Sport: The year's best books reviewed
The year of drop goals and broken dreams
Friday 05 December 2003
George Best stands, hands on hips, young and beautiful, gazing out of the frame to another part of the pitch, a lick of black hair flying up from his forehead. It is 1965, and the photojournalism student Peter Robinson seems to have stolen his soul.
It may seem strange to kick off with a picture book. But coffee tables up and down the land are surely crying out to be graced by the mighty Football Days (Mitchell Beazley, £30). To call this a coffee-table book is in fact a flagrant insult: Robinson has photographed football for nearly 40 years and seems incapable of producing a banal image. Evocative and dazzling, the book also provides genuine insights into the world's most popular sport.
Otherwise, this was a year with no overarching blockbuster, no masterpiece. The William Hill Sports Book of the Year award went to Broken Dreams: vanity, greed and the souring of British football (Simon & Schuster, £17.99), a comprehensive indictment of the money-grubbing cesspit that calls itself the FA Premiership. Tom Bower's record as an investigative journalist makes it disappointing that there is little that any dedicated follower of footballing shenanigans would not know already. But for the general reader, it's good to have the facts marshalled in one place.
A much more impressive feat of research went into England Their England (Pitch, £18.99), in which The Independent's Nick Harris charts the 120-year history of foreign footballers in this country. Exhaustive and definitive, it is replete with good stories and boasts appendices to send the game's statisticians into paroxysms of delight.
There is also an interest to be declared in mentioning Jules Rimet Still Gleaming? England at the World Cup (Virgin, £18.99), an account by Independent columnist Ken Jones of the national team's largely sorry history. The experience of 10 World Cups has given Jones an inside track on a saga of thwarted dreams and unrealised potential.
England's victory in the other World Cup is likely to create a run on rugby union books. In the absence of anything recent from Jonny Wilkinson (Lions and Falcons: my diary of a remarkable year came out in 2002 from Headline), Martin Johnson: The Autobiography (Headline, £18.99) will have to suffice for now. The team captain may face some competition from Finding My Feet: My Autobiography by England's try-scorer in the final, Jason Robinson (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99).
Rugby was also responsible for one of the year's funniest books. In Muddied Oafs: the last days of rugger, (Yellow Jersey, £14.99), the novelist Richard Beard searched for union's heart and soul in the course of revisiting teams he had played for in four countries. For all his jokes and good lines, mostly he found a game on its uppers - though maybe events in Australia will change that, in England anyway.
For students of the absurdities of human nature there was plenty of humour, mostly of the black variety, in Foul Play (Bantam, £18.99), which deservedly made the William Hill shortlist. David Thomas attended the trials on match-fixing charges of Bruce Grobbelaar and co., as well as becoming more mixed up than he perhaps intended with Chris Vincent, Grobbelaar's nemesis and former best friend. It makes for a grimly compelling tale.
For this reviewer there can never be too many good cycling books. Though the endlessly fascinating Companion to the Tour de France (edited by Les Woodland, Yellow Jersey, £16) is essential for the committed, in Le Tour (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) Geoffrey Wheatcroft looks at the country through the history of its principal sporting event.
For pure fun, there was nothing this year to beat Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People (Yellow Jersey, £12): the autobiography of Amarillo Slim Preston, one of the worldís finest poker players and gamblers. Like Chaucer, with a mountain of chips.
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