Top 40 sports books: Rough Ride still leads the peloton

At the end of 2014 The Irish Examiner’s sports department came up with a top 40 of Ireland’s greatest sports books. After some heated debates this week, we’ve tweaked that list, to factor in the many great sports book released over the last five years.
Top 40 sports books: Rough Ride still leads the peloton
TOP READ: Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage — the story of how Kimmage fell victim to a system that actually promotes drug taking in the sport.
TOP READ: Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage — the story of how Kimmage fell victim to a system that actually promotes drug taking in the sport.

10. Until Victory Always: A Memoir Jim McGuinness with Keith Duggan (Gill, 2015)

Betrayal. It’s the one word that leaps out from the pages of Jim McGuinness’ book. Broken into four sections representing each year he was in charge of Donegal, It would be wrong to give the impression that the 2012 All-Ireland winning manager’s account is full of insult and anger. His passion for Glenties and Donegal comes across abundantly clear. He recounts with pleasure how the Donegal players, who he transformed from wide-boys to winners, backed themselves at long odds to beat Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final.

His searingly honest recollections of his brothers Charles’ and Mark’s tragic deaths in 1984 and 1998 and how each left an indelible mark on him, give a fascinating if harrowing insight into one of the game’s most brilliant brains.

However, the most compelling passages are those about the figures who he perceived did him wrong. Relatively little is devoted to the spat with Kevin Cassidy, but there is mention of his differences with former assistant manager Rory Gallagher, who McGuinness hadn’t spoken to since 2014.

And the majority of McGuinness’ ire is reserved for the county board, who he felt sabotaged Donegal’s 2013 season when they chose to go ahead with club championship fixtures. Assisted by the more than capable hands of Keith Duggan, this is a large window into the man and how he changed Donegal’s football fortunes for the better.

9: Tony 10, Declan Lynch and Tony O’Reilly (2018, Gill)

Tony 10 brilliantly charts how Tony O’Reilly went from putting a £1 double on Patrick Kluivert to score the first goal and Holland to beat Argentina 2-1 at the 1998 World Cup to gambling €10m and stealing €1.75m from the post office he managed. To the loss of his family, his home, and to a jail sentence.

It is a journey chillingly captured in one sentence.

“To tell the story of Tony O’Reilly in cartoon form, you could go for the simplest image of all: A man walking into the sea and continuing to walk despite the fact that the water is rising all the time and he is slowly being consumed by it, yet still walks, as if unaware of his predicament.”

A sportsbook without a lot of sport yet one of the most important sportsbooks of our time.

8. The Big Fight, Dave Hannigan (2002, Yellow Jersey)

Before there was ever Zaire and Manila there was Dublin for Muhammad Ali. It was an unlikely coup for Ireland without any request or intervention from a dictator or gangster, but rather a daring Kerry-born London-based publican called Butty Sugrue doing the Don King of bringing Ali back, as it would turn out, to the home of his ancestors. Ali-Lewis in Croke Park 1972 may have been a low-scale fight by Ali standards but by any other measure there was nothing small about it because there was nothing small about Ali. Hannigan researched and recorded a wondrous week in Irish life in which the lip from Louisville would charm a nation. Ireland would charm both fighters too. Thirty years later, Hannigan tracks Al Blue Lewis down.

“I love talking about that fight,” says Lewis, who only six years before he was in Dublin was in prison. “That was a week when I was somebody.” Ali would echo the sentiment. “Ireland was a beautiful place, man,” he’d later say. “They didn’t know me, but they treated me like I was a king... like I was Ali.”

7. Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, David Walsh (2012, Simon & Schuster)

We now know it all worked out. That Lance was found out, that David Walsh was vindicated, that it’ll make a fine film some day with Chris O’Dowd playing the part of his fellow countryman. But for a long time no-one knew that. For a long time Lance kept winning, fans and media kept cheerleading, while Walsh was slurred, sued, isolated, and bullied. Yet he persisted. This is the story of that story. The subtitle is My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong but Walsh will admit that at times it was more a crusade. But thank the stars for such a crusading journalist and such an exceptional and exhaustive one too.

Yet for all the details involved, Seven Deadly Sins rarely drags; instead it often reads like something of a thriller, or a sporting All The President’s Men.

6. The Club, Christy O’Connor (2010)

Such a simple idea, so brilliantly executed. That the author was goalkeeper with the St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield senior hurling team and a member of the club’s committee was largely irrelevant; he could as easily have been corner-forward on a middling intermediate football team in, say, Cavan. Thus he quarries the universal from the local and particular: The machinations leading up to the appointment of a new manager; the lack of action for ordinary club players; the tensions and personality clashes that inevitably permeate every club; guys going drinking a couple of nights before a match; the delicate task of keeping ‘Er Indoors onside.

All GAA life is here and there is absurdly premature death too, with the author’s baby daughter Roisín and Ger Hoey, spiritual leader of the St Joseph’s team that won the All-Ireland club title in 1999, passing away within a few days of each other.

A safe prediction: The Club will be as fresh and relevant in 50 years’ time as it is today.

Tony Cascarino: autobiography 'changed the game'
Tony Cascarino: autobiography 'changed the game'

5. Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino, Tony Cascarino, with Paul Kimmage (2000, Simon & Schuster)

This changed the game. For a decade and more, sports autobiographies, especially football ones, were bland, formulaic, pedestrian. Then Cascarino cajoled Kimmage to team up with him and the result was an unforgettable read that changed forever the standard, expectation, and possibility of what a professional footballer and sports person could offer a book.

With unprecedented honesty he opens us to a world of Tony Cascarino and professional football that we’d never have known, from dying his hair and tweaking his passport to suitably deceive potentially-ageist managers and chairmen; the scathing, doubting inner voice that would echo in his head throughout his career; the dubious medical practices at Marseille; the narcissism of Glenn Hoddle, the madness of Bernard Tapie; the magic and mayhem of the Jack years; to the torment of his tormented father, when love excruciatingly breaks down with partners and wives, and the fear and dread of when a playing career is coming to a close.

4. Kings of September: The Day Offaly Denied Kerry Five In A Row, Michael Foley (2007, O’Brien)

The magnitude and magnificence of the day Seamus Darby made and shattered history was always going to be worth a book some day but that didn’t necessarily mean it would be served by a book worthy of it. Thankfully for everyone all round, especially future generations, Michael Foley would present Kings of September for the 25th anniversary of that landmark game.

Foley weaves together the strands of the Offaly and Kerry stories through painstaking research and countless interviews — he tracked down and sat down with every player who featured that day, bar an understandably-reticent Tommy Doyle, who Darby either nudged or pushed under the most timeless dropping ball of them all. What follows is not just history but poetry. “The raindrops falling from the net is what I saw,”Eugene McGee would recall. “I felt the breeze going through my fingers,” Charlie Nelligan would wistfully say.

3. Only A Game?, Eamon Dunphy, edited by Peter Ball (1976, Viking)

“A failed football club in October. A depressing place.” Very Samuel Beckett, all the more so when the club in question play at the Den and the player in question is Eamon Dunphy. A newspaper once omitted the question mark at the end of the title when mentioning Dunphy’s most important book; that was to miss the whole point of it. Is soccer really “only a game”? Not when you’re married with two small children and eking out a precarious living in the old Second Division in 1973-74.

Long before Dunphy the public man, and even longer before Dunphy the caricature of himself, there was Dunphy the scared, ageing footballer at — oh Lordy — Millwall. The book is dedicated to ‘the good pro’ and one of the minor characters is a young Gordon Hill, later of Manchester United, cocky, and tricky, and flashy: The anti-good pro, as it were.

Needless to say, the story doesn’t end happily; Dunphy loses his place and is gone by Christmas. Football in England has changed unimaginably and these days Millwall play at the New Den, a much nicer stadium than Cold Blow Lane ever was. But Only A Game? is timeless.

2. Back from the Brink: The Autobiography, Paul McGrath, with Vincent Hogan (2006, Arrow)

A book that should be read by everyone — once. To read it a second time could be too much. It is a harrowing story, with passages that will make you wince, maybe even cry, and certainly reflect poignantly on the friend or relative you know similarly affected by alcoholism as McGrath clearly is here. At times it is even almost too truthful for squeamish us and for McGrath, who gives us occasional reason to not particularly like him, something we’d never have considered previously about the most loved Irish footballer of them all.

Of course we’d known he was adopted but just how troubling and scarring that childhood was, we’d no clue; ditto his troubled mental health which involved him suffering a mental breakdown at just 19, leaving him unable to even kick a ball for the guts of a whole year. But it is the depths and lengths to which his alcoholism brought him to that make this such challenging but brilliant reading.

Yet amidst all that, there was football too, and it is a credit to McGrath’s inner fortitude as well as exceptional talent that he was able to sustain such a career at the elite level well into his late 30s. Vincent Hogan does a masterful job here, with one of his cleverest ideas being to interview old colleagues and managers of McGrath, blending biography within the autobiography. Not only does it offer us stories and insights that either McGrath’s modesty or bleary, beery memory could not volunteer, but a revealing admission from Alex Ferguson that he mismanaged such a troubled but gentle soul.

1. A Rough Ride: An Insight Into Pro Cycling, Paul Kimmage (1990, Stanley Paul)

A sport rife with drugs. Even Kimmage succumbs on a few occasions to get through a couple of rough days everyone else has long forgotten. But as he’d put it himself, that didn’t make him a cheat. That made him a victim. “A victim of a corrupt system, a system that actually promotes drug taking in the sport.”

He didn’t want that for anyone else, which was one of his motivations for writing the book.

In the early chapters, Kimmage talks fondly about the innocence and joy of cycling off into the dark with Stephen Roche and a couple of friends and “munching away in the spitting rain” on his mother’s fruit cake, laughing and joking about how lucky they were. That to Kimmage was cycling, not these needles and indifference to them, and it was to the cycling he knew and loved that he wanted the sport to return.

But cycling itself didn’t want that and it certainly didn’t want him after pissing in the soup.

Kimmage would continue to be something of an outcast in the sport, especially when its most towering figure Lance Armstrong took issue with Kimmage’s line of writing and questioning.

Yet Kimmage would stand true to his convictions and the premise of writing a certain book.

“Writing Rough Ride is the most important thing I did,” he’d reflect. “The most important contribution I’ve ever made to my sport.”

Best of the rest...

11. Come What May: The Autobiography, Dónal Óg Cusack (with Tom Humphries) (2009, Penguin)

12. Hanging from the Rafters: The Story of the Golden Age of Irish Basketball, Kieran Shannon (2009, Evening Echo)

13. Out of Our Skins, Liam Hayes (1992, Gill & MacMillan)

14. In Sunshine Or In Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles, Donald McRae (2019, Simon & Schuster)

15. Last Man Standing: Hurling Goalkeepers, Christy O’Connor (2005, O’Brien)

16. The Bloodied Field: Croke Park, Sunday 21 November 1920, Michael Foley (2014, O’Brien)

17. Hurling: The Revolution Years, Denis Walsh (2005, Penguin)

18. Fighter: Andy Lee with Niall Kelly (2018, Gill)

19. The Choice: Philly McMahon with Niall Kelly (2017, Gill)

20: Stand Up and Fight: When Munster Beat The All Blacks, Alan English (2005, Yellow Jersey)

21: Dublin v Kerry: The Story of the Epic Rivalry that Changed Irish Sport, Tom Humphries (2006, Penguin)

22. Niall Quinn: The Autobiography, Niall Quinn (2002, Headline)

23. Dalo: The Autobiography, Anthony Daly, with Christy O’Connor (2014, Transworld)

24. Over The Bar: A Personal Relationship With the GAA, Breandán Ó hEithir (1984, Ward River Press)

25. The Team That Jack Built: Paul Rowan (1994, Mainstream)

26. The Road To Croker: A GAA fan fanatic on the Championship Trail, Eamonn Sweeney (2004, Hodder Headline)

27: Green Fields: Gaelic Sport in Ireland, Tom Humphries (1996, Weidenfield & Nicolson)

28. Christy Ring: Val Dorgan (1980, Ward River Press)

29. This Is Our Year: A Season on the Inside of a Football Championship, Declan Bogue (2011, Ballpoint)

30. The Second Half: Roy Keane with Roddy Doyle, (2014, Weidenfield & Nicolson)

31. From There To Here: Irish Rugby in the Professional Era, Brendan Fanning (2007, Gill & MacMillan)

32. Jack Doyle: Fighting For Love, Michael Taub (1990, Stanley Paul)

33: The Warrior’s Code: Jackie Tyrrell with Christy O’Connor (SportMedia, 2017)

34. Immortal: The Approved Biography of George Best, Duncan Hamilton (2013, Century)

35. Screaming At The Sky: My Journey, Tony Griffin (with TJ Flynn) (2010, Transworld)

36. The Rocky Road, Eamon Dunphy (2013, Penguin)

37. Crashed And Byrned: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw ,Tommy Byrne, with Mark Hughes (2008, Icon)

38. Paddy On The Hardwood: A Journey In Irish Hoops Rus Bradburd (2006, Univ of New Mexico Press)

39 House Of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football, Keith Duggan (2007, Mainstream)

40: Recovering: Richie Sadlier (2019, Gill)

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