Sport: Booze, drugs and PJs just don't kiss the manager

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The Independent Culture

Bill Shankley's celebrated dictum about the relative importance of life, death and football was a joke. But sport and mortality are sometimes intimately acquainted, and the most remarkable story in this year's array of sporting literature is surely in Nick Ward's Left for Dead: the untold story of the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race (A&C Black, 16.99). Ward describes how he survived a storm that claimed 15 lives, including two from his boat, The Grimalkin. He spent around 14 hours on board, alone apart from a dead crewmate, taking on water, battered by waves as big as cliffs. Why were they abandoned by the crew? His co-writer Sinead O'Brien has done a fine job of teasing out painful memories from decades ago.

Football may not be about life and death, but it's certainly about vision, balance, guts, feet and graft. These are some of the factors considered in probably the most intelligent football book of the year, A Cultured Left Foot (Duckworth Overlook, 15.99) by Musa Okwonga. The most alcoholic book of the year is Provided You Don't Kiss Me: 20 years with Brian Clough (Fourth Estate, 14.99), in which Duncan Hamilton, Ol' Big 'Ead's ghostwriter, gives a forensically detailed account of Clough's time at Nottingham Forest. Though Hamilton was clearly in the great manager's thrall who wouldn't be? he is unsparing about the latter's booze-soaked decline.

There are no books by England footballers this year, for which we should give thanks. There is, though, the autobiography of a former national hero. Sir Bobby Charlton's My Manchester United Years (Headline, 20), written with The Independent's James Lawton, is redolent of a different age, when sporting memoirs didn't depend on dishing the dressing-room dirt. The play-and-tell genre is alive and kicking, however. In the wake of England's unexpectedly successful rugby World Cup, two old stagers, Mike Catt (Landing on My Feet, Hodder & Stoughton, 18.99) and Lawrence Dallaglio (It's in the Blood, Headline, 18.99), published controversial bean-spillers. And Behind the Shades (Simon & Schuster, 18.99), by the recently deposed cricket coach Duncan Fletcher, also found its way into the headlines for its reflections on Flintoff's captaincy. Each is intrinsically interesting above and beyond the serialisations. The rugby players are thoughtful and insightful, while Fletcher, though he has scores to settle, has much to say that's illuminating about modern cricket.

Tim Harris's staggeringly informative, 940-page Sport: almost everything you ever wanted to know (Yellow Jersey, 20) succeeds in providing a fanatically comprehensive overview. It is thematically sorted into eight sections dealing with business, drugs, cheating, politics, media and the like.

Some men celebrate turning 50 by acquiring Harleys or Ferraris; Mark Law took up judo. He rapidly developed an obsession, and this was the springboard for The Pyjama Game (Aurum, 16.99): a fantastic voyage, beautifully written, through this most challenging of sports. Picture book of the year is Sport in the 21st Century (Thames & Hudson, 24.95), which raids the Reuters library to stunning effect. From the Arab prince watching Formula One on his horse to Chinese child gymnasts, it celebrates sport's endless capacity to astonish and to generate memorable images.

As a cycling fan, I usually try to include a posting from the two-wheeled world in annual round-ups. Not this year; but can I recommend any good pharmacopeia? All you'll ever need to know should be in there.