OFTEN autobiographies written while the protagonist’s career is ongoing can leave the reader short-changed. They are understandably and inevitably incomplete.
This autobiography does give an incomplete picture of the most successful jump jockey ever. But it does not any way leave the reader short-changed. Why? Because of its raw honesty and the insight AP McCoy gives into the single-minded obsession that drives him.
This is not just a blow-by-blow account of McCoy’s career. He writes candidly about the effect his desire to ride winners and be champion jockey had on him, how it dominated his thoughts and made him utterly self-absorbed.
Chanelle, the woman who would eventually become McCoy’s wife bore the brunt of his frustration and need for control. One incident after McCoy catches Chanelle having a sneaky cigarette at a party is particularly disturbing and he readily acknowledges that looking back his behaviour embarrasses him. The chapters about his relationship with Chanelle are a fascinating insight into the downside of someone being that laser-focused on their career at the expensive of everything and everyone else.
For McCoy it’s all about the stats. Having been champion jockey once he couldn’t countenance not being number one every year. Beating Gordon Richards’ record of 269 winners in a single season then became the obsession and McCoy achieved just that in the 2001/02 campaign when he finished with 289 winners, a feat he describes as “the greatest achievement of my career”.
A more recent accomplishment was victory at the 15th time of asking in the Grand National when McCoy steered Don’t Push It to success at Aintree in 2010. Having feared he was destined to never win the race, McCoy admits finally doing just that was special:
Ultimately this is a story about bravery, desire, dedication and drive. It is the story of a champion, a man whose achievements in the saddle are unlikely to ever be bettered. Read it.
€18.95 (Transworld Ireland)
NICOLAS ROCHE is still only 27, but already the Dubliner has experienced much in his life. Here, in his 380-page autobiography he tells the story of what it’s like growing up in Irelands’s most famous cycling family.
His first experience of the Tour was as a three-year-old in his father’s arms and it’s an experience that terrified him: “Stephen, Stephen, Stephen...” the journalists call out. I turn to the man beside me. He is dressed in yellow and is carrying me, but his name’s not Stephen. It’s daddy. I’m three years old and my daddy has just won the Tour de France.”
Not much has changed then and Roche delivers a fascinating warts-and-all insight into what it’s like riding in a peloton of 200 riders for three weeks on a diet of “plain pasta from a roadside motel with some olive oil”. The Dubliner charts in detail what it’s like being a professional cyclist; away from loved ones for over 220 days of the year, the poor wages, the constant struggle to impress sponsors and secure a contract for the following season.
Roche recalls his personal struggles too, such as his parents’ marriage breakdown and his little brother’s battle against leukaemia.
But this is a book about cycling and the way he captures the glory, suffering and heroism of the sport make it a must-read this Christmas.
€22.99 (Faber and Faber)
TOM Bower is one of those writers whose presence probably causes his subjects’ hearts to sink. After disgraced media mogul Conrad Black, he settled on Bernie Ecclestone, the diminutive boss of Formula One, and the story’s a dazzling one. Ecclestone was the proverbial second-hand car salesman mixing with black-market spivs in dodgy car lots in London after World War II, yet he clawed his way to the top of the motor-racing world. And clawed is the appropriate word. Bower gives chapter and verse on the machinations of Ecclestone and his long-time accomplice, Max Mosley as they shook up Formula One on the way to vast wealth. In conversation with Bower, this writer asked what he thought of Ecclestone, and his reply was this: “When I said to him, ‘Bernie, every time I see you at a Formula One event, you’re talking to a cheat’, his answer was, ‘if it weren’t for the cheats I’d have no-one to talk to.’ “That’s him. He’s amoral.” And a great subject for a book.
€23 (Gotham Books)
Available on Amazon
EVERY year, the NFL hands out the Walter Payton Man of the Year award to honour the chosen player’s charity work. Named after the Super Bowl-winning running back who inspired the Chicago Bears from the early 1970s through to the late 1980s, the award encapsulates the esteem with which he is held around the game, especially since his untimely death in 1999.
It should also offer some indication as to why author Jeff Pearlman is persona non grata in the Windy City. His extensively researched, warts-and-all biography of the Mississippi-born Hall-of-Famer is both reverential and honest in its appraisal of Payton’s human frailties.
The nadir of the backlash against this book was the declaration of Mike Ditka, Payton’s coach at the Bears during the mid-eighties, that he would spit on Pearlman if he met him again. No, he hadn’t read the book at that point.
Then there was the Chicago columnist who questioned Pearlman’s authority on the subject. Pearlman had never even met Payton, he raged. Lo and behold, Pearlman’s brief and sad meeting with Payton just before the player’s death of liver disease features as this powerful book’s preface.
Pearlman, who has form when it comes to chronicling the dark side of legendary athletes (The Bad Guys Won about the 1986 World Series-winning New York Mets and Boys Will Be Boys about the hard-playing — in every sense — Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990s), interviewed almost 300 people over the course of three years while also mining public record to piece together the life of a man whose age they couldn’t even get right at his own funeral. He wasn’t 46 as was thought, he was 45.
Pearlman corrects many wrongs, for better or worse. Even the most minute details are amended: Payton’s own autobiography records interest in his talents as a highschool student from the University of Kansas – it was Kansas State University.
Repeatedly we’re told Payton may not have been the most naturally talented player of his generation but he was possibly the most driven and complex individuals to ever run the ball.
From the career-long bitterness that followed his one and only missed game in 1975 through to his personal anguish on what should have been two of his proudest days: the 1986 Super Bowl and his induction to the Hall of Fame almost a decade later.
Pearlman powerfully captures “the insecurity that often accompanies greatness” and although a basic knowledge of the NFL is required, this is an essential and moving portrait of an enigmatic man.
€20 (Little, Brown and Company)
Available on Amazon
CHAD HARBACH’S much-hyped novel The Art of Fielding which arrived just before the play-offs and the film rights of which had already been acquired by HBO, is as much a study of the mind as it is about the perfect path to short stop enlightenment.
Within the novel exists another book, the zen-like manuel by a fictitious short stop named Aparicio Rodriguez who, ironically given that team’s real life dramatic victory over Texas in the World Series, is a St Louis Cardinal. There is also a lot of Herman Melville in here — he, of course, did exist.
Another received truth of baseball is that the least significant figure or team can all of a sudden become a hero. It’s almost democratic.
Equally Harbach shares his narrative structure equally between the five heroes of this novel, playing with perspective with ease.
Set mainly in the fictional Westish College, a small university on the shore of Lake Michigan, Henry Skrimshander is a hot prospect for the Majors, influenced to varying degrees by flatmate and teammate Owen Dunne and by the captain who discovered him, Mike Schwartz. Throw college president Guert Affenlight and his daughter Pella into the mix and nobody is immune from what life throws at the other.
Mercifully, this is above all a sports novel and the pitfall that causes the heaviest emotional toll is ground firmly in baseball. For all the depth of human emotion that swirls around the pages of this book, the impact of one fateful moment is far reaching but is sparked off by what happens within the diamond.
€23.99 (Orion books)
THINK of cycling and you invariably think of cheating. David Millar gives a painfully honest account of his rise from anonymity in the UK and later Hong Kong, where he moved with his father after his parents split, to becoming one of the most revered riders in the peloton. Initially through hard work, later through EPO. Doping and cheating is the dominant theme in the book and Millar doesn’t skirt around the subject.
Instead, he details why he took ‘recovery’, why he needed to and what effect it had on him as a rider and as a person. He tells in detail how he was bundled away from the dinner table by gendarmes while out with friends one June evening in 2004, and how he was never the same after serving a two-year ban for doping.
This is an insight into one man’s battle, with his peers and himself.
€13.99 (Hyperion Books)
THE Spaniard’s autobiography is as compelling as his career. It begins with that epic Wimbledon final against Roger Federer in 2008, won so dramatically by Nadal in the fifth set. The book recreates the drama and tension of that unforgettable day, as Nadal fights to avenge his defeat by Federer at the same venue 12 months earlier, a loss that reduced him to tears as he felt he allowed the Swiss maestro beat him mentally.
The book features contributions from those closest to Nadal and paints a picture of a man who, in stark contrast to his on course persona, is beset by insecurity.
It tells the story of Nadal’s extraordinary relationship with his uncle Toni, the man who has trained him since he was a child. Toni takes tough love to extremes. His treatment of his nephew is, at times, appalling. But there’s method behind it, the thinking being that by toughening Rafa up mentally he will be able to endure more than his opponents.
Ultimately this is the story of a remarkably humble sportsman from a remarkably humble family. It is the story of a man who takes endurance to new levels but for the reader it’s one to savour.