KIERAN SHANNON: Awards miss point when book is only judged by its cover

You’d hardly have noticed but there’s no William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year award this winter.

When the sponsor went, the scheme went, and sadly some worthy books seem to have vanished along with it.

The other day I did a tour of the bookshops of the nearest town. They’re all fine stores, boasting an impressive array of sports books, but one gem that I couldn’t find had only the previous night been considered one of the two best Irish sports books of the year by Newstalk’s discerning Off the Ball panel.

Enda McEvoy of this parish penned the delightful The Godfather of Modern Hurling: The Father Tommy Maher Story.

Although not a household name, Maher was a guru, coaching a series of All-Ireland-winning Kilkenny and St Kieran’s teams from the 1950s up to the mid-’70s, a legacy which is still tangible today in the success of his protégé, one Brian Cody.

In another year it would probably have been nominated for the William Hill, prompting recognition, publicity and prominent displays on shelves nationwide. Yet last week the book could not be found in my neighbouring town.

I know how crushing that news can be. Three years ago I produced my own labour of love, Hanging from the Rafters: The Story of Neptune and the Golden Age of Irish Basketball. People laughed at me when I embarked on a project about a small club in a distant era in a minority sport but I knew the story contained terrific moments and characters.

For the first few weeks you could not get the book outside Cork. My heart sank when a friend on the ground in Limerick texted bluntly: “Your book does not exist in this town.” But then it did. In their wisdom the judging panel of the William Hill scheme included it on its shortlist of six books. It eventually finished in the top three, ahead of bestsellers by household managers like Cody, Mickey Harte and Eddie O’Sullivan. Next month it is the subject of a documentary on Setanta Sports. That would hardly have happened without the nomination.

That same year Damian Lawlor’s journey with the Waterford footballers, Working on a Dream, finished runner-up behind Donal Óg Cusack’s Come What May. Like Rafters, it had been impossible to find in most bookstores prior to the nomination. Christy O’Connor’s The Club was another sleeper until William Hill considered it the best Irish sports book of 2010. Now it is universally hailed as a classic.

Here’s the thing though: that same year The Irish Book Awards scheme didn’t even deem it worthy of a nomination in its sports category.

Last month at a big banquet in Dublin, Katie Taylor was the recipient of The Irish Book Award’s Lifestyle Sports Book of the Year Award. Her book is skilfully ghosted by Johnny Watterson. It contains some brilliant passages that I would highly recommend. It is also only 40,000 words, in essence, a coffee-table book.

Katie Taylor is a lot of things. An Irish national treasure. Probably Irish sportsperson of 2012. She is not, however, the Irish sports book of the year.

The Book Awards once aspired to be this country’s Booker but the reality is it has no credibility among the Irish sportswriting community. Its judging panel is unknown but guessing by its criteria it must be a group of wholesalers, too concerned with which book will sell the most. High-profile autobiographies were nominated before they were even launched. How could they be judged when they hadn’t even been read? The nomination of Keith Duggan’s Cliffs of Insanity, about surfing off the Cliffs of Moher, was the one nod to a brave and original idea, but there’s no way both a Rafters and a Working on a Dream would have made it onto that shortlist. The Irish Book Awards claims to incentivise sportswriters but it’s basically encouraging us to forget about offbeat projects and go ghost a celeb instead. Who wants a Little Miss Sunshine when it’s an X-Men 2 world? The Irish Book Awards needs to either lift its game or be eclipsed by an alternative or revived William Hill. Even the William Hill’s standards were slipping these past couple of years. Too many judges weren’t reading enough books, relying on extracts and borrowed talk and reputations instead. It led to some unfair oversights, such as when Declan Bogue’s This is our Year, The Sunday Times’ best Irish sports book of 2011, failed to make the shortlist, squeezed out by a string of formulaic autobiographies.

In other years and in the UK still, the William Hill has favoured imaginative, non-mainstream books. Over here these days, it seems only autobiographies make it. The Irish Book Awards, at least when it comes to sport, seems to be less a celebration of the craft but of the industry.

They’re judging books by their cover, or at least by who is on it. How good you actually are doesn’t matter.

How anti-sport is that?


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