this book is far more than a sad lament. For instance, Fallon’s chapter about his time as stable jockey to Aidan O’Brien provides a fascinating insight into the inner workings of life at Ballydoyle. Ultimately, one thing shines through throughout: Fallon’s deep love of horses. He writes about how the only place he felt truly at peace was on horseback. He writes so movingly of the relationship between man and beast that it is hard not to warm to him.
Delving into the greatest
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster, €27.00)
Perhaps no other sports star has had his life as well documented as Muhammad Ali. Now into the mix is Jonathan Eig’s magisterial, 600-page tome, which captures the full story a year after Ali has passed.
Eig has unearthed some extraordinary details and particularly disturbing material about Ali’s sex life. His camp was like a harem. His second and third wives had to tolerate mistresses floating around under their noses and there were prostitutes before big fights.
Two things endangered Ali’s health. He boxed too much and, remarkably, he shipped more punches than he struck opponents. A decade before he retired, he, his friends and family were worried by signs of brain damage.
His association with mainstream Islam was also troublesome, claims Eig. Ali admitted to friends in the 1970s his fears he’d be murdered if he left the Nation of Islam. Cornerman, Angelo Dundee worked as an informant for the FBI, feeding them information on the Muslims in Ali’s entourage, just one small detail in an utterly absorbing read.
At peace in his own skin
Jayo: My autobiography by Jason Sherlock with Damian Lawlor (Simon & Schuster, €16.50)
Anyone around in 1995 will have an idea how big Jason Sherlock was back then but it has taken this book to remind us. Paul McGinley was at the opening of Planet Hollywood when he heard someone wanted to meet him. McGinley shot the messenger a Can’t-You-See-Who-I’m-Talking-To-Here? look before enquiring who. Once McGinley was informed, he shook hands with Sly Stallone — “Sylvester, have a great night” — and bolted to join Jayo’s company. That’s how box-office he was. Bigger than Rocky.
Before he made the GAA sexy, he had to live with being the only guy in town who looked as he did. The struggle to win acceptance for the colour of his skin, and to live comfortably in his own is startling, before he finally finds inner peace.
Jim Gavin’s dressing room remains out of bounds here. Yet it is insightful on previous Dublin teams, from Pat O’Neill’s right up to Pat Gilroy’s, and allows us into a highly active and regularly anguished mind. As uneasy as he was with himself and as intense as he remains, this is an engaging and often enjoyable read.
Handed great challenges
First Hand: My Life and Irish Football by Eoin Hand with Jared Browne (Collins Press, 19.99)
“When your own fans are hurling rocks at you, it’s obvious you are in a bad situation.” It’s one of the understatements of the year as Eoin Hand takes readers on a football odyssey as singular as his own life, on and off the pitch, has been.
Managers are used to having metaphorical brickbats thrown at them but in South Africa in the mid-90s, when Hand was in charge of the Durban-based AmaZulu club, the hostility of supporters reached such a literal onslaught that he admits: “In one game, for protection, I took my place in the dugout with a motorcycle helmet on.”
He would return home to Dublin to face the greatest challenge of all: a collapse in his spirits and his health so serious that he received last rites at the Mater Hospital.
That Eoin Hand has recovered to enjoy a contented life in Kerry is nothing less than this gentleman deserves. For the rest of us, the bonus is a book which allows him to reflect with unflinching honesty as well as dollops of good humour, on an incident-packed life as a player, club gaffer and, of course, as the Irish manager who, before Jack Charlton, came so agonisingly close to overseeing the biggest breakthrough in the game’s history in this country.
From a moving portrait of his childhood through to his rollercoaster relationship with the FAI, ‘First Hand’ is an eye-opening, sometimes hair-raising but, ultimately, uplifting read.
The rise and fall of Findlay
Gambling for Life. Harry Findlay by Neil Harman (Trinity Mirror Sports Media, €18.99)
For a couple of decades Harry Findlay was the prominent media ‘go to’ person in Britain whenever a sulphuric quote or edgy anecdote was needed on the ills of the betting industry or the joys of a major gambling sting.
He achieved peak fame as the joint owner of the brilliant chaser, Denman, his slightly uncultured ‘man of the people’ persona helping him to stand out from the tweedy hordes who normally populate British race tracks in the winter. He purports to have won over £20m (€22.7m) in a career that started with fiver bets at a local dog track and culminated with the loss of £2m (€2.2m) when the All Blacks failed to win the Rugby World Cup in 2007.
Almost inevitably it all came tumbling down through an ill-advised investment in a Coventry greyhound stadium in recent years and he records the upheaval, including depression, recovery and renewal in his recently published biography. The writing, like Findlay’s conversations, runs like a stream of consciousness.
But it is a pacy read and the stories of his time coursing (and road bowling) in Ireland are genuinely warm.
Green glories and gaffes
Green Shoots: Irish Football History Stories, Michael Walker (deCoubertin Books, €22.00)
Michael Walker has followed up the wonderful Up There: The North East Football Boom and Bust with a charming, potted history of Irish soccer. He anchors his narrative with adventures of some of the island’s most successful envoys — William McCrum, the Armagh man who invented the penalty kick; Bill McCracken, who left us the modern offside rule, and Walker’s granduncle Johnny Brown who played for both Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.
There is also a chapter for the roguish Patrick O’Connell, a bigamist who led Real Betis to promotion and their only La Liga title in 1935, a feat unlikely to be repeated.
Walker’s interview with Liam Brady about his seven successful years in Serie A adds stardust while a later chapter entitled Losing charts a 20-game sequence where the Republic failed to win a game from 1968 to 1972.
The players were hamstrung by the amateurism of the FAI while the team’s coach failed to remember his own players’ names. Famously, in a World Cup play-off against Spain for the 1966 World Cup. Jackie Carey couldn’t recall the name of Shelbourne’s Eric Barber: “We’ll call you Paddy,” he decided
A perfect tribute to brotherly love
The Pursuit of Perfection: The Life, Death and Legacy of Cormac McAnallen (Penguin Ireland, €18.99)
This is an exceptional book — unique and compelling, raw and moving. Running through it is the deep love of one brother for another. Perhaps the most brilliant sentence in the book — and one that in its simplicity reveals so much about the lives of brothers who share passions — is the very first one: ‘Cormac was always there.’ And that’s it, when it comes down to it. For Dónal McAnallen, his brother Cormac was in his world from his first memory, breathing the same air, competing with him, sharing with him, helping him.
They shaped each other in so many ways and yet one of the most commendable aspects of the book is the determination of the author to make it understood his brother was no plaster saint.
When as nice and successful a man as Cormac McAnallen dies so young and in such circumstances, the temptation to present his life as a sort of perfection would be understandable.
It is to the credit of Dónal McAnallen that he does not make that mistake. He shared too much with his brother for too long not to know that the perfect state of grace that no human being can achieve was also denied Cormac. The memories that make this book, the images that are freshly painted onto the page, the humour, the tenderness, the honesty, is a tribute to everyone who lived in the McAnallen house.
Much better than any myth or legend, much better than the canonisation of a fine man and a brilliant footballer, this book is authentic and deeply moving.
No finer tribute could be paid by one brother to another than to render him in truth.
The man who defied death
Centaur by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao (Doubleday Press, €15.99)
On May Bank Holiday Monday in 1994 Limerick jockey Declan Murphy drove Arcot towards the last hurdle at Haydock Park. The jockey wanted an extra stride but Arcot disagreed, took off early and crashed to his death, clashing heads with Murphy with catastrophic consequences. The Racing Post had prepared a front page obituary even before the neurosurgeons had finished operating on his shattered skull.
Thankfully, rumours of his death proved to be wildly exaggerated but the depths of the emotional and physical strain of his recovery are recorded brilliantly in Centaur, which he has written with Ami Rao. Help was needed as Murphy’s shorter-term memory bank was wiped by the fall. Raw, and compelling.
Steel and style
Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager by Ian Herbert (Bloomsbury, €22.00)
Ian Paisley never sought the job as Liverpool boss but after he was appointed in 1974 he wasn’t about to give the job up easily, even as his iconic predecessor, Bill Shankly, haunted the club’s grounds, regretting his decision to retire.
Paisley took the club to unprecedented heights.
He lacked Shankly’s charisma but had a better football brain and was brilliant at switching players’ positions such as Ray Kennedy.
He had the steel Shankly lacked to renovate his teams, dismantling the club’s 1981 European Cup-winning team and storming to the following season’s title with half a team of unknowns including Ireland’s Ronnie Whelan, Bruce Grobbelaar, and Ian Rush.
A traditional account of life at No. 1
Any Given Saturday by Shay Given (Trinity Mirror, €18.99)
In a year which offered many new twists on the sports autobiography, Shay: Any Given Saturday offers a more traditional account of the career of one of Ireland’s greatest. The longevity of Given’s tenure is the making of that approach, producing a go-to account for two decades’ worth of Ireland and Premier League teams.
At 415 pages long, it may be far-reaching but you couldn’t accuse it of being slow-paced.
True to Given’s character and voice, it offers light-hearted anecdotes from, and a defence of, the drinking days with Ireland, while giving some stark analyses of why Newcastle and Aston Villa ultimately failed to take the next step. Plus, there’s some entertaining times at Mancini’s Man City mixed in for good measure.
However, the book is strongest at the start when dealing with the tragic loss of Given’s mother, Agnes, when Shay was only four — “a woman I can barely remember but a mother I will never forget”.
It’s a thread which endures throughout. While he doesn’t recall much of that time, the snapshot memories and effects of that trauma are presented clear as day.
Another recurring theme is goalkeeping psychology, one which winds through a long Ireland career, from the fag end of the Jack Charlton era, through Saipan and Henry’s handball, to his two international retirements. As he deals with the looming probability of a third and final retirement, this time from club football, you feel this book may help him close that chapter and move on to the next.
As sharp on paper as he was on grass
Gooch: The Autobiography by Colm Cooper with Vincent Hogan (Transworld Ireland, €18.99)
At the very least a sporting autobiography confirms some street truths and puts others to bed as nonsense.
Colm Cooper’s insights and revelations, published in October, did that and a bit more.
One of the game’s greats is as sober in print as he is in person, but as razor sharp on the pages of his autobiography as he ever was in the opposition’s half. You just need to recognise the nuanced mentions, and key takeaways.
Readers of his Irish Examiner columns will testify to his incisive reading of a situation, and as well as the ribald tales of Paidí Ó Sé and overseas training camp expeditions, there’s that identifiable hint that every retiring sports star betrays — the ones that got away linger longer than the successes.
Of the 2011 All-Ireland final against Dublin, Cooper writes: “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to forgive ourselves for how completely we unravelled.”
Of the 2016 semi loss to the same opposition: “Hand on heart I should have kicked 0-4 from play that day (not 0-1). And I’ll carry that frustration with me into retirement because the Dubs were there for the taking.”
There are lovely insights into what makes Pat O’Shea and Dr Crokes tick, plus Cooper’s badge of honour – prior to the destructive knee injury that halved him in 2014, he’d never missed a championship game. Seventy-odd days on duty without a sick note. “I’ve never spoke about this, but that record meant nearly as much to be as an All-Ireland medal. I was supposed to be too small, too weak, to play for Kerry. And yet I’d become the Indestructible One, the one who kept togging out. Nobody knew how proud I was of that record.”
Machine who didn’t know pain
Indurain: The Definitive Story of The Greatest Ever Tour de France Racer by Alasdair Fotheringham (Ebury Press, €15.99)
There were many things that marked out Miguel Indurain as a bike racer. Top of the list, that he’s the only man — now that Lance Armstrong has been excised from the history books — to win five consecutive Tour de France titles. Indurain was a machine, as his rivals and commentators often remarked. He had unnatural stamina and a capacity for dealing with pain and an ability to hide signs of discomfort from his team-mates.
Like Sean Kelly, who he is often compared with, he came from a farming background deep in the hills of Navarre in northern Spain, which helped give him an innate toughness and work ethic.
Indurain also had the smarts, which included an unrivalled knack for reading races, and perhaps no other top cyclist managed to avoid injury so well. Over his tour career, virtually nobody in saw him fall off his bike.
He was a humble man; his fellow professional riders liked him unlike Bernard Hinault or Armstrong. Indurain was canny enough to look out for his own interests. He hated the cold, and used to carry a screwdriver with him on the tour so he could take out the air-conditioning ventilator in hotels he stayed in. It didn’t faze him if the hotel’s clients — including his team-mates — were stewing in sweat in bed so long as he didn’t pick up a cold from the draft of an air-con.
A giant captured in the raw
A Land of Men and Giants: Tony Doran by Liam Hayes (Hero Books, €20)
Young boys make good students of hurling.
Tony Doran was nine years old when Wexford seized 1955’s Senior All Ireland Final, their first victory in 45 years. This boy fell in love with the game, with its unique combination of glamour and rawness. His desire to be a hurler blossomed into a two decades long career as a forward with Wexford and a Senior Club All Ireland with Buffers Alley in 1989, when he was touching 43.
Tony Doran won everything on offer. A remarkable six year spell during the 1960s bestowed the full set: Minor All Ireland (1963), U21 All Ireland (1965), NHL title (1967), Senior All Ireland (1968). His contribution to Wexford’s defeat of Tipperary in 1968, which included 2-1 from play, proved the day’s fulcrum.
The leap, the distinctive lefthanded style, the goals from unpromising positions… Tony Doran remains a figure everyone can picture with their inner eye. Hurler of the Year and an All Star in 1976, he accumulated 12 Senior titles with Buffers Alley by journey’s end (and seven Railways Cups with Leinster).
There were acute disappointments, such as All Ireland Final defeat to Cork in 1976 and 1977, but Doran’s impact rarely faltered. He never hid. Forever true to his roots in rural Wexford, Tony Doran later became a stalwart for Buffers Alley at every level.
A Land of Men and Giants, written with Liam Hayes, details one man’s progress in compelling fashion. All hurling followers, young boys upwards, will enjoy this intimate account.
Memories of a boy wonder
Boy Wonder: Tales from the Sidelines of an Irish Childhood by Dave Hannigan (Gill Books, €13.99)
Dave Hannigan’s journey back to a childhood around the streets of Togher, Cork in the late 1970s and 1980s is a delight.
For the sports-mad brother, husband, father in your life, it will guarantee an avalanche of flashbacks. Who can forget the poor unfortunate boys in your class who were lumbered with white, plastic Wavin hurleys? The sting from the fibreglass when you hit the sliotar was as piercing as a welt from a teacher’s stick.
Hannigan skips through all the sports that obsessed boys (and girls) at the time. We were dictated to by the seasons. If, for example, it was late June, it meant two weeks of Wimbledon-mad kids and makeshift tennis courts.
Hannigan’s recall ability always hits the funnybone, like his mentioning of the horses that thundered Ireland to three-in-a-row in showjumping’s Aga Khan Trophy, including Captain Con Power on Rockbarton and Eddie Macken “on his faithful steed Boomerang”.
He notes wryly that prepubescent children only have one gear for getting from A to B: sprinting.
Hannigan is skilled, too, at drawing out the casual racism of the times.
Pondering the elevation of six black players to the England soccer squad for an international in 1982, Liverpool’s (white) defender Phil Thompson concludes: “They’ll bring a new look to England, give us a touch of the old Brazilians’ style.”
A roaring tour de force
When Lions Roared: The Lions, The All Blacks and the Legendary Tour of 1971 by Tom English and Peter Burns (Polaris Publishing, €19.99)
The Scotland-based Irish journalist Tom English has co-authored an immensely readable book on the historic British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971. First-hand quotes from the players are peppered with occasional interludes from the narrators. The source material is stirring stuff — the famous tourists are the only Lions squad to win a Test-match series on New Zealand soil, and were the first touring side to win in the country at the time since 1937.
In overcoming a psychological hang-up about the “invincible” All Blacks, the team’s management used a series of pop psychology tricks on tour, but what emerges as surprising is the impact their running game had on the New Zealanders who subsequently revolutionised their own game after the calamitous defeat. The book features contributions from several current international coaches, including Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, about the influence the tour had on them as impressionable New Zealand kids.
The tour came to a ferocious head against Canterbury, before the series started, which took a heavy toll. The Lions lost both test props – Ray McLaughlin, who had been “the brains” behind several tactical innovations on tour, and Sandy Carmichael, who won 50 caps for Scotland.
Several other Irish players played pivotal parts, including the prop Sean Lynch, heralded as much for his drinking prowess as his ability in the scrum; Fergus Slattery, who provides some spikey comments about his fellow tourist, Ian “Mighty Mouse” McLauchlan; as well as the inspirational Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson; both men still the only players to go on five tours. Gibson is singled out by All Blacks great Colin Meads as the Lions’ best player on tour.
A supply line dried up
Where Have All the Irish Gone?: The Sad Demise of Ireland’s Once Relevant Footballers by Kevin O’Neill (Pitch Publishing, €18.70)
The writer would doubtless baulk at the idea; but he was blessed by the Republic’s ignominious World Cup exit at Denmark’s hands.
Because this is now a timely investigation of a player supply line dried up. And O’Neill’s knowledge and passion takes him into every corner of the Irish game where he finds willingness and talent, but also dysfunction, self-interest and ennui.
There are candid interviews with Martin O’Neill, Richard Dunne and others and accounts from dozens of young footballers who made their way to England full of hope to have dreams shattered.
Perhaps Limerick’s Shane Tracy, who made it to the Arsenal youth team but no further, offers the most candid wake-up call. Recalling his team-mates and rivals, many who were at the Arsenal academy since seven or eight, he fears Irish boys who arrive later are hopelessly adrift, playing catch-up on so many levels. That Tracy and many other young hopefuls fell short in north London under the watch of Liam Brady, one of our greatest ever exports, is poignant.
The art of football coaching
That’s Right: You’re Fired!: How football management has evolved over 125 years by Tim Healy (Ballpoint Press, €14.99)
What Irishman has made the greatest impact on football coaching?
There’s a strong case for Patrick O’Connell and Tim Healy makes it here in this comprehensive study of all the game’s great managers and how the art has moved on from the secretary managers of the late 19th century to the modern day celebrity head coaches with their three-year cycles and scaled down responsibility for recruitment.
Healy paints a rounded picture of O’Connell, whose captaining of Manchester United, management of Barcelona and unmatched success with Real Betis, elevates him among the Irish elite. But whose abandonment of his family darkens the portrait.
The greatest Irish coach, Healy argues, at least if you allow the granny rule, was Jimmy Hogan, the Burnley-born son of Irish emigrants who taught the Hungarian team who beat England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 “all we knew about football”.
All the giants who carved out progress beyond their own turf are profiled, from Herbert Chapman to Alex Ferguson, Bela Guttmann to Bill Shankly.
There is particular reverence for the work of Johan Cruyff at Barcelona and its influence on most of the great managers that followed.
That even Cruyff’s time at the Nou Camp should end sourly arguably informs the book’s title, and the inevitability that even the great management practitioners will some day face the axe.
A fine memoir from an impressive man
The Choice by Philly McMahon with Niall Kelly (Gill Books, €19.99)
“Being from Ballymun can be the greatest gift that you ever got in life or it can be a straitjacket. It can raise you up or it can knock you down. Not everybody gets the chance to make something out of it. I was lucky. I did.”
A pest to his opponents, an annoyance to opposition supporters, but there was — and is — so much more to Philly McMahon than his on-field persona. He was straight outta Ballymun, a young lad who might easily have fallen into a life of petty crime except “I didn’t get involved because I didn’t get invited”. But he “grew up going to funerals” there and his brother John was a heroin addict, a fact so mortifying to the teenage McMahon that, all too conscious none of the other starlets on the teenage Gaelic football scene in Dublin possessed such a sibling, he changed his surname out of sheer embarrassment.
The Choice could have easily descended into mawkishness or become just another typical sports-misery-lit effort. The quality of the writing ensures it doesn’t and the right balance between on-field action and off-field matters is also achieved. Although he pays due tribute to Pat Gilroy’s achievement in changing the culture of Dublin football McMahon doesn’t make the mistake of hitting the reader over the head with interminable blow-by-blow accounts of matches; the issues of homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health are more his concern. A fine memoir from an impressive and endearing young man and richly deserving of the awards it’s been garnering.
Probing the demise of FIFA
The Fall of the House of FIFA, David Conn (Yellow Jersey Press, €17.99)
David Conn, the Guardian’s peerless investigative football journalist, has added another impressive read to his staple of books that examines how the game has sold its soul.
As expected, Conn excels at picking his way through a morass of detail to present a vivid summary of a complex topic. It reads on the page like a good thriller movie looks on screen.
Conn has several luminous portraits of the key figures at the dirty heart of FIFA which helps to colour the narrative, chief among them the outrageous charlatan Chuck Blazer and long-running FIFA presidents Joao Havelange and, of course, Sepp Blatter, the master political animal who resigned his post shortly after winning a fifth term in office in 2015.
The most stirring passages in Conn’s book are probably about the disgraced football stars that became sucked into the corrupt machinations of international football’s ruling body.
His chapter on German legend Franz Beckenbauer reads like a modern-day version of the Greek myth about Icarus.
Conn ponders, too, a publicity photo taken of Blatter with his protégé, Michel Platini, the one true god of French football just as he was embarking on a post-playing/management career in football administration. Blatter looked in the pink of health, in complete control of his destiny.
Alongside him, Platini had a boyish air “like a young guy being treated to a day out by his wealthy uncle”.
Conn wonders if Platini really had “a clue what he was getting into”.
Making Britain great again
The Talent Lab: The Secrets of Creating and Sustaining Success by Owen Slot with Simon Timson and Chelsea Warr (Ebury Press, €22.00)
As the tent for the Olympic Games in 1996 was folding up, two British athletes from the country’s diving team set up a makeshift shop on the streets of Atlanta so they could hawk their GB kit to shoppers passing by.
The pair were broke — and medal-less — and wanted to try and recoup something from their Olympic experience. The GB team was a shambles in 1996, finishing behind the likes of Nigeria and North Korea (as well as Michelle Smith’s Ireland) on the medals table. Fast forward to 2012, and Team GB finished third behind USA and China with 65 medals.
The Talent Lab examines how the this transformation occurred, chiefly on the back of an impulse from the GB Olympics’ brains trust to find innovative ways to improve performance. It is a riveting read, full of fascinating case studies.
For instance, the Olympic swimming team was overhauled by Nigel Redman, a former England rugby second-row forward who had never swam competitively.
Time and again what emerges from The Talent Lab, which examines how success in fields like military training, surgery, and violin-playing can be transferred to sports, is that trainability — or what we broadly understand as “character” — rather than talent is the critical ingredient in helping to make Olympic champions.
Hurling’s officer class
The Art of Hurling: Insights Into Success from the Managers Book by Daire Whelan (The Mercier Press, €16.99)
Hurling is often more appreciated than analysed.
To remedy this deficit, Daire Whelan interviewed 11 former intercounty coaches and managers. A largely chronological structure was adopted. Beginning with Diarmuid Healy, who began coaching Offaly in 1979, the book concludes with Éamon O’Shea, who stepped down as Tipperary manager in 2015. Along the way, we encounter much vividly expressed perspective.
Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton broaches the challenge of training 21st century youngsters: “You’ve got five hundred friends on Facebook? And four of them turn up at your funeral?” Éamonn Cregan decries the drift towards “a sterile game”.
The Art of Hurling is a companion volume to Whelan’s The Managers: The Tactics and Thinkers that Transformed Gaelic Football (2013). His latest work valuably gathers opinion on the most beautiful game. Detail is not scanted, with Anthony Daly emphasizing the superiority of jab lifts over roll lifts.
Readers will be struck by how nearly all the contributors, Cyril Farrell most aside, oppose defensive sweeper-centred systems. Ger Loughnane states: “I always considered the sweeper as straight out of the bluffers manual”. Justin McCarthy is similarly candid: “You don’t have to be a genius to stop other teams winning, any fella can congest a team and bring back players and have three forwards only.”
Plenty balls could have been hopped on this front by inviting comment from sweeper advocates such as Dónal Óg Cusack, Davy Fitzgerald, Paul Kinnerk and Derek McGrath. Might there be a sequel publication in this approach?
Hurling aficionados will hope so.
A brutal ringside seat
A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age by James Lawton (Bloomsbury, €22.00)
Fan fights will thrill at a ride that relives the great boxing matches Lawton covered as a sportswriter, beginning in the mid-1970s as Muhammad Ali’s candle was beginning to burn out and concluding with Mike Tyson’s 2002 fight with Lennox Lewis on the banks of the Mississippi.
Lawton enjoyed extraordinary access with boxers and trainers, and got up to some boozy shenanigans with fellow hacks, including Hugh McIlvanney and the legendary Red Smith. His stories are vivid, and leave the reader with a profound sense of how brutal the fight game can be. Who couldn’t lament that Joe Louis ended his days in a wheelchair as a casino greeter?
The fights that Lawton covers are gripping, none more so than those featuring the four great middleweight fighters of the 1980s — Roberto Duran, Marvellous Marvin Hagler; Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy “Hitman” Hearns. .
Reading Poch aura
Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs by Guillem Balague (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, €18.99)
An odd book, gennet offspring of Eamon Dunphy’s Only a Game? and David Peace’s The Damned United. Inheriting some of both’s pedigree.
Balague has drafted an impression of Pochettino’s thoughts in diary form, based on chats, testimony of insiders and his own observations. However much of Poch is in the recipe, it’s mostly compelling.
Spurs’ season might have stuttered since its release, but Poch justifies it thus: “Maybe it’s a good time to reflect on where I come from and try to piece together the puzzle of what I’ve been and what I am.” He is a man of contradictions, who wants his team to play football with “controlled disorder”.
A man wedded to scientific gain, but who also believes he can read auras.
An extraordinary escape from extermination
The Greatest Comeback From Genocide to Football Glory: The Story of Béla Guttmann, David Bolchover (Biteback Publishing, €22.00)
The word tenacious comes to mind when considering the impressive research feat that underpins the English football journalist David Bolchover’s biography of Béla Guttmann. The Hungarian Guttmann won lasting fame in the world of football for guiding Benfica to two European Cup titles in the early 1960s, sandwiched between the exploits of the great Real Madrid and Inter Milan teams of the era.
Guttmann was typical of his time. Coaching – and his time as an international footballer in the 1920s – took him all over the world, including stints in the United States, Brazil and Uruguay as well as the great leagues in Europe. His nomadism makes it trying for a biographer retracing his steps. Bolchover is equal to the task, and excels in the most dramatic period of Guttmann’s life – his escape from death during the Second World War, as Bolchover uncovers extraordinary details about what Guttmann did to elude extermination.
Guttmann was a Jew, although he never mentioned the word “Jew” in his 1964 autobiography. Most of Guttmann’s family, including his father and sister, were murdered during the Holocaust. Guttmann, Bolchover reveals, escaped extermination by hiding out in an attic in Budapest from 1944 when the Nazis were on the hunt for him. He later escaped from a labour camp, jumping from a first floor window with four other inmates, having softened the ground underfoot so they wouldn’t break their ankles.
Athletics’ charming history
The Little Book of Irish Athletics by Dr Tom Hunt (The History Press, €14.99)
People have always run and jumped and thrown things in friendly (or not so friendly) competition. The stories of Irish mythology, the epics and legends handed down from history, are laced with tales of athletic competition.
So the act of athletic competition in Ireland was in no way new when formal sports days started to be established in the modern way in the years immediately after the Great Famine of the 1840s.
This idea of organising formal athletics meetings had originated in England over the previous decades and spread to Ireland in 1856 with an army sports day at The Curragh.
The following year, the Dublin University Football Club organised the ‘College Races’. The meeting in College Park drew a massive crowd, including the most important British official in Ireland, the lord lieutenant.
It included foot races and miscellaneous events such as throwing the cricket ball and a cigar race, where contestants had to run while smoking a lit cigar.
The College Races quickly became a phenomenon in the city – an extraordinary social event which was so popular that it was soon extended to a two-day event and regularly drew crowds in excess of 20,000.
This book tells, also, the stories of the development of Irish athletics in all subsequent decades. It steps sideways to look at such aspects of the story as the USA scholarship scheme and the performance of Irish athletes on the global stage. And – of course – it charts the brutal splits that pulled the Irish athletics world to pieces (notably in the 1930s, but through many other years also). All told, it is a fine book, full of wit and charm and the sort of wonder that good history books carry lightly.
Brilliant bio of a doomed footballer
Different Class: The Story of Laurie Cunningham, Dermot Kavanagh (Unbound, €22.00)
Dermot Kavanagh’s biography of the doomed footballer Laurie Cunningham – who died in Spain in a car crash in 1989, aged 33 – is a gem. Cunningham became the first black player to play professionally for England when he turned out for the country’s under-21 team against Scotland in 1977.
As one of three prominent black players on Ron Atkinson’s exhilarating West Brom team of the late 1970s – along with Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, or ‘The Three Degrees’, as they were known – Cunningham endured torrid racism from the stands. During a game against Liverpool, for example, he was substituted – likely for his own health, as he was getting cut to pieces by Liverpool’s fullback Joey Jones – which prompted the Kop to start chanting: “Where’s your nigger now?”
Kavanagh’s biography particularly brings to life the colour and charm of 1970s England. Cunningham was a dilettante. He was as interested in fashion as football, and loved dancing to soul music and preferred drinking wine to beer, the staple of his peers in British football. He cut a dashing figure - with his beautiful, flame-haired white girlfriend, Nikki - around the clubs in Birmingham and London, and notably Madrid when he moved to Spain as a million pound player in 1980.
His time with Real Madrid came unstuck early on, however, when he picked up a nasty broken toe against Real Betis in November 1980. The injury was never treated properly. Stupidly, he was caught dancing in a nightclub – with his foot in plaster – 48 hours later. His reputation never recovered at the Bernabeu.
Important for the fans
Savage Enthusiasm, A History of Football Fans, by Paul Brown (Goal Post Books,€14.99)
One of the themes quickest to emerge from Paul Brown’s ambitious social history is that, when something goes wrong at a football match, football fans have invariably been the first to be blamed.
After the infamous White Horse FA Cup Final of 1923 – the first to be played at Wembley – when an estimated crowd of 225,000 turned up and had to be cleared from the pitch, Parliament was quick to denounce the “hooligans” involved. In 1946, after 33 people died at Burnden Park when a crush developed at the kick-off of an FA Cup tie between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, police claimed fans breaking down the gates were responsible. An inquiry later found that the unanticipated size of the crowd and the unsuitability of the ground were to blame.
At Glasgow’s Ibrox Park in 1902, 25 fans died and more than 500 were injured in what is regarded as football’s first stadium disaster. An inquest later found that heavy rain had weakened the wooden beams supporting the stand that had collapsed and a timber merchant was charged with culpable homicide, but subsequently acquitted. Newspaper editorials of the time concluded that the disaster had been “beyond the power of man to prevent”. But even then, before the blame game had been carefully honed, the press displayed its suspicion of the football crowd, with the Daily Telegraph observing generously that: “The margin of safety cannot be made too wide, for a swaying crowd is a blind mass, devoid of reason”.
Brown has uncovered some fascinating examples of the fear the football crowd has imbued in the establishment, a fear that dates back at least as far as 1314, when King Edward II issued a proclamation banning football because of the unrest caused “by hustling over large balls over which many evils may arise which God forbid.”
Brown’s book is an important addition to efforts that seek to put a history of football fans on a par with the well-written histories of players, owners and administrators to form a complete picture of a sport that is so dominant in our culture.
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