Christmas books: Sport - Lost dreams and locker-room secrets

Hard players and hard drinkers ... John Tague on winners and losers
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The Independent Culture
While the old prejudices about sports books have been greatly eroded by the pitch invasion of the "literary" writers during this decade, 1998, ironically, saw a return to the old school. This was a year dominated by the old-fashioned sports biography as never before, with footballers proving particularly keen to cash in on the hype generated by this year's World Cup. Tony Adams, Teddy Sheringham, the Neville Brothers, Vinnie Jones, Ron Atkinson, Harry Redknapp and Bobby Robson all published various accounts detailing their experiences in the game, with Glenn Hoddle contributing his own World Cup diary. There's little here that will trouble the Booker Prize committee, as too many of these accounts are dominated either by laboured anecdotes about games and events now deservedly obscure or are reticent when dealing with controversy that's still relevant. Tony Adams's Addicted (Collins Willow, pounds 16.99) is a noble exception.

Co-written by journalist Ian Ridley, Adams's account isn't exactly free of the flaws that mark much of this sub-genre. However, the England and Arsenal captain's honesty about his alcoholism achieves something unique in sports biographies of this kind, and opens the soul of its subject for inspection. The Adams that emerges from this occasionally shocking story is both strong-willed and pathetic, and the honesty with which he records his drinking can be almost painful to read. But, in providing genuine insight into the character of the writer and the world he inhabits, Addicted does what so many of these first-person accounts promise but rarely deliver.

While football continues to be so fashionable, the desire to cash in on the soccer-writing trend with ever more inventive angles continues to provoke some stimulating work. Jas Bains and Sanjiev Johal examined the often difficult Asian football experience as players and spectators with Corner Flags and Corner Shops (Gollancz, pounds 9.99), and Alyson Rudd provided an amusing if light-weight account of what it's like to be a woman in a man's world as she details her experiences playing organised park football with the boys in Astroturf Blonde (Headline, pounds 14.99). Gordon Thompson even provided a history of the referee with The Man in Black (Prion, pounds 9.99) which was particularly entertaining on incidents of referee corruption, most notably in South America. Kevin Sampson, who this year published a fine debut novel with Awaydays (Cape, pounds 9.99) recreating the balmy days of Lacoste-wearing casuals wielding Stanley knives in the late 1970s, also published Extra Time (Yellow Jersey, pounds 10), his diary of a season following Liverpool. But the best footballing title by far was Ian Hamilton's Gazza Agonistes (Bloomsbury, pounds 9.99). Updated from a lengthy piece published in Granta in 1994, this is a penetrating fan's-eye view of the clown prince of English football which remorselessly records the many incidents of burping, farting, crying, fighting, drunkenness and hysteria with a lucid eye. It's hard not to conclude that Hamilton's study of Gazza says something complex and profound not only about its subject but about masculinity in general, yet the quality of his observations are often so subtle that they elude paraphrase. This is as close to poetry as sports writing ever gets.

Away from football, Nick Pitt's penetrating study of the troubled relationship between the boxer Prince Naseem Hamed and his trainer Bernard Ingle, The Paddy and the Prince (Yellow Jersey, pounds 16), was too intimate for the boxer to take. Pitt tells the Naseem story from the trainer's perspective, and it is fascinating reading. Naseem, who turned up at Ingle's gym when he was only seven years old, comes across as a compulsive mixture of ambition, natural brilliance, determination and cold arrogance. He hasn't taken kindly to Pitt's frank portrayal of his megalomania, and has condemned Ingle for his "betrayal" in revealing so much. But the scale of Naseem's ambition and ability is genuinely impressive and it's impossible not to be awed by his character, which at times appears to possess an almost Shakespearean grandeur.

Stan Hey contributes an engaging account of his experiences as an unfortunate race horse owner with An Arm and Four Legs (Yellow Jersey, pounds 15). This is a sharp and funny record of how the writer came to indulge his love of National Hunt racing by taking part ownership in four horses over a year. The long-suffering Hey, a man for whom the words "ever" and "hopeful" were coined, remains a stranger to the winners' enclosure, but this is one of the best of the many impressive titles that Yellow Jersey, a welcome new sports imprint from Random House, has published this year.

Rugby's Great Split (Frank Cass Publishers, pounds 16.50) by Tony Collin brilliantly records the early years when rugby and football emerged from the public schools and seduced the working classes, prompting the class tensions which led two games played exclusively by gentlemen to confront professionalism. This is a fine read which intelligently probes the connections between social class and sport which still hold sway today.

The 1998 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award has gone to Robert Twigger for Angry White Pyjamas: An Oxford Poet Trains With the Tokyo Riot Police (Indigo, pounds 6.99). This records the writer's experiences in Tokyo, where, as a marooned wannabe writer dismayed at turning 30, he decides to learn martial arts with the Tokyo police in order to arrest (as it were) his perceived physical decline. This is hardly a sports book; Twigger, who once won a minor poetry prize while a student (and hence the title) has written a work which is as much travelogue and autobiography as sports title. It's an excellent read, though, and his eloquent prose style illustrates that his poetry prize wasn't awarded entirely in vain.

Finally, one of the most entertaining biographies of the year (perhaps for all the wrong reasons) is Jimmy White's Behind the White Ball (Hutchinson, pounds 16.99). While Tony Adams has blazed something of a trail for an honest examination of sporting character, Jimmy White does the opposite, regaling his readers with a succession of frenzied anecdotes about his profligate life. Here is the drinking, the wasted days hanging out as an adolescent truant with hustlers with names like Dodgy Bob and John the Arab, and the compulsive gambling which has seen White blow in excess of pounds 3m. White doesn't go in for soul baring, and he's the first to admit he's clueless about what makes him behave the way he does, but what he lacks in understanding he compensates for in pure entertainment value. Like his snooker, White's life has been reckless, instinctive, sometimes glorious, never dull. After reading about this exceptionally gifted man who has spent much of his life drunk and has wasted vast amounts of money, you don't know whether to laugh along at the spectacle or pity him. Nor, White admits, does he.