Giant of rugby who came out on top in year of the underdog
Much like his physical stature itself, Paul O'Connell's memoir The Battle (Penguin Ireland, €25) towered over the sports publications of 2016. There was always going to be huge interest in a memoir by the former Ireland and Lions captain given his lofty status (both here and abroad) as one of rugby's giants, but the content (written with Alan English) turned out to be wholly engrossing to boot. If only Brian O'Driscoll's 2014 offering The Test had given such a thorough psychological profile of life at rugby's uppermost tier. The Battle duly won sports book of the year at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards and no one could argue.
Rugby, in many ways, dominated the Irish sporting landscape this year in terms of global reach. Successes by Connacht, for too long the runt of the litter, and the national side - who finally added that All Black notch to their bedpost - made international headlines. The Connacht story in particular had that romantic, underdog factor and was simply too special to not be committed to hardback format. Gerry Thornley's Front Up, Rise Up: The Official Story of the Rise of Connacht Rugby (Transworld Publishers Ltd, €22.99) was followed by John Fallon's lavishly illustrated Connacht: The Team That refused To Die (Inpho, €19.99). We'll say nothing of the fact that the latter was released the same day as head coach Pat Lam - a man rightly spoken of in saintly terms out west - announced his departure at the end of the season.
While Connacht's story is only beginning in a sense, Donal Lenihan has a lifetime in the game - playing, managing, analysing - to reflect on. This he poured, with typical thoughtfulness, into My Life In Rugby (Transworld Ireland, €24.99). Irish rugby is blessed not only with trophy-swooping female stars but also a keen and astute female viewership. In Eat Sweat Play (Pan MacMillan, €15.99), Guardian sports writer Anna Kessel looks at women and sport, why they need each other and how society can nurture more Niamh Briggses or Alison Millers.
The concept of the underdog coming of age was present elsewhere in the sporting world over the past 18 months. Leicester City represented so much to so many people when they defied the bookies odds and the financial muscle of their opponents to not only return to the Premier League after a decade of relegation fights, but then win the thing last season. Rob Tanner's 5000-1 The Leicester City Story: How We Beat The Odds to Become Premier League Champions (Icon Books, €10.99) sees the Leicester Mercury writer liaise with those within, as well as fans, to recount a saga that consumed onlookers and die-hards alike. Building a monument to the man's 20-year presence in English football, The Wenger Revolution: Twenty Years of Arsenal (Bloomsbury Sport, €27.99) finds Amy Lawrence and photographer Stuart MacFarlane chart the consistency and integrity (and fruitlessness, some would argue) Arsene Wenger has brought to the Gunners under his watch.
Kerry football might be in something of transition phase at the moment but it's only a matter of time before the ship is steadied. While that happens, two titles are sure to engross Kingdom dwellers. Four-time All-Ireland winner and a basketballer of renown, Kieran Donaghy is one of the game's most fascinating figures and a totem of the Kerry panel. Recently awarded Eir Sports Book of the Year, What Do You Think of That? My Autobiography (Trinity Mirror Sport Media, €18.99) is a candid self-portrait by Donaghy in the autumn of his playing days (Joe Brolly surely has a copy in his library). Another basketballer-cum-All-Ireland winner is Weeshie Fogarty, whose The Heart and Soul of Kerry Football (O'Brien Press, €19.99) is a concise exploration of Kerry footballing culture past and present by one of the county's top commentators and personalities.
The concept of healthy body, healthy mind has been rubbished in an age where our sporting stars are speaking up about demons, addiction and mental illness. Tyrone star Cathal McCarron saw his career all but destroyed by a chronic gambling addiction. Out of Control: How My Addiction Almost Killed Me and My Road to Redemption (Simon & Schuster Ltd, €14.99) is an unflinching self-examination by McCarron of the dark places his illness took him to, including work as a gay porn actor to fund his addiction. Similarly, Running Full Circle: Footprints On A Rocky Road To Redemption (Ballpoint Press, €14.99) finds Frank Greally give a cathartic account of the depression and alcoholism that eventually ruined a promising career in athletics. The Irish Independent columnist and Irish Runner editor displays great bravery and hard-won wisdom in this memoir.
2016 will always be synonymous with loss, and sport wasn't spared. Among the titanic icons the world bid farewell to this year was Muhammad Ali. Broadcasting institution Michael Parkinson gained much insight into the erstwhile Cassius Clay over the course of four in-depth interviews at key junctures in the charismatic pugilist's lifetime. Muhammad Ali: A Memoir (Hodder & Stoughton, €23.99) may not contain rigorous analysis about technique, athletic prowess or historic bouts but what of it. Ali's sheer force of character eventually could not be contained by the boxing ring - he was bigger than the sport itself. That, Parkinson urges us to consider, is a feat unlikely to ever be witnessed again.
For every example of a sporting life being unable to save an individual from harm, there is one that shows the benefits it can bring. Take John Kavanagh's Win or Learn: MMA, Conor McGregor and Me: A Trainer's Journey (Penguin Ireland, €18.99), where he takes us back to his youth in Rathfarnham and the bullying he was subjected to. A particularly bad beating after he intervened to help a woman under attack spurred Kavanagh on to learn self-defence.
From then on, martial arts wholly consumed him, and provided him not only with confidence but a career as one of the sport's most sought-after trainers and the coach of its biggest star, Conor McGregor.