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Sports Books for Christmas: A sporting chance of a good read

Cyclists, sailors and turbulent snooker players all had stories to tell in 2002

Football's tide of history has turned and the former kings of the castle are left with the waves lapping over their feet. But that doesn't mean the Manchester United-inspired publishing flood has abated. The biggest literary sporting splash this year was another book of revelations from a son of Old Trafford.

Keane: The Autobiography (Michael Joseph, £17.99) concerns Roy of that ilk, possibly the hardest man in football, and certainly one of the most controversial. The latest controversy must surely be about why it was left off the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Eamon Dunphy co-writes with a heroic dose of the hard-bitten realism that made his diary of a footballing journeyman, Only A Game?, such gripping stuff. These two bad boys are a match made in sports-page heaven, and one can only wonder what the William Hill judges were thinking of.

Another strong contender must have been the latest labour of tough love for Michael Crick, the investigative journalist and lifelong United fan. The Boss: The Many Sides of Alex Ferguson (Simon & Schuster, £17.99) takes the club's manager, another gritty controversialist, pins him to the dissecting table, and gives him a good going-over – even if most of his supposed sins were the kinds of things that most managers get up to, especially the most successful.

In the William Hill gap where Keane should have been was a relatively anodyne work by one of his former Ireland team-mates: someone who, having donated the million-pound proceeds of his testimonial to charity, could be said to come from the opposite end of celebrity's moral spectrum. Niall Quinn: Head First – The Autobiography (Headline, £17.99), co-written with Tom Humphries, is an affable account of a solid professional's career, laced with a pleasing lyricism and peppered with good lines. But his story of life with the national side and Keane's are like dispatches from parallel universes.

Quinn's was one of three autobiographies on the William Hill shortlist. The other two were self-written, one of them a book to give to anyone, not just sporty or nautical types. Taking on the World by the global circumnavigator Ellen MacArthur (Michael Joseph, £17.99) tells the story of an extraordinary woman, from the tear-jerking prologue recounting her triumphant entry into Les Sables d'Olonne last year at the end of the Vendée Globe Race which made her name, through the Swallows and Amazons tales of childhood adventures, to her awe-inspiring grown-up exploits on the high seas (sometimes very high indeed). Fired by her drive, warmth and passion, and beautifully illustrated by her line drawings, this book is a constant delight.

From the evidence of Opening Up: My Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, £17.99), Michael Atherton demonstrates that his post-cricket career as a journalist enjoys a sound footing. As considered and thoughtful as the man himself, it affords the reader a wealth of insights into the modern game.

The fourth William Hill book was A Season In Verona (Secker & Warburg, £16.99), by the Booker Prize nominee, Tim Parks. He chronicles over the course of a season his support for Hellas Verona, the Millwall of Italian football. Parks has all the insight of an accomplished novelist, and is good on the sport's hallowed, mystical place in the national culture. But he can never reconcile himself with the racism of the Verona hardcore.

However, the star and deserved winner of the William Hill show was Donald McRae's In Black & White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens (Scribner, £18.99). These two friends were sporting gods with the extreme misfortune to be black in 20th-century America, when the colour of your skin overshadowed trifling matters such as four Olympic gold medals or the heavyweight championship of the world. Owens managed to play the system and stayed afloat; Louis all but went under. McRae tells their stories brilliantly.

William Fotheringham must have been disappointed that Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson (Yellow Jersey, £15.99) did not make the shortlist. It is partly a straightforward but compelling biography of the charismatic rider who died during the 1967 Tour de France, partly an account of how the seasoned cycling journalist found it no easy matter to separate myth and reality. Each upholder of the Simpson flame had different memories, and Fotheringham does well to pick his way through them.

Most memories of Alex Higgins are the same, it seems – traumatic. His nickname was apt: at the snooker table, and especially away from it, he left a trail of devastation in his wake for 25 years. In The Hurricane: The Turbulent Life and Times of Alex Higgins (Atlantic, £16.99), Bill Borrows catalogues the multiple varieties of vileness perpetrated by a man who comes across as a supremely talented, but basically obnoxious creep. It's hugely entertaining, of course: a caustic antidote to Christmas, perhaps, and a dire warning about the evils of the demon drink.