10 sports books to read this Christmas: Humble beginnings, champagne lifestyles, and painful endings 

From the mainstream to the margins, from award-winners to sleeper hits, our writers select 10 sports books to read from the 2020 crop
10 sports books to read this Christmas: Humble beginnings, champagne lifestyles, and painful endings 

Then FAI CEO John Delaney with Republic of Ireland assistant coach Roy Keane at the Euro 2016 finals draw, Palais des Congres, Paris, Books were released about both men this year. Picture: Inpho

Champagne Football: John Delaney and the Betrayal of Irish Football: The Inside Story by Mark Tighe & Paul Rowan (Penguin Ireland)

Champagne Football: John Delaney and the Betrayal of Irish Football: The Inside Story by Mark Tighe & Paul Rowan (Penguin Ireland)
Champagne Football: John Delaney and the Betrayal of Irish Football: The Inside Story by Mark Tighe & Paul Rowan (Penguin Ireland)

When Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach he had John Delaney’s measure. “Bertie could sniff a wide boy just like that,” according to John Byrne, a linkman between the FAI and the Irish government. “He had a sixth fuckin’ sense. It’s nothing that you could put your finger on. Bertie would say: ‘Ah, Jaysus Christ, are you fuckin’ sure about this fella?’ One night, Delaney hooked Bertie at a match, he was hugging him after a goal. I was having the cup of tea at half-time and Bertie gave me the eye [as if to say] ‘Get that fuckin’ eejit away from me.’”

Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan’s Champagne Football — the study of Delaney’s rise, spending 15 years as head of the FAI, and spectacular fall — is a monumental piece of writing and investigation, a work that will go down as Irish sporting history’s Woodward & Bernstein moment.

The person who emerges from the pages of their book is a strange fish, full of manic energy, like a man on the run. He always seemed to be scheming and plugging holes, building his powerbase and suffocating those around him with a mix of bullying, backslapping and favours that came at a huge cost in the end.

- Richard Fitzpatrick

When The World Stops Watching - Life After The Game by Damian Lawlor (Black & White Publishing)

When The World Stops Watching - Life After The Game by Damian Lawlor (Black & White Publishing)
When The World Stops Watching - Life After The Game by Damian Lawlor (Black & White Publishing)

This newspaper’s recent excerpt from When The World Stops Watching, focusing on the struggles of former Galway hurler Tony Óg Regan to deal with his retirement, shed a fascinating light on what happens when elite sportspeople have to cope with the loss of what makes up so much of their identity.

We have heard how legends like Tony McCoy have found it difficult to accept the conclusion of their careers and Regan’s piece recently inspired Ronan O’Gara to pen a column on the same subject.

A massive credit is due to Damian Lawlor not just for identifying a largely untouched angle but earning the trust of these sporting greats to divulge their innermost thoughts on losing something they held so dearly.

Some of the revelations are startling, like Donncha O’Callaghan revealing “the greatest kick in the stones I ever got in my life” was not understanding a request from his toddler son because he was selfishly sucking the marrow out of his rugby career in his late 30s. How golfer Gary Murphy felt after losing his tour card, with investments going awry and loans left outstanding, makes for gripping reading. This is a powerful piece of work by Lawlor and should be mandatory reading not just for any aspiring sports person but fan of the games.

- John Fogarty

Keane: Origins by Eoin O’Callaghan (Mercier)

Keane: Origins by Eoin O’Callaghan (Mercier)
Keane: Origins by Eoin O’Callaghan (Mercier)

To date, this book has been largely overlooked and under-rated but while that’s a shame, it’s sort of apt too, given the subject matter. While Roy Keane eventually became a megastar, O’Callaghan concentrates on a time when he was still an underground artist yet to break into the mainstream.

For sure we’d like if there had been a bit more here about his days with Rockmount and the influence and personality that was his dad Mossie, given the title of the book. But O’Callaghan more than compensates for that with how he brilliantly delves into Keane’s hugely-formative year as a Cobh Rambler taking a FÁS football course up in Dublin.

He tracks down some of Keane’s old classmates and extracts pure gold from them, like the look on Keane’s face when, in a sex education class, the teacher puts a condom on a banana, or when they shared a train and passed a load of workers on the side of the railway tracks. “Look at them [poor] f****ers,” they remember Keane observing. “I HAVE to make it as a footballer.”

Any self-respecting anthology of the best Irish sports books of the last 10 years would have to feature O’Callaghan here on Roy Keane 1989-90, and how even then just how iconoclastic and yet generous but above all driven he was.

- Kieran Shannon

Be The Best You Can Be In Sport: A book for Irish Youth by Paul Kilgannon (BookHub)

Be The Best You Can Be In Sport: A book for Irish Youth by Paul Kilgannon (BookHub)
Be The Best You Can Be In Sport: A book for Irish Youth by Paul Kilgannon (BookHub)

If you have any aspiring athlete or indeed coach in your house, then get them to check this out, or even better, get it for them. Paul Kilgannon has a magnificent way in person and in print of conveying coaching and performance points to a mainstream audience, and here he does it by being as much an editor as a writer by designating up to 50 well-known Irish sports figures to take a theme each which he then weaves all together.

So Henry Shefflin writes in detail about how he’d practise. Kieran Donaghy gives practical examples of how to be a good teammate and even a leader. Following a science-based essay on energy and time management, Lindsay Peat gives examples of her own challenges and experiences on the same topic. Hockey international Nicci Daly talks about the benefits and challenges of playing multiple sports.

Values, skills, psychology, rehab, identity, sexuality, nutrition — it’s all covered here in a research-based but highly-readable way.

- Kieran Shannon

Right Time and Place - A Memoir and More by Michael O’Carroll (Ely Productions)

Right Time and Place - A Memoir and More by Michael O’Carroll (Ely Productions)
Right Time and Place - A Memoir and More by Michael O’Carroll (Ely Productions)

This isn’t a sports book as such, rather a memoir of a full life enriched by sport.

Michael O’Carroll is acclaimed as one of the great innovators in RTÉ Sport, producer of Know Your Sport, director of 40 All-Ireland finals, the man who mustered the resources and knowhow to get the Nissan Classic cycle races and Tour of Ireland rallies on TV.

Though first he toured the world as a merchant navy pastry chef.

Before we get into all that, there’s a gripping account of the helicopter crash where O’Carroll almost lost his life shooting footage of the gallops at Ballydoyle — and the bizarre links to the 1973 Mountjoy prison hijack.

Later there are many revealing and entertaining gems about the struggles of organising TV sport in the days before digital, such as the time O’Carroll directed a Five Nations meeting of Ireland and France at Lansdowne Road in 1972.

“The game was being covered in black and white. Because the blue of France and the green of Ireland would look similar on black and white television, I requested that Ireland should wear another colour, or green togs at least. The top IRFU man said: “No, we can’t change because we have to have a union meeting to do so and the next is not scheduled until April.” A telex to the French union got the prompt reply, “Yes, we will play in all white.” I answered back, “Merci”.”

- Larry Ryan

The Hill by Bernard Brogan and Kieran Shannon (Reach Sport)

The Hill by Bernard Brogan and Kieran Shannon (Reach Sport)
The Hill by Bernard Brogan and Kieran Shannon (Reach Sport)

‘The Hill’ doesn’t just reference the famous terracing into which Brogan scored so many points and goals. It encapsulates the task that faced him in eking out a meaningful role in Jim Gavin’s Dublin brigade after a decade of residency in the starting lineup had passed.

Brogan, with the help of Kieran Shannon, digs deep into the cruciate injury that struck in 2018 and the long road that followed. There are times, as when he fails to make it onto the pitch for an A v B practice game, that the honesty of the approach takes the breath away.

He didn’t need to shine such a searching light on this last chapter of his career, or on the struggles he experienced in establishing himself in the first place. One of the best and most high-profile players in the modern game, Brogan could have luxuriated in the great days, of which there were many.

That he didn’t makes for a far more illuminating account.

- Brendan O’Brien

Fuel: Seán O’Brien, with Gerry Thornley (Penguin Ireland)


                        Fuel: Seán O’Brien, with Gerry Thornley (Penguin Ireland) 
Fuel: Seán O’Brien, with Gerry Thornley (Penguin Ireland) 

Rugby autobiographies in this country have got something of a bad rep without being as bad as they’re generally perceived, and while none of this year’s efforts quite fall into the realm of classic status that Paul O’Connell’s, for one, bordered on, a few have their merits.

Right from the off, Rob Kearney’s No Hiding (with David Walsh, Reach) gives an insight into the devastation of losing a World Cup match, and then more brutally a brother you were too young to know, killed in a car accident.

O’Brien’s collaboration with Thornley also goes into a challenging aspect of his own upbringing — the disintegration of his parents’ marriage, even though they continue to this day to live under the same roof. O’Brien explains how he struggled to deal with it, but still he would pave a way to the top of a game.

That road less taken, starting in Tullow which Thornley skilfully gives a real feel for, helps make it one of the most relatable of rugby books since Bulls Hayes’s autobiography eight years ago.

- Kieran Shannon

Everything by Denis Coughlan (Hero Books)


                        Everything by Denis Coughlan (Hero Books) 
Everything by Denis Coughlan (Hero Books) 

An All-Ireland winner in both codes and most mild-mannered of individuals, it is to Denis Coughlan’s credit that in his autobiography he refuses to draw back from shedding light on one or two murky episodes from fadó fadó. 

For instance: had you known that Glen Rovers withdrew from all competitions and activities organised by the Cork County Board following the fallout from the 1968 hurling championship quarter-final against UCC? 

Had you known that Coughlan, the Cork captain, was dropped for the 1970 All-Ireland final? And had you known what Jack Lynch said to Coughlan, his fellow clubman, on the podium afterwards?

In so doing Coughlan has performed a service; today’s generation are entitled to know about the events of the past, not have them glossed over. “Politics was rife in Cork hurling and football in those days, with people using positions of power to further their own personal ends and that of their clubs rather than Cork teams,” he reflects. 

A warm, chatty and immensely enjoyable book, with the presence as ghostwriter of the novelist Tadhg Coakley adding a sheen of class.

- Enda McEvoy

The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire by Grigory Rodchenkov (WH Allen)

The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin's Secret Doping Empire by Grigory Rodchenkov (WH Allen)
The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin's Secret Doping Empire by Grigory Rodchenkov (WH Allen)

Some readers will be familiar with Dr Grigory Rodchenkov’s story from the Oscar-winning documentary Icarus, which has been airing on Netflix. Rodchenkov, who was in theory a secondary character in that film, takes centre stage in his memoir, which has just won this year’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

The 62-year-old Rodchenkov began doping when he was a 22-year-old middle-distance runner at Moscow State University in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. He used to get his mother to inject the juice into him at home. Rodchenkov never got to realise his Olympic dreams; instead he diverted his pharmaceutical skills into heading up Russia’s Anti-Doping Centre from 2006.

Rodchenkov had a clear brief, which came from the top of the state: ensure no elite Russian athlete ever tested positive in competition. For nearly a decade, Rodchenkov carried out his orders –masterminding a steroid programme that included shamelessly tampering and switching urine samples – before turning whistleblower in 2015.

Rodchenkov’s revelations exposed the Russians’ cheating at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Olympics, and arguably the biggest sports scandal in history. It has had a huge toll on his personal life, as he lives out his days in hiding in the United States, a “ghost”, separated from his family. It’s an extraordinary book.

- Richard Fitzpatrick

True Colours by Barry Geraghty with Niall Kelly (Gill Books)

True Colours Barry Geraghty
True Colours Barry Geraghty

As one of the greatest jumps jockeys of all time, Barry Geraghty’s autobiography was always likely to be an absorbing read and it lives up to such lofty expectations.

Predictably, Moscow Flyer, Sprinter Sacre, Kicking King, Bobs Worth and 2003 Grand National hero Monty’s Pass feature prominently but True Colours is far more than a sugar-coated career highlights reel.

The book opens with Geraghty recalling breaking his leg in a fall at Aintree in April 2019 and the fear that retirement would be forced upon him.Later he writes about a period in his career when he fell out of favour and the nagging doubt that he wouldn’t be able to turn the tide. The ups and downs of his relationship with JP McManus are also tackled head-on.

Ultimately his is a happy story with a perfect finale — his fifth win at this year’s Cheltenham Festival proving the final act of a glorious 24-year career, one more than done justice in this fine memoir.

- Darren Norris

Others for the shopping list: Cork icons and famous fathers

For anyone interested in the history of Cork and Irish basketball, one of its most dutiful sons, Jim O’Donoghue — who was still refereeing at 79 — has some lovely reminisces on his beloved Neptune in Gods By The Lee, available in Vibes and Scribes in Cork or directly @GodsbytheLee.

There’s another Cork icon at the heart of Believe — Larry Tompkins The Autobiography (Hero), but this is a book that will resonate far beyond Leeside, not least in Kildare. It revists the reasons Tompkins was lost to the Lilywhites and captures the incredible drive that made him one of the greatest Cork footballers.

Death looms large in Scott Ellsworth’s riveting history of mountain climbing in the first half of the 20th century, The World Beneath Their Feet Mountaineering, Madness, and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas (John Murray).

While The Man They Couldn’t Ban by Richie Kelly (Colmcille Press) tells the intriguing story of much-travelled Derry soccer player John Crossan.

The Dynasty (Simon & Schuster) is by Jeff Benedict, co-author of a recent, magisterial Tiger Woods biography. It bases its study of the 20-year dominance of the New England Patriots around three characters, the All-American hero Tom Brady; the introverted, whip-smart coach Bill Belichick; and owner Robert Kraft, who is equally as interesting as his two illustrious field marshals.

My Life in Red and White: My Autobiography by Arsene Wenger (W&N) disappointed many for the lack of juicy tidbits from the Arsenal dressing room. But then anything else would have been out of character for a manager who always went the extra mile to protect his players, to the point of myopia. Some intriguing and poignant reflections on a great career, though this could have done with another set of eyes.

Chiselled From Ash by Len Gaynor and Shane Brophy (Hero) is another dignified read that avoids controversy even where opportunities arose. At its best when it brings us right into that all-conquering Tipp dressing room of the 60s.

And finally, in a week where 11-year-old Charlie Woods competes beside his famous dad at the father-son PNC Championship, what better time to read The Second Life of Tiger Woods by Michael Bamberger (Simon & Schuster) — a redemption story of a man changed by fatherhood.

Kids list: A rare outing for the teen girl player

For a long while there it seemed the only sports books kids could get their hands on was their dad’s Roy of the Rovers archive in the attic. Thankfully, Irish publishers have recognised and provided for that gap in the market and 2020 is its highest point yet.

Jacqui Hurley’s Girls Play Too (Merrion, €14.95) is rightly getting a lot of plaudits for her collection of short stories on 25 well-known Irish female sports stars, a timely and wonderful action point on the 20x20 motto that if she can’t see it she can’t be it.

But just as inspiring and ground-breaking is the less-heralded Donn McClean’s All To Play For (O’Brien, €8.99) in which the protagonist is a teenage girl, something of a first for Irish sports fiction. The story of how Anna navigates a family tragedy, a new town, new school, and new ladies football team makes for a gripping and sometimes poignant narrative.

Another 13-year-old is the main character of Up In The Air by former Tipperary All-Ireland winner Paddy Stapleton (Orla Kelly Publishing, €9.99). And, similarly, it’s highly inventive, featuring diary passages to go with plenty of quick-witted dialogue, even if Fitzy is less Adrian Mole and more like his namesake Davy in his passion for sport.

Another riveting GAA-centred narrative comes in the form of Gerard Siggins’ Gaelic Sport (O’Brien, €8.99), the most recent in the series of books on young Eoin Madden, better known for his exploits in rugby prior to this particular summer holidays in Tipperary in which the ghost of Michael Hogan, well, ghosts into his life.

Blue Thunder, the second in Gordon D’Arcy’s collaboration with Paul Howard (Penguin, €14.49) is as hilarious and as compelling as the first.

There are a couple of more books then that are then more of the coffee-table variety, if we can say such a genre exists for kids. Aim High by Donny Mahoney (O’Brien, €16.50) is similar to Hurley’s book, shining a welcoming light on some inspiring Irish sports figures if not necessarily household names, Zak Moradi, for instance, the Kurdish hurler who scored the winning point for Leitrim in Croke Park, is in the same company here as Roy Keane and Katie Taylor.

Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s The Story of Croke Park (O’Brien, €16.99), beautifully illustrated by Graham Corcoran, is a nice way of lightly introducing a child to some chapters in the history of the GAA.

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