‘Books are like movies, there’s always one better’

IF YOU’RE a sportswriting fan – and given what you’re holding in your hands, you probably are – you’ve noticed the recent explosion in the number and variety of Irish sports books.

GAA, rugby, soccer, cycling, golf – there’s more on offer in the bookshops than ever before, and one of the men responsible is Liam Hayes of Irish Sports Publishing.

Well-known as a formidable midfielder on the great Meath sides of the eighties, and a pugnacious newspaper columnist, Hayes has been involved in publishing books for 20 years, but identified a specific gap in the market some time ago.

“Looking at publishing sports books, we felt that a lot of the sports books being published here were from English publishers who were doing so on an ad hoc basis.

“We’ve come in with a dedicated programme of sports books — a national programme and a regional programme, though we haven’t pushed out the regional programme yet.

“We had four books out this Christmas, we’ll have four more this spring and six to eight books out next autumn — the aim is to tell stories about the right sportspeople when people want to read them.

“Typically I’ve found people say ‘I wish X or Y would write their book’ and we’ve had a lot of submissions and requests from people, asking about various sportspeople.

“A lot of great sports stories in Ireland haven’t been told and we feel that’s our remit.”

One of those was the biography of Tipperary hurler John Doyle, which Hayes’ company recently released.

“When you see everything he achieved it was staggering his book wasn’t written when he was alive.

“We set out to do the next best thing and worked with his wife, Anne, on his biography.

“We’re very proud of that and think it’s phenomenal, and that illustrates that there are markets there which an English publisher wouldn’t think of — a regional market that would like certain books to be available to them.

“I went on record before Christmas to say that it’s the greatest GAA book I’ve ever read. I’m not saying that as publisher, but as a reader — while John (Harrington) was writing it last summer I read it chapter by chapter and I was literally waiting for the next chapter to be written all the time. It’s an incredible story.

“For me it told a great story about John Doyle’s life but it also brought you back to a different time in Irish life, it told you about John and Anne’s relationship — there were so many aspects to it, and a great sports book has that. There are a lot of those stories yet to be written — books are like movies, there’s always a better one to be written.”

One of Hayes’ big successes has been Life, Death and Hurling, Michael Duignan’s life story, co-written with Pat Nolan. Though Duignan’s success as an Offaly hurler are well known to GAA fans, his wife Edel’s ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer give the story a far greater reach.

“Sportspeople have lives that can be eventful, and those who have experienced other things in their lives can have extraordinary stories to tell. What Michael and his wife, Edel, went through was incredible, and people have been contacting Michael for weeks, touching base with him, who have gone through similar experiences. A sportsperson who writes a book about those kinds of experiences can impact on others’ lives.

“The way Michael wrote the book, he was so honest and courageous, that it’s bound to have an impact, and I’d say a lot of people bought it from the human interest point of view as much as the Offaly hurling point of view.”

So much for 2011. This year Hayes says he and his colleagues have an equally interesting list of books.

“Brent Pope’s book will be out in the spring — people know him as a player and coach, and as a TV personality, but beyond that, who is the man? What does he think, why did he leave New Zealand? He has issues in his own life which he talks about in the book and it’ll open people’s eyes. Irish people are familiar with him over the last 20 years but they know nothing about him really, and this book will unveil him and present him in a different way – and if a book does that, then it’s successful.”

A question about US sports books finding different niches leads Hayes to another volume he’s got in the pipeline.

“We’ve got a golf book out in three months, just before the Masters, which does just what you’ve said about American sports books.

“It’s ‘From Augusta To Bethesda’ and is partly the story of Rory McIlroy losing in Augusta before winning in Congressional — but beyond that it tells the story of Ken Venturi.

“Venturi lost the US Masters in 1956 the same way Rory did — he was leading by four on the last day and shot an 80: it took him seven years after that to win a Major. So our book dovetails McIlroy and Venturi’s stories, and also goes into all the changes in golf over the fifty or so years in the stories of the two.

“It’s a multidimensional book and we think it’ll be a big one for us next year.”

Better keep some space on the shelf, then.

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