Our writers select 10 sports books for your Christmas list.
As the recent storm surrounding former Masters champion Patrick Reed’s deviations from the rules has reminded us that in golf, nobody likes a cheat.
There may be varying degrees of opprobrium towards the sinner, but once the stain has landed on the miscreant’s shoulders, it is very difficult to shake off. Which brings us to Rick Reilly’s excellent dissection of US president Donald Trump’s relationship with golf.
On the face of it, this may seem a trivial exercise when the subject has the most powerful job in the world and has access to the nuclear red button, but as the subheading to Reilly’s exposé explains, Commander In Cheat is about “How Golf Explains Trump”.
The Donald loves golf, and appears to spend as much time as he can at the courses he owns as he does the Oval Office. How he conducts himself at one place, the author’s argument goes, relates directly to his behaviour in the other — and when that applies to the leader of the free world, it is deeply troubling.
On the basis of testimony from playing partners, caddies, and golf club executives, Reilly outlines how the president lies about the number of club championships he has won, “stiffs” his golf-course contractors, lies about his handicap, and worst of all — he lies about his lies. If Trump can improve his handicap, then he will, for, as Reilly writes: “the way Trump does golf is sort of the way he does a presidency, which is to operate as though the rules are for other people”.
This is a fascinating, funny, and terrifying read.
A few years before Charlie Nash became a European lightweight boxing champion, he had to identify his brother Willie’s body in a morgue on the evening of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in January 1972. It was the day after a brother of theirs had got married. Nash’s murdered brother Willie was still wearing the same suit as he’d worn at the wedding, without a tie, as he wanted to look smart for the civil rights march.
Their father was in hospital — he was shot during the massacre. After Nash identified his brother’s body, he looked up at a British Army soldier standing by the door of the morgue who smiled back at him with a cruel, mocking grin. Shortly afterwards, the IRA called on Nash at his house. They could do with a recruit like him with fighting spirit and his status as a champion boxer, but he turned down their offer. He did his fighting only in the ring.
Nash’s story — and that of three other great Northern Irish boxers of the era, Davy Larmour, Hugh Russell, and Barry McGuigan — are four of the pillars of Donald McRae’s mesmerising book about the famous Holy Family Boxing Club in Belfast, and its most illustrious years from 1972 to 1985, the year McGuigan became a world featherweight champion. Their ringleader was the remarkable Gerry Storey, a man who walked a tightrope (and survived three bombings) to keep his gym going across religious divides during the worst of the Troubles.
When Richie Sadlier was a kid growing up in Dublin in the 1980s and early ’90s, his father was an alcoholic. Around this time, Sadlier’s mother spent three years going to a support group for people impacted by other people’s drinking. Sadlier’s father didn’t think she needed to go. At one point he said to her: “Sure if you want to take up a hobby, why don’t you start knitting?”
The anecdote comes early in Sadlier’s memoir, and is typical of the little grenades that detonate throughout. Ghosted with an expert hand by Dion Fanning, as he manages to knit together several diverse strands, the book is an absorbing read, full of nuance.
Sadlier’s relationship with his father, for example, is typical of the ups and downs of a normal family relationship, but one that you rarely find teased out in a sports book.
The book excels on the macho culture at Millwall, where Sadlier endured several years troubled by injury and self-doubt before eventually being forced to retire prematurely. He paints a picture of a dressing room dominated by hardened senior pros who lived by strange codes. As a sensitive kid, Sadlier was lost in the middle of them.
Sadlier’s chapter on a difficult relationship with Eamon Dunphy when the pair shared a television studio as RTÉ football pundits is interesting. At a more profound level, a chilling revelation towards the book’s end helps explain a lot about his own battles with alcoholism and mental health. An inspiring book.
For decades Kevin McStay was among the cold, timid souls up in the press box, “arriving at big conclusions”, literally and sometimes figuratively looking down at county managers on the sideline. Then he took the Roscommon job and learned what it was like being the man in the arena or on the line “actually living the game”. Now, thanks to this superb book, we can all have a better idea of what living that game and life is like, even if it can often leave a part of you dying inside.
His first chapter alone is crammed with nuggets on the reality of how top-level inter-county football operates. We learn that all county teams share a digital library of their game video and stats. “Well, most teams. Kerry? No interest in sharing anything.”
You might think Roscommon having the highest scoring percentage from play in the whole country during his three-year tenure was something to envy, until he explains that it means the Murtaghs haven’t had direct line runners like Aidan O’Shea or James McCarthy to win frees for them to tap over as Cillian O’Connor and Dean Rock have enjoyed.
Such insight pervades the whole book. His fingers freezing and fumbling closing the gates at midnight in Kilbride with his once-friend Fergal O’Donnell, joking if Jim Gavin has ever had to assume a similar task. The end-of-season one-to-one meetings with players, where Cathal Cregg tells him to his face that he doesn’t rate him and so is opting out for the year.
McStay’s own candour and intelligence are also on display when he reflects on his playing days, though they weren’t always marked by those characteristics. Recommended reading.
A treat, including for anyone not from Cork. For one, Russell doesn’t confine himself to a cast solely from Cork. The book opens with Brian Keenan, who recollects how he spent his first Sunday free from his captivity in Beirut taking in the 1990 All-Ireland hurling final. Russell also puts in a call to Tommy Sugrue over 30 years after his contentious officiating of the 1988 Meath-Cork series of All-Ireland finals.
There are terrific contributions as well from Liam Hayes and Babs ‘Donkeys Don’t Win Derbies’ Keating — once adversaries, but later friends of Cork. Hayes paints the scene of his team-mates being John Kerins’ pallbearers through the streets of Cork — “like something from a Western” — and Babs recounts how Canon Michael O’Brien gave the Mass at his sister’s funeral.
Then there’s that rich array of characters from Cork, and those who played for them: Tompkins. Morgan. The Canon. John Fitzgibbon. Tomás Mul. And, of course, Teddy Mac. We could possibly have done with a bit more of Tompkins’ and Morgan’s backstory, the odd Bronx tale about how they ended up in New York, and a few more yarns about the obsessive and ground-breaking nature of Tompkins’ training and practice regimen, but there’s still gold from and about them here.
The 30th anniversary of Cork’s achievement isn’t until next year, but why wait 12 months when Russell’s account allows Corkonians to bask a whole year and this Christmas in the glory and fun of it all?
Publishing a book on the life of a sports icon with career incomplete is risky and often seems to nudge time out of joint. Like a map from Dublin to Cork that ends at the Glanmire Roundabout. Wayne Rooney, for instance, ‘wrote’ the first of his many autobiographies, My Story So Far when he was only 20 — not yet time for his more interesting life colours, red cards, and blue flashing lights.
Tiger Roll’s career, too, is still a work in progress, but happily his body of his work to date is more than enough to richly populate The Little Legend, a nicely polished and beautifully illustrated trawl through the Racing Post archives from the mating of his dam, Swiss Roll with Authorized, to his second victory in the Grand National last April.
What cuts through the narrative is the sheer improbability of his achievements, that a lightly framed, flat-bred horse has carved out such a versatile and lucrative career over jumps. Edited by Racing Post staffer Andrew Pennington, the book builds as a sequenced compendium of his races, augmented with extended commentaries and wonderful photographs.
This is nowhere near the book of record on Tiger Roll, however, not even close. That four-cornered tale lies in a deep dive of the future, the supporting actors being Michael O’Leary, Gordon Elliot and Davy Russell. But it’s Christmas. It’s dark and cold outside and this is a brightly-lit little book that will comfort you all the way through to Cheltenham and Aintree.
One of the features of the English Premier League, which broke away from England’s old Football League in 1992, is that the title is no longer the end goal, as Jack Walker discovered with his 1990s Blackburn Rovers adventure when his club disappeared from the league four years after winning the championship in 1995. The real prize is in maintaining membership of the club.
In Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg’s financial history of the league, the role of three investors — Arsenal’s David Dein, Tottenham Hotspur’s Irving Scholar, and Martin Edwards at Manchester United — emerge as pivotal. Three canny men who brazenly styled the new-fangled EPL on the NFL’s razzmatazz operation (bringing in innovations like footballers’ names on the back of shirts and clean toilets).
The EPL continues to confound the business community. With outlandish valuations and investors piling in from far-off places, it has all the classic hallmarks of a boom-bust market like, say, the dotcom boom or the sub-prime mortgages mess — but instead the bubble keeps growing.
Its growth rate is phenomenal. When it started in 1992, the league’s top 20 clubs earned £50m a year. Now the top 20 clubs rake in £10bn a year.
The book is full of colourful characters like the old Aston Villa chairman ‘Deadly Doug’ Ellis who started paying himself a salary in 1983 once the club went public (which got around a Football League rule that prohibited club directors from drawing down salaries), fending off critics with the line: “Only women and horses work for nothing.”
As the quote on the back of the book jacket suggests, Eoin Larkin’s years of success with Kilkenny didn’t come close to telling half of his story. On the surface, he was untouchable, but underneath he was a shell of a man. For all the finery hurling had dressed him up in, he was a pauper in terms of his mental health.
How his clubman and manager Brian Cody was able to make the breakthrough with him and how Kilkenny medic Dr Tadhg Crowley put him on the road to recovery is documented in plenty of detail. The plight faced by Larkin and the condition he continues to manage is superbly told, in unvarnished terms.
Jackie Tyrrell’s autobiography highlighted the vulnerability that was rarely, if at all shown by the Cats in their pomp, but here another James Stephens man shines a light on himself that must have been discomforting at times.
Very much a man’s man, putting together this book with Pat Nolan would have taken a quantum leap of bravery from the former Hurler of the Year. He might have considered it part of the process of catharsis but unveiling so much personal detail about himself is as refreshing as it is engaging.
All the same, there are still plenty of examples of how Larkin rails against what he considers the bullshittery that he feels leeches itself onto hurling. Without disrespecting the confidence of the camp, he is also able to regale some great yarns from the dressing room of the greatest team to have played the game.
This is a beautiful, often poetic account, of how, as its subtitle suggests, Skibbereen rowing conquered the world. It transports you to the Ilen River which Dominic Casey and his house overlooks, the grand master surveying all with his binoculars and sometimes a megaphone at hand.
Casey though is more of a horse whisperer than one for the hairdryer, and the tone that McCarthy adopts for the book is in keeping with that understated, minimal style. It means that can be a little, well, dry and too sparing in humour for the casual reader — an odd thing to say about a book featuring the O’Donovan brothers — but stylistically, it is superb.
Overall, McCarthy’s achievement is as monumental as the one he documents.
Paul Fitzpatrick’s first book, The Fairytale in New York: The Story of Cavan’s Finest Hour (2013) detailed 1947’s All-Ireland win, when Kerry were beaten in New York. This work highlighted Cavan’s magnificent tradition, yet the county is still the most successful in Ulster. Fitzpatrick’s second book, Charlie, appears in a year where his county reached the Ulster final for the first time since 2001.
This biography records the life of perhaps Cavan’s greatest footballer, someone too young to feature on those legendary teams that went out between 1933 and 1952.
Born in Cootehill on December 25, 1937, Gallagher became a gifted attacker and his county’s highest scorer. Picked at right-corner-forward on Cavan’s Team of the Millennium, Gallagher got chosen at left-corner-forward on the Team of the Century that recognised players who did not land a senior All-Ireland. He was that good.
Affable, handsome, and kind, Gallagher ended up a star on all fronts. He was charismatic without being flashy, confident but not cocky, a man with the common touch everywhere except a football pitch. He captained Cavan to 1969’s Ulster triumph and retired after an All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Offaly.
A fine writer, Fitzpatrick offers a rich and considered account of Gallagher’s life. Charlie opens a vista onto a forgotten genius of Irish sport.
Hoops and scoops on Ryan’s Eurotrip
Here's our selection for the best of the rest...
by Emmet Ryan reminds us that there’s a lot more to basketball than the NBA or Ireland in the ‘80s, as he takes us on one big magical mystery hoops tour all around Europe, from its biggest arenas and clubs like Barcelona to its smaller but more atmospheric halls like the Tralee Sports Complex hosting Kieran Donaghy and his championship-winning Garvey’s Warriors.
Although, at times, Ryan and his musings can seem quite scattered, in a way it fittingly captures the weird and chaotic world he and a basketball player can live, where one week you’re at a barnstomer in Kerry and the next you’re in Athens caught up in the rivalry and violence between the Reds of Olympiacos and the greens of Panathinaoikos.
Since retiring as the Nerviest Nellie of all trainers, Henrietta Knight has morphed into a sort of new Queen Mum who helps prepare jumping horses and writes books during her spare time. Her fifth, and latest, is, a reflection of the careers and characters of 90 jockeys. Mostly about what drives them and how success was forged.
Wright Thompson is a fine sportswriter, and beloved by the likes of Richard Ford for his knack in revealing the personalities and frailties behind the myths.is a collection of his best articles — on figures like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Lionel Messi (but sadly not his revealing portrait of Luis Suárez). Ideal fare for lazy Christmas days.
Lu Martín is a legendary journalist in Catalonia, with an unconventional take on football, who has probably interviewed his friend Pep Guardiola a hundred times since 1990. Martín moved to Manchester in 2016 with an eye to writing a book on Guardiola’s time at Man City. The labours of his work —— co-written with young Barcelona journalist Pol Ballús, offers fascinating insights into Guardiola’s methods and madness.
Few sportswriters can synthesise complex ideas as succinctly as David Goldblatt who has turned his gaze towards the clash between football and politics in the new millennium for his latest 600-page tome,. He walks around the globe — unearthing obscure details and stories like the practice of amputee football in Angola and a Polish priest who moonlights as a football ultra — but the main takeaway is how riddled the beautiful game is with corruption.
That fact is never far either from the mind of John Nicholson, writer of. Nicholson’s entertainingly presented thesis is simple: we can change how world football is skewed by money simply by refusing to pay to watch matches on TV.
Some of Arsenal’s TV money went on midfielder Lucas Torreira, who was purchased thanks to the results spat out by “similar players’ software, much like Amazon’s algorithm to guide online shoppers. Apparently, Arsenal’s then head of recruitment Sven Mislintat checked for players with a similar profile to Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante. Those are the kinds of of gems we learn in.
Neal Horgan, meanwhile, writes of domestic football, where money is in shorter supply.examines how the FAI failed the League of Ireland long before the scale of its financial travails were made plain.
Away from football, Eddie Jones’ England team may have been pipped at the post by South Africa in the final on November 2 but amid the rush of Rugby World Cup head coaches getting their stories, and excuses, out in time for Christmas, Jones’s honourable and often feisty effort,is the clear winner.
Finally, in, the scorer of the most famous goal in Gaelic football history dispels many of the myths around a moment that didn’t tilt a life as dramatically as many tall tales suggested.
- Compiled by Colm Greaves, Kieran Shannon, Simon Lewis, Richard Fitzpatrick, Larry Ryan.