It’s time to write a new chapter in Irish sportswriting

After all the months hearing about them, reading about them and buying them, finally, over the last few days, we’re guessing you got round to actually reading some sports books.

It’s time to write a new chapter in Irish sportswriting

You should have been duly entertained. This past year was a particularly good as well as a big one for Irish sports books. One overriding trend and concern though was the predominance of autobiographies.

While there were some terrific books of this variety in 2014, the fact such an inoffensive one as Brian O’Driscoll’s walked away with the Sports Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards underlined how flawed that scheme is and how urgent and important it is that the old William Hill scheme is revived or replaced.

Right now the Book Awards, at least in the sports category, is more a celebration of the industry than the craft, about how big your name is rather than how good your book is. Instead of being an incentive to creative and quality sportswriting, it actually inhibits it.

Put it this way: if as a sportswriter your goal was to win that award, you’d be better served to flog your name and number to as many high-celebrity rugby, soccer or GAA stars out there rather than come up with an idea that was something new, brilliant and bold. Thankfully some writers are not motivated or concerned by such extrinsic matters. Michael Foley’s The Bloodied Field may not have been even nominated by the Irish Sports Book Awards, but is already now an Irish classic.

One of the trends of this paper’s recent Top 40 Irish Sports Books Ever spread was the increasing growth of the monograph, in which a sporting event is vividly recalled years after the event. It started with Dave Hannigan’s brilliant 2002 The Big Fight, revisiting when Ali came to Dublin 30 years earlier, followed by Kings of September, Stand Up And Fight, The Fairytale In New York, and this year peaked with Foley’s masterly revisiting of when Croke Park became bloodied one particular November Sunday in 1920.

One genre though that is scantly represented in our Top 40 list and on the shelves in general is the quality Irish sports biography. For all the great and not so great autobiographies, there is a dearth of quality biographies. George Best prompted a couple of fine biographies, most particularly and recently Duncan Hamilton’s effort, while another troubled Belfast genius, Alex Higgins, was also the subject of some fine profiles.

But all those writers weren’t Irish.

The one other biography to make our list was on another hellraiser, the 1920s boxer Jack Doyle, and that again was written by a British journalist.

Enda McEvoy of this parish was an honourable mention with his terrific study of the old Kilkenny coach Fr Tommy Maher, who, as the title of the book claims, was The Godfather of Modern Hurling. Eamon Dunphy’s A Strange Kind of Glory was also acknowledged by us, but not included on the list as the subject matter — Matt Busby — wasn’t Irish.

But wouldn’t it be great if one of Dunphy’s successors turned his eye to an Irish subject for such investigation? Imagine a Paul Kimmage moving more into biography than autobiography and writing about Fr Maher’s old protégé, one Brian Cody?

You look at the winners of the British William Hill and it’s the one category in which they shame us over here. There have been terrific biographies of Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, Robert Enke, and Hamilton’s other brilliant biography, starring one Brian Clough.

So some suggestions, since at this time of year publishers and writers are already looking to Christmas 2015 and beyond.

The model Thomas Hauser used for that William Hill-winning biography of Ali would work perfectly for a Ger Loughnane, in which the man himself contributes handsomely to the book but allows more than 200 other people to speak freely to the writer.

Or, as Joe Ó Muircheartaigh in Clare has suggested before, an in-depth look at Loughnane’s first season with Clare, perhaps similar to how John Eisenberg approached Vince Lombardi’s transformation of the Green Bay Packers. The appetite and need for a Loughnane story is ripe again.

During the Christmas we ourselves were reading Harry Redknapp’s latest entertaining offering in which he informs us Danny Blanchflower invented the wall to defend free kicks. And reminds us that his brother Jackie was injured in the Munich Air Crash. What a book that would be on two key men in the two top teams of that era in British football.

Speaking of Northern Ireland football, wouldn’t it make a great monograph for a book on the 1982 World Cup team that featured Martin O’Neill, shocked Spain, and unknown to a couple of generations now, were followed widely down here? It would certainly make a great 30-for-30 ESPN-style documentary, but with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland severely reducing their funding for sports docs just when they seemed to be taking off in this country, a book would seem the best format for a story that needs to be told.

It might not win anything at the Irish Book Awards but in the right hands it could win a William Hill.

In GAA, there are monographs and biographies galore that would make terrific reading (or documentary viewing). Eamon Coleman may be dead but his legend should not be allowed to pass with him; younger, southern generations would be fascinated by how a brickie who could barely write inspired Derry to become All-Ireland champions and their rivalry with Donegal, Down and Dublin. We could go on and on but we’ll leave some work to the publishers.

And hopefully something to reflect on by those who run the discredited Book Awards. The Bloodied Field, not BOD is the standard.

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