The Year of the Sports Book

Andrew Baker investigates the explosion in the word game as our writers choose their favourite reads
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The Independent Online
Present buying for the sports fan used to be quite a challenge. Once the club shop had been exhausted relatives were left to trawl the shelves of bookshops for the smattering of annuals and biographies that represented the publishing world's condescending nod in the direction of sport. No longer. In the five years since the publishers Gollancz took a chance on an obscure memoir by an obscure Arsenal fan named Nick Hornby, sport has become a rich seam. Fever Pitch started an avalanche that has yet to abate.

"Publishers are falling over themselves for sports books," Annette Green, a literary agent with the respected West End firm A M Heath, reported. "And these days it is not just football. Cricket books sell, rugby books sell, and the writer who comes up with the authorised biography of Greg Rusedski is on to a winner."

The reasons are fairly straightforward: the revolution in television coverage has brought sport to a wider audience and sharpened public appetite. At the same time, sports stars have had to become more articulate, and their managers have exploited every opportunity for maximising exposure and income.

The best barometer for the sports publishing phenomenon is Sportspages, the bookshop established by John Gaustad a dozen years ago. The premises are on the Charing Cross Road in central London, long the spiritual heart of the nation's book trade. But just recently they have come to occupy rather more space on the famous thoroughfare. "We have tangible evidence of how sports books are taking off," Gaustad said. "We stock every title that is in print, and we have just increased our shop space by 50 per cent. The new, expanded premises are just as crammed as the old shop used to be a few years ago, so you can tell that there has been a really dramatic increase in the number of sports books."

The Edinburgh-based publishers Mainstream have been one of the most aggressive movers. "The company will be 20 years old next year," Bill Campbell, the Mainstream director who has led the push into sports publishing, said. "We published no sports books at all in our first seven years. Then we did a book called A Light In The North with Alex Ferguson, while he was still at Aberdeen. At the first signing session they had to call out the mounted police to control the crowds. That suggested that there was more than a little interest."

The present Mainstream list boasts 43 titles on football alone, but as Campbell pointed out, publishers are now expanding into other sports. "The sports book-buying public have become more sophisticated lately," he said. "The whole sports culture has shifted towards more reflective and investigative titles. It doesn't matter so much what the sport is, people are looking for a bloody good read."

There will always be buyers for the blockbuster biographies - Dalglish, Keegan, even Dickie Bird - but increasingly the discerning reader wants more than the sick-as-a-parrot genre of yore. "There has definitely been a move away from hero-worship," Campbell reckoned. "Away from the bland biography into something more thought-provoking."

The burgeoning boom brings with it both opportunities and dangers for would-be authors. On the plus side, the popularity of sport in general has opened up niche markets that even the most daring of big publishers will avoid. But writers who believe in their topic and are prepared to chance their arm - and their bank balance - can still succeed. "There is a freshness there from a constant stream of off-beat ideas," John Gaustad said. "A few months back we had an enquiry from a chap who wanted to produce an oral history of county cricket in the 1950s. He couldn't find a publisher so decided to go ahead and publish it himself, and as soon as it was out it was named as one of the sports books of the year."

But some of the less esoteric areas of sports publishing are in danger of becoming overcrowded. Rugby union has been the hottest topic to be explored this year, with potentially damaging consequences at the tills. "Rugby union is going through an explosion of titles," Gaustad said. "It has been getting sexier since the World Cup got so much attention, and since the Lions' tour of South Africa there have been so many books that to some extent they are killing each other off - I'm worried that people will be coming in, seeing them all and not being able to make their minds up which ones to buy, then going off with nothing."

So if you are looking for a reason to avoid buying your loved one the sports book they most crave this Christmas, remember that not being able to find it is no excuse. Better say you were spoiled for choice.

Left Foot In the Grave? by Garry Nelson

You have to feel sorry for Garry Nelson; twice shortlisted for the William Hill sports book of the year, twice pipped at the post. If anything, Left Foot In The Grave? is even more enlightening than his debut, Left Foot Forward. The format is the same, and the style. But Nelson has traded in early afternoons at Charlton for round-the-clock trouble as player-coach of Torquay United where tea and toast is a pre-match meal, stability is a one-month contract and the definition of an embarrassment of riches is a full set of fit subs on the bench. It is a rich playground for Nelson's sardonic wit.

This world has nothing to do with television rights and merchandising. It is all about patching up and making do, not so much hand-to-mouth as football on a saline drip. Alex Ferguson does not have to ring up the local council every morning to find out which dung-infested playing field the local heroes can train on nor, I dare say, has he had to stop the traffic on the Manchester ring road while he retrieves the goalposts which had fallen off the roof of the team van.

Yet the object is the same. Nelson and his co-manager, Kevin Hodges, are still consumed every hour of every day by a craving for three points on a Saturday. A promising start is punctured by a run of seven straight defeats. On Tuesday 3 December Nelson writes: "101/2 hours without a goal. I can sense an irrational logic possessing each and every one of us. We haven't scored in living memory. We can't score. We're never going to score again." They do, beating Scarborough 1-0. "The relief was orgasmic." The beauty is that Nelson cares so deeply, yet is aware of the folly and the futility. Above all, he can express it. Torquay slide to fourth from bottom of the whole league. The manager's office becomes a shrink's couch. If only motivation could be bottled and dispensed at 2.55pm every Saturday.

Wednesday 7 May is contract day. The players queue outside the door. Inside, a few careers are terminated. "The need is for new faces," Nelson writes. "Hence our lack of compassion towards many of the old faces - most of them on the shoulders of thoroughly good blokes." But that's football. Nelson soon joins the exodus, moving to the Professional Footballers' Association, a "briefcase man" as his daughter has it. When he misses the ritual, he will just have to read the book, like the rest of us. And remember.

Left Foot In The Grave? A View From The Bottom Of The Football League. By Garry Nelson (Collins Willow; pounds 14.99)

Andrew Longmore

Racers by Richard Williams

Those who recall his sparkling contributions to these pages will need no reminding that Richard Williams is one Britain's finest sports writers. Motor racing brings out the best in him, having been a passion since childhood, one indulged not only in frequent professional attendance at grands prix but in fast lappery at Brands Hatch in an old MG. Long experience as a spectator and a participant lend real insight to his writing on the sport.

Racers tells the story of three drivers: Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve. Most of those who follow the sport may feel that they have already read far too much about this trio, but they should not be discouraged: Williams is an acute observer, and asks the right questions, even when they may seem facetious or irrelevant. His portrait of Hill is particularly finely done, detailing and partially explaining the insecurity that seems to afflict the former world champion, no matter how impressive his achievements.

The greats of the past are here too: Nuvolari, both Ascaris (and a previously obscure third), Moss, and of course Fangio, for whom Williams's reverence is justifiably immense. The great Argentine brings out the anorak in the author, who finds himself on bended knee in a Buenos Aires shopping mall, peering at the chassis plate of a Maserati on display there.

Williams loves tracks with history, too: he is wonderfully evocative of the fading glories of Monza, almost falling victim to a crashing Benetton as he gets a little too close to the action while exploring. Monaco, too, is an inspiration. Williams recounts the tale of the girl with pale pink lipstick outside Oscar's Bar, to whom Stirling Moss would wave every lap. And he tells once more the story of how Ayrton Senna, distraught at crashing needlessly in a later contest, walked straight home to his apartment, took the phone off the hook and spent the evening in tears. Williams does not, however, explain the mystery of how Senna was able to get in to his home. Did he always carry his flat keys in the car?

Racers is not the equal of Williams's earlier book The Death of Ayrton Senna - it betrays its origins as a sequence of newspaper and magazine articles too much despite the elegant camouflage around. But anyone who has thrilled to the sound and sight of a grand prix car in full flight will find precious information here about the men who design, build and, most importantly of all, actually drive them.

Racers. By Richard Williams (Viking; pounds 16.99)

Andrew Baker

Glory, Glory Lions by Chris Dighton and Iain Spragg

It is too big to fit into a pair of tights, let alone a Christmas stocking, but that is entirely appropriate since Glory, Glory Lions - The Taming Of South Africa, by Chris Dighton and Iain Spragg, is a celebration (and a comprehensive record) of a huge achievement and an historic tour.

The beautifully produced and amply illustrated volume does not betray the fact that the editorial side of the whole project was turned around in just over a fortnight, a remarkable feat. The publishing took a little longer.

Dighton and Spragg, of Hayter's Sports News Agency, are to be congratulated on an unfussy, but well- written narrative, which informs and entertains. While the basic structure must needs conform to the chronology of the tour, the authors sensibly intersperse the Test reports and midweek wrap-ups with interesting insights and chapters of enlightenment, not least the opening focus on th Lions captain Martin Johnson by Aubrey Ganguly (another Hayter's man).

The Mirror rugby correspondent Colin Price's amusing contribution singles out some less obvious moments of the tour which encapsulate the spirit of the Lions party, a perfect example being the tale of Neil Jenkins, a waiter and a jaffa.

The words on their own, however, do not tell the whole story. History is also recorded by the astute camerawork of Dave Rogers and Alex Livesey. Their lenses missed nothing as they captured the gore and the gor blimey. The bloody injuries to Graham Rowntree and the Springbok Adrian Garvey are dramatic, while the emotion and realisation of a Test series won is perfectly illustrated in the shot of John Bentley's raised fist. Some of the portraits are stunning; the hooker Keith Wood's agony imprinted on his face during treatment for an injury; a pensive Johnson; a touching moment when Jeremy Guscott gently plants a kiss on his new baby Saskia.

The action shots take the reader to the point of impact, crunching tackles, towering leaps at the line-out, as well as a host of close-ups of the players, faces etched with determination as they take the ball into the enemy camp; and again the joy as Alan Tait leaps into Jenkins' arms after the First Test win. If the kicking coach Dave Alred's name is mis-spelt that is a minor (and solitary) transgression.

Glory, Glory Lions - The Taming Of South Africa. By Chris Dighton and Iain Spragg (Bookman Projects; pounds 9.99)

David Llewellyn

Four-Iron In The Soul by Lawrence Donegan

Lawrence Donegan's Four-Iron in the Soul came up in conversation among some regular journalists on the European golf tour last week. The unanimous opinion was that it was an enjoyable read, but there was one lurking doubt. To know the characters, the places, the obsessive, addictive lifestyle on tour is one thing; how well does the book come across to those who don't?

All you can say is that if you can satisfy those in the know, then you must be doing something right. This is the only golf book that made me laugh out loud all year and a perceived limited appeal can be the only reason it did not appear on the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. The winner, Simon Hughes' A Lot Of Hard Yakka was highly enjoyable, but no more so than Four-Iron in the Soul.

Donegan had always hankered after a career in sport. "So what if I didn't have the talent. That was the beauty of being a caddie - you didn't need talent." Carrying a golf bag along the fairways of the Open Championship is closer than most people ever get to top-class sport. Having Jack Nicklaus bump into you is as close as you can get to a top-class sportsman.

Donegan spends a season caddieing for Ross Drummond. They start out as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Donegan adamant that his boss will win a tournament, even though he has not done so in 19 years on tour. Eventually, despite Drummond having one of his best years, realisation dawns.

This is coupled with Donegan finally wearying of the caddie lifestyle, the nights in less than salubrious accommodation and 30-hour camper-van journeys across Europe with a group of Argentine caddies who don't speak English. A housing estate next to the M1, otherwise known as Collingtree Park, was the desolate venue of the dissolution of the partnership, though no sooner Donegan quits than he can't stand his man doing well without him.

Most of all, this is a brilliantly observed travelogue. Of the Club Fantazie, a brothel over the road from the Marianske Lazne course in the Czech Republic, Donegan writes: "How many golf clubs could boast a fully equipped, open- all-day shagging shop within sand-wedge distance: 'Come to the Czech Open, see Europe's top golfers and, as soon as you can decently leave, get across the road and have your putter straightened'. That would have filled the galleries."

Four-Iron In The Soul. By Lawrence Donegan (Viking; pounds 15.99)

Andy Farrell

Oh, Hampden In The Sun by Peter Burns and Pat Woods

To base an entire book - 214 pages, no less - around one football match is a rather curious undertaking, not to mention a very ambitious one. But, then, the phenomenon of the Old Firm happens to be a uniquely intriguing one. And, in the course of the historic rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, the result of the 1957 Scottish League Cup final at Hampden Park does stand out. Even today the figures "7-1" can be found daubed on buildings, bridges and toilet walls across the west of Scotland. It remains the biggest score recorded in a major British cup final, though many on the south side of Hadrian's stout defensive wall will doubtless be baffled by the lingering interest it has caused. That is where the authors of Oh, Hampden in the Sun so conspicuously succeed. The great Glasgow football divide, and the religious bigotry that caused it, is explored as fully as the famous Ce ltic triumph the book celebrates. The Glasgow Herald is quoted as informing its readers, after one Old Firm clash in 1954: "Many were absent because of the risks attached to attending a match between the clubs." Pat Woods, in fact, was one of those who missed the League Cup final of '57 because of the threat of violence. "My father was working that day," the Glasgow librarian and Celtic historian recalled. "He wouldn't let me go to Old Firm games by myself." Woo ds' co-author was not even born in 1957. However, Father Peter Burns, a Jesuit Priest based in Los Angeles, was inculcated in the legend of "the 7-1 game" at an early age. Oh, Hampden in the Sun (the title refers to the opening words to a popular Glasgow song, the second line of which was "Celtic 7 Rangers 1") is the story of more than a game. The liberal use of first-hand reflections paints a vivid social portrait ofGlas gow in the 1950s. The stars of the Celtic side are also exquisitely defined, especially Charlie Tully, who once pulled a complimentary ticket from his shorts and enquired of a mesmerised Aberdeen full-back: "Here, would you not be better watching from th e stand?" There is even the solution of what became known as "The case of the missing film". When BBC television failed to show Celtic's five second-half goals, Scotland's Catholics assumed a Protestant conspiracy. The truth was out there, though, and Burns and Woods duly found it: the lens cap had been left on the camera. Oh, Hampden in the Sun. By Peter Burns and Pat Woods (Mainstream; pounds 9.99)

Simon Turnbull

The History of Cricket by Peter Wynne-Thomas

It is customary to assume that cricket began as a pastoral game. Shepherds and their crooks, not to mention the vast amounts of spare time they accumulated while tending their flocks, feature prominently in this image. The historian and statistician Peter Wynne-Thomas destroys it in a few sentences.

Having dispensed with another fondly held notion that cricket dates back to medieval times, Wynne-Thomas concludes that it probably took shape in the Sussex Weald in the 16th and 17th centuries. Not among shepherds, but iron workers, for the Weald was then dotted with 200 foundries. Shepherds came later.

This may be the most challenging revelation in the somewhat portentously titled The History of Cricket - From The Weald to The World (as though all the other histories were mere pretenders) but the entire volume is compelling. Much of it treads old ground, but Wynne-Thomas is an assiduous and diligent researcher.

His style is hardly evocative but he reports the facts plainly and is not afraid to make a political point, as in his view that the series of matches between Gentlemen and Players which started in 1806 and ended in 1962 "must be regarded as the most divisive of any long-running sporting events held in England". He charts cricket's progress through the years, and is mildly dismissive of Hambeldon's much-feted contribution. He also reminds us that promotion and relegation in the County Championship was on the agenda in 1890. The meeting of the County Cricket Council's sub- committee, he reports, "disintegrated into a shambles".

If he is more fascinating on the formative years, Wynne-Thomas takes us at a neat gallop through Packer and modern fast bowling (non-judgmental on both) and declares that he is optimistic for the future. On the way he pays due regard to the prowess and fame of W G Grace, which is the subject of one of the year's other splendid cricket books, W G by Robert Low, at once worthy and full of fresh insight.

The lot of the modern cricketer was no better related than by Simon Hughes in A Lot of Hard Yakka, winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, but it is Wynne-Thomas's dedicated, approachable and lovingly designed work which lets us know precisely why cricket took its grip and will continue to prosper and fascinate among shepherds and many others.

The History of Cricket - From The Weald to The World by Peter Wynne-Thomas (The Stationery Office; pounds 25)

Stephen Brenkley

The Derby Stakes 1780-1997 by Michael Church

It was the opinion of the great Italian horseman Federico Tesio that the most important factor in the development of horse racing was neither human nor equine, but a length of wood placed at an arbitrary point on a hillside in Surrey. He was talking about the winning post for the Derby, and he was quite right. The race has, for more than 200 years, been the target for every owner, breeder, trainer and jockey, and its impact on events has been necessarily tremendous.

The Derby and its enduring appeal (I became hooked at the age of eight after seeing a newspaper picture of a handsome bay colt called Hard Ridden) have been celebrated in song, verse, on canvas and celluloid and in prose, but until now there has not been a book that could truly be described as a definitive history. This omission has, however, been put right with the publication of The Derby Stakes 1780-1997. The author, the one-time accountant Michael Church, has been a Derby devotee since childhood, and this tremendous tome is a true labour of love.

It contains an unprecedented amount of diligently and originally researched information. It tells the stories and subsequent fates of each individual Derby winner from Diomed to Benny The Dip, complete with their pedigrees and breeding records. No aspect of the race that could be analysed is left unanalysed. And the book is not only stuffed with facts and a selection of excellent photographs, but is a beautiful object and tactile joy, with its gold-blocked cover and smooth, high-quality, imaginatively presented pages.

At pounds 72 it is expensive, but for your money you get, literally, a great deal. It is published as a numbered edition of 1,314 (which represents six dedications to each of the 219 winners) and previous limited-edition runners from the Church stable have significantly increased in value. And unlike a fine wine, it can be enjoyed in the laying down.

This book must become the standard reference on its subject, but is not just one for wearers of zip-up waterproof jackets with hoods. It cannot fail to delight anyone with an interest in the sport's human and equine heroes and villains and its development, heritage and continuity. Books on racing are plentiful; good books on racing are not, but The Derby Stakes incontrovertibly fits into the latter category.

The Derby Stakes 1780-1997. By Michael Church (Racing Post Publications; pounds 72)

Sue Montgomery

Byker To Broadway by John Jarrett

The ferocity of the British libel laws tends to ensure that boxing books usually fall into two categories: either the harmless, ghost-written "cradle to the championship" autobiography of the latest Sky Sports star, or else the "great fights, great fighters" compilation, of which I have produced more than my share.

I suspect the lawyers gutted the best-written boxing book of the year, Jonathan Rendall's This Bloody Mary, which leaves it a frustrating read for those who know something of the stories it omits about the author's involvement in the business.

John Jarrett, a Newcastle fight fan and Boxing Board official who moonlights as a contributor to the trade press, was not under any such handicap in the writing of his privately printed biography of the 1930s featherweight champion Tommy Watson, Byker To Broadway. He writes with a fan's enthusiasm about Watson, a big figure in North-eastern boxing history, who held the British title from 1932 to 1934 and lost a close decision to Kid Chocolate in Madison Square Garden, New York, for the world championship.

It is a labour of love, but none the worse for that, and Jarrett does not shrink from recounting the down side of his subject's career, or the heavy price it exacted in later life.

He has done a first-class research job, and makes intelligent use of liberal extracts from contemporary sources to give a flavour of the period and of the oddly stilted style of 1930s journalism, saying things like: "When I put my fists up to Nel Tarleton I will do so with confidence, and I will not forget for whom and what I am fighting."

The book's flaw is that it does not ask hard enough questions about his management - how, for example, could he in his own words have "come home with exactly one dime in my pocket" from his world title challenge? And why did his managers work him so hard? He boxed 16 rounds against Francois Machtens on 28 December 1930 in London, travelled to Newcastle to knock out Jim Travis in the 12th of a scheduled 15 the following night, and won a third 15-rounder in London on 4 January.

But that is a minor quibble: overall, Jarrett can take pride in a handsomely produced 310-page volume which does belated justice to one of Britain's forgotten sporting heroes.

Byker to Broadway. By John Jarrett (Bewick Press, 132 Claremont Road, Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear NE26; pounds 9.95)

Harry Mullan

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