Books for Christmas: Modern classics and old masters: Experts nominate their favourite sporting reads of the year and speak volumes for the offerings of seasons past

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The Independent Online
JOHN GAUSTAD

Owner of Sportspages bookshops

I THINK Stephen Jones's Endless Winter: Inside Story of the Rugby Revolution is very significant and the best- written book I've read this year. What impresses me is that unlike a lot of traditional rugby writing, which seems to me to be a bit childish and somewhat obsessed with the size of their thighs, there's a real intelligence and I think he's really thought hard about it. It's funny too - lots of lovely dry bits creeping in every so often. I think Fever Pitch from last year was a really extaordinary book, but you only get that type of thing once a decade. Jones's is as significant a book in terms of rugby writing, but I didn't ever put it down and think I couldn't have written that, whereas Hornby just kept doing that to me. I think the entire outlook for sports books is a lot brighter now. This year there are more publishers involved and books are being brought out that might not have been a few years ago. I'm not sure that people would have looked at Endless Winter a couple of years ago. They might have said, 'no, go away and write a tour book'. My feeling is that publishers have always shied away from analysis and in that sense people are being a bit more adventurous. I think Fever Pitch has opened the door for the serious sports book. The other thing that caught my eye this year is Visions of Sport, which celebrates the 25th anniversary of Allsport, the picture agency. Every spread has something quite riveting. Some of them you recognise, like Mike Powell breaking the world long-jump record or the diving competition at Barcelona, but there are many other images less well-known, though still as breathtaking.

NICK HORNBY

Author of 'Fever Pitch'

FREDERICK EXLEY wrote a book in the Seventies called Fan's Notes, which gave me the idea for Fever Pitch. He is an alcoholic who is eventually encarcerated and this is his autobiography. It begins with him ranting at the New York Giants on the television and it deals with his realisation that he could never be a player - in life as well as in sport - and how the realisation broke him. If it counts as a sports book, then it's my favourite. I don't think 1993 has been a great year, but the book I've enjoyed most is, I'm afraid, another Arsenal one - Tom Watt's The End. It was quite an achievement to track down a whole community and get them to talk. He's got Arsenal fans aged 90 downwards talking about what it was like to stand on the terraces in the Twenties and Thirties. He speaks to policemen, St John ambulancemen and players - most things that you'd want to know as a fan are in there. He's talked to Charlie George and Liam Brady about being idolised by the North Bank and also people like John Sammels, who got terrible stick from the North Bank. It's quite compulsive - and an incredibly ambitious piece of work. I think there is mileage for this kind of Studs Terkel approach to sport. I also enjoyed Betrayed, Graeme Wright's cricket book, although I struggled in parts. What I'd really like to see is a proper football autobiography - for someone to be honest and articulate the experience of playing for a top Premiership club in a way that made sense to people. Or maybe a manager would be better placed to do it, but no one has the balls at the moment.

ARTHUR HOPCRAFT

Author of 'The Football Man'

MOST books about any sport tend to treat whatever sport it is in isolation, which is not of much use. The only interest of the compulsion is that it survives, indeed thrives, amid a real life. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, which was published in paperback this year, captures this entirely. I love its attempt to celebrate the irrational nature of being a football fan. It is very good on the almost insane forces that drive people to particular teams and is perhaps the only book I can think of that treasures bigotry. There are 30 years between it and John Moynihan's The Soccer Syndrome, but they deal in the same emotions. Sunday football makes up only a small part of Moynihan's book but I always remember it as being the main subject such is the vividness with which he conveys its heroic foolishness. I am not really interested in cricket but J L Carr's A Season in Sinji entangles the sport and life in a way that has always stuck in my mind. It is set in the Second World War in West Africa, where three young airmen are all based in the same grubby backwater and are all in love with the same girl. The story is tragic, but is played out against the metaphor of a cricket game and the complex enmity has been transferred to the match. Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, published in 1871, is perhaps my favourite. Whymper led the first successful assault on the Matterhorn in 1865 and the book ends with a glorious account. It was a triumph followed immediately by disaster as four of the seven climbers were killed on the way down, so it has that extraordinary leap from exhilaration to complete desolation.

BILL BRYSON

American-born author and baseball aficionado

I READ Men at Work: the Craft of Baseball by George Will this year and it was excellent. It is written - rather oddly - by a windy- looking neo-conservative political columnist. He is quite right- wing, but writes about baseball with great affection and considerable persuasiveness. It goes into great detail about technical aspects like how curveballs curve and deals in glorious tangents. It might start off talking about a pitcher and then go on and discuss how the Boston Red Sox came to be or why the Chicago Cubs were so called. If you know baseball, it's completely fascinating, and if you don't it's completely dreary and boring.

PETER DOBEREINER

Golf writer

THERE'S been a spate of centenary histories of golf clubs this year, some of which have been very good. Wentworth, edited by Renton Laidlaw, stands out among them. I like the social history that comes out of these books, for instance underneath Wentworth there is a network of underground tunnels that survives from the war. There's also a massive history of Scottish golf by Alastair Johnston, called The Chronicles of Golf 1457-1857. But it is spoiled for me by the interpretation - an obsession with the Scottish origins of the game. It will simply not countenance the thought that anyone else could have had any influence over it. If I could only have one sports book I would choose P G Wodehouse's Golfing Omnibus - I'm a great admirer of his prose technique.

GORDON BURN

Author of 'Pocket Money'

MY favourite sports book this year was my favourite last year and is likely to be my favourite in 1994 as well. The Best American Sports Writing 1992 was edited by the novelist Thomas McGuane and brings together extended magazine pieces from Sports Illustrated, Esquire and other places where the ground-rules of 1960s New Journalism, which validated the use of fictional techniques in factual reporting, still apply. Nothing in the 1993 collection quite matches the knockabout brilliance of 'The Sport's Fan', Peter Richmond's piece about the comedian Bill Murray trying to be a Chicago Cubs fan while remaining the object of fan adulation himself, but there are vintage articles by George Plimpton, David Halberstam and William Nack.

SIMON INGLIS

Author of 'The Football Grounds of Great Britain'

LIKE many non-Liverpudlians I was always slightly sceptical about the Kop. Was it really such a unique terrace? Stephen F Kelly's The Kop: The End of an Era has persuaded me it was, and in the simplest manner, by interviewing people who have stood there, staffed it or played in front of it. The voices are steaming with warmth and humour, without which sport has no chance. In a similar vein, David Lamb wrote my favourite of all time. In Stolen Season he escapes from Beirut to spend an amiable few months travelling the minor league baseball circuit. It should be required reading for all chairmen of struggling football clubs in Britain. For Middle America read Halifax. You don't need to know anything about baseball to be seduced by Lamb's road-movie portrayal of empty bleachers, ingenious but mad owners and itinerant players.

GEOFFREY MOORHOUSE

Cricket and rugby league author

MOST cricket writing these days is tripe, quite honestly, but Beyond Bat & Ball: Eleven Intimate Portraits by David Foot is a beautiful piece of writing. He takes 11 cricketers, all of whom have long since stopped playing and most of whom are dead - like Jack Fingleton, Andy Ducat and even Siegfried Sassoon - and writes very sensitive and compassionate essays on them. He is a much underrated writer. Ever since I read Beyond the Boundary by CLR James 20 years ago I have never ceased to think it is easily the best sports book ever. It tells you a hell of a lot about West Indian society through the medium of cricket and enables you to understand more about cricket by looking at it through the prism of James's upbringing.

TONY PARSONS

Columnist and TV presenter

EAMON DUNPHY'S Only a Game is a really beautiful book about the true nature of being a footballer - like tears after training. I was at school with a couple of kids who became professionals and I always envied them until I read the book. Like most, my mates didn't become Ryan Giggs or George Best, they became solid working men and I thought it captured the uncertainty and fragility of the career perfectly. It would be my favourite sports book ever. One of the best things I read this year was Martin Amis on women's tennis in Visiting Mrs Nabokov, his latest collection of journalism. It is a fantastic piece which identified the strata and status of the circuit perfectly. I like tear-stained sport, and as with all great sports writing, it defines some kind of human tragedy.

HUGH McILVANNEY

Journalist and Sports Book of the Year judge

NONE of the entries for the 1993 Sports Book of the Year award was as distinguished as the winners of the prize in the previous two years - Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, which is a football fan's testament and infinitely more, and Thomas Hauser's Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, an oral biography that is likely to remain the definitive work on the most compelling figure sport has ever produced. But the winner of the award for 1993, Endless Winter by Stephen Jones, is a vigorous, intelligent and enlightening report from inside the astonishing revolution that has overtaken world rugby. One contender that reached the short-list, Ladies of the Court by Michael Mewshaw, is essential reading for anyone with a taste for horror stories. It deals with the women's professional tennis circuit, a largely nightmarish creation, littered with distorted values and blighted lives. This is a tough read, not only because of the alarming nature of much of its content but because Mewshaw, as narrator, has a jarring, unattractive voice. After putting it down, there is an urge to seek more congenial company, to revisit earlier books created by warmer spirits and broader, richer minds. For me, that can mean returning to two small masterpieces by personal friends: Geoffrey Nicholson's The Great Bike Race, which uses the Tour de France to evoke a moving sense of the country as much as the event, and Arthur Hopcraft's The Football Man, a book of the Sixties whose value increases as each passing year brings further erosion of the special relationship between British working people and football. But the greatest source of joy for me in all the non- fiction writing about sport is A J Liebling. Joe Liebling wrote (mainly for the New Yorker) on many subjects, from war to food and drink to politics and the press, and never less than beautifully, never without making the end of a piece a cause for sadness in the reader. However, his most famous book is an incomparable collection of boxing pieces published in the Fifties but available in reprints, The Sweet Science. To read Liebling on racing or the fights is to feel you have been to the track or the ringside with the most erudite, witty and worldly companion you could ever hope to meet. He said he wrote faster than anybody who could write better and better than anybody who could write faster. He might have claimed much more. On boxing especially, he had God in his corner.

Hugh McIlvanney is chief sports writer of the 'Sunday Times'

(Photograph omitted)

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