Books Awards: Book award breaks new ground to stay ahead of game

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The Independent Culture

Thankfully, cleaners at the Romilly Street restaurant where annual judging takes place for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year had no need to mop blood off the carpet earlier this week.

The decision over which title will be announced at Sportspages Bookshop on Monday lunchtime followed what a panel member Graham Sharpe describes as "a very lively discussion". But the controversy did not reach the levels generated in 1999, when argument went on into the early hours before Sir Derek Birley's A Social History of English Cricket eventually got the nod.

Only once, when Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch won the prize in 1992, has the competition proceeded without dispute. Such liveliness is inevitable given that none of the judges has a reputation for being backward in coming forward. "If you were a shrinking violet, you would be trampled underfoot," Sharpe says.

Unlike the Man Booker Prize, on which this sporting event is modelled, the panel has remained relatively unchanged since it first sat in 1989. Although Ian Wooldridge and Cliff Morgan have given up their roles, there has been continuity in the enduring presence of Hugh McIlvanney, Frances Edmonds, Danny Kelly and John Gaustad. Sharpe, who has overseen the whole project from the William Hill side of things, has stood in this year for John Inverdale while he is on World Cup rugby duty for the BBC.

"I've been chosen as a safe pair of hands," said Sharpe, who has been the event's point of contact with its sponsors since he co-founded it with Gaustad. "Normally I have been there to help the panel on points of order, and I think one of the reasons why the competition has been successful is that it has been seen to be independently judged.

"If it appeared that the prize was simply going to horse racing books, or betting books, that would compromise the competition's integrity. But if we had been looking at it from a commercial basis there's no way our first two awards would have gone to books about the Boat Race and the Tour de France.

"From a PR point of view," he admitted, "with the rugby union World Cup final being played this weekend, I would have loved it if we could have had a rugby book in the running for the award. But none quite made it this year.

"I can think of other awards that would have gone down that way to have a particularly topical title on their shortlist, and I'm proud that we've never done that."

Sharpe also believes that the dependence on a settled team of judges has enabled each winner to be put into a historical context. "We have created a sort of pedigree," he said.

For the first time in the competition's history a long list of 17 books was announced, an innovation which offers publishers extra time to promote their favoured runners and riders. "It's been a bit of a test run this year," said Gaustad, the proprietor of Sportspages. "We are simply copying what the Booker prize has been doing, and next year I think we may release the long list earlier."

As for the fact that four of the six shortlisted books this year are about football, that, he says, is purely coincidental, pointing out that four of the six last year were biographies.

"One of our few guiding principles has been to choose books that will interest people even if they don't follow the featured sport in a really committed way," Gaustad added. Who knows? Next year there could be four searching critiques of petanque...

The 2003 Shortlist

Behind the Network

Bob Wilson

Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99

Bob Wilson's nice-guy reputation raises suspicions that his autobiography might fall into the worthy-but-dull category. Banish them. It is a beautifully written account ­ by Wilson alone ­ of a highly successful sporting and broadcasting career, although its most memorable chapters are those which deal with the lives and untimely deaths of three members of his family, most recently his beloved daughter, Anna.

Wilson also had two older brothers who were killed while serving with the RAF during the Second World War. Not that their deaths helped form his attitude towards football. As a Double-winning goalkeeper for Arsenal he never subscribed to Boris Becker's philosophy of "it's only a game, nobody died". He loathed losing. But with Anna's death his perspective on life was forever altered. He won't mind too much if his book doesn't win, but I rather think it should.

Brian Viner

In Search of Tiger

Tom Callahan

Mainstream, £15.99

Tom Callahan actually went in search of two Tigers, "Tiger One" being Earl Woods' long-lost comrade and friend from South Vietnam. It's a pity he confines this account to the prologue ­ it would have made a fascinating volume in itself.

Earl's son, "Tiger Two", is less elusive, at least in body, as Callahan's efforts in bringing Earl Woods together with his old friend's relatives gave him slightly more than a writer's standard acquaintance with the family. That's not to say he got on intimate terms with the winner of eight majors ­ it seems that few do. But Callahan is a fine writer, and in his attempts to pin down the essence of this remarkable sportsman he takes a 360-degree view of golf and its history, from Old Tom at Prestwick to the older lads at a Tiger Woods Junior Golf Clinic "who didn't hit it like kids". As far as anyone can pin down Tiger, Callahan has managed it.

Chris Maume

Foul Play

David Thomas

Bantam Press, £12.99

At one of the match-fixing trials a few years ago, it was incorrectly stated in court that David Thomas was writing a book with Chris Vincent, Bruce Grobbelaar's former best friend, one of whose failed business ventures caused the rancour that took him to The Sun with his match-fixing allegations. At the end of the day's proceedings Thomas passed by the Zimbabwean goalkeeper, who smiled and sang, "Who you gonna call? Ghostwriters!"

Thomas spent more time than he seems to have intended covering the saga. At one point a destitute Vincent moved in with him, and he ended up a few grand poorer. He skilfully negotiates the convoluted tale and paints sharp portraits of Grobbelaar and Vincent, John Fashanu and Hans Segers, the Short Man and all the minor characters adrift in one of football's murkier backwaters. Few come out with credit, but Thomas's book deserves lots of it.

Chris Maume

Bodyline Autopsy

By David Frith

Aurum, £8.99 paperback

Seventy years on, the Bodyline crisis still looms large in Anglo-Australian history and David Frith conducts an exhaustive examination of an episode that almost led to a rift in the Empire. The villain of the piece, Douglas Jardine, had ascertained that Don Bradman, despite being acknowledged as the world's best batsman, was not fond of fast bowling directed at the body ­ "I've got it!" Jardine exclaimed. "He's yellow!"

So the England captain ordered his two fastest bowlers, Bill Voce and Harold Larwood, to bowl sustained barrages of legside bouncers with a fielding ring of steel. England won the Ashes but Britain nearly lost Australia. Frith, who founded Wisden Cricket Monthly, packs his account with details that bring to life the events of 1932-33. The key confrontations could have been more dramatically framed, but this must still be the definitive Bodyline tome.

Chris Maume

Ajax, the Dutch, the War

By Simon Kuper


Dutch anti-semitism, Simon Kuper reports, is alive and kicking. The Netherlands has re-examined its conduct during the Second World War and has found as much collaboration as resistance. Not many adult Dutch Jews survived.

Like Spurs fans, Ajax supporters often wave Israeli flags. Rabbis walking through Rotterdam are followed by shouts of "Hey, Ajax." And when the Feyenoord captain, Ulrich van Gobbel, wanted to rouse the fans after winning the Dutch title in 1999, he shouted eight times into a microphone "Whoever doesn't jump is a Jew!"

Kuper won the William Hill in 1994 with Football Against the Enemy. This is of a more specialist bent but no less absorbing for it. He looks at the Holocaust and the war through Dutch football. And it makes a fascinating, eye-opening story.

Chris Maume

Broken Dreams

Tom Bower

Simon & Schuster, £17.99

When news broke that Tom Bower was writing a book on corruption in football, sweat probably appeared on quite a few brows. Bower is a heavyweight investigative journalist who has previously turned the light on, among others, Robert Maxwell, Mohamed Al Fayed and Geoffrey Robinson.

Broken Dreams does indeed show the game in a poor light. Some of the stories of agents' greed ­ and perhaps more pertinently clubs' co-operation with them ­ are shocking, while the game's administrators come across as weak and ineffective.

What the investigation perhaps lacks, however, is at least one major revelation of wrong-doing. While plenty of people in and around the game will have been embarrassed by the book, you cannot help wondering whether others might have let out a huge sigh of relief.

Mark Pierson