The stories behind the stars of sporting excellence - The best sports books of 2018
Our pick of this year's books from GAA legends to a portrait of Tiger and a script for a boxer
GAME CHANGER – Cora Staunton (Transworld)
THEME: Undoubtedly, the country’s most famous ladies Gaelic footballer, Cora Staunton put her story together with award-winning author Mary White and their collaboration has yielded an interesting read.
The book charts the Mayo star’s astonishing rise up the ranks of ladies football, how the seeds for her love of the game were sown in early childhood while playing with her brothers and friends, and also recalling the many obstacles she encountered along the way – including how she coped with tragedy, particularly the death of her mother from breast cancer when she was just 16. Her incredible resilience and dedication to her sporting excellence shine through.
VERDICT: This book was always going to attract widespread attention because Cora possesses such a high profile. She is certainly open and forthright, outlining how rumours about her sexuality affected her life, but you still get the impression there was potential for more – particularly in the wake of this summer’s controversial falling-out with Mayo ladies manager Peter Leahy.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? This should appeal to a wide audience – male and female, young and old – and not just sports fans.
Her story is sure to inspire the next generation of ladies footballers as it lays on the line how hurdles are overcome and challenges faced down.
STAR RATING: ***
FIGHTER – Andy Lee (with Niall Kelly) (Gill Books)
THEME: Ostensibly about Andy Lee’s journey to becoming WBO Middleweight champion in 2014 but really about the three great loves in his life: boxing, his late coach Emanuel Steward, and his wife Maud.
This is a remarkably tender book about the most brutal and exposing of sports. The deft touch of an excellent ghost-writer means it doesn’t pull its punches yet still reflects Lee’s thoughtful, gentle persona which breaks multiple stereotypes about his background and sport.
VERDICT: Superb. A book that eschews clichés and smashes stereotypes about sports autobiographies.
Gives great insight too into the physical feeling of boxing, and the complicated contractual rituals of the professional game, while always remaining lyrical and absorbing.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? Huge. Lee’s passion and descriptive talents means that you don’t need to like boxing to read this but may well be fascinated by it when you’ve finished.
Star Rating: *****
THE HURLERS – THE FIRST ALL-IRELAND CHAMPIONSHIP AND THE MAKING OF MODERN HURLING – PAUL ROUSE (Penguin)
THEME: In a year when hurling soared to new heights in Irish cultural life, Rouse charts the development of the sport in the late 19th century when the game was struggling to survive and its development was shrouded in political intrigue.
At its heart, this is the story of the 1887 All-Ireland championship which actually didn’t take place until 1888, but no matter. This is not just about a game – although the details therein, including a drunken detour – are captivating enough.
VERDICT: With an ever-increasing number of misery memoirs flooding book-shelves, this is a read that encapsulates more than just the evolution of a great national game but an acute assessment of the historical, social and religious circumstances which shaped it. Entertaining and informative.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? From students of history to fans of hurling and beyond.
Star Rating: *****
DRIVEN – Rosemary Smith (with Ann Ingle) (Harper Collins)
THEME: Dubliner Smith, who famously won the Tulip Rally in 1965 in her trusty Hillman Imp ahead of 179 other cars, was not just a trailblazer for female rally drivers but a pioneer for all in Irish motorsport.
This book charts her evolution from model and fashion-designer to professional rally-driver and not only includes her many hair-raising experiences behind the wheel but also charts her sometimes turbulent personal life, including a disastrous marriage and money troubles.
VERDICT: A rollicking read. Smith once solved the problem of broken pistons by reversing down the Khyber Pass – all 33 miles of it!
The title ‘Driven’ captures not only her fearlessness and ruthlessness as a competitor but her total lack of self-pity when faced with any crises, in driving or in life.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? Really broad appeal because Smith’s life story and driving career are so action-packed and she is such an engaging storyteller, right up to the day in 2017 when, aged 79, she became the oldest person to drive a Formula One car.
Star Rating: ****
TIGER WOODS – JEFF BENEDICT AND ARMEN KETEYIAN (Simon & Schuster)
THEME: A portrait of Tiger Woods that attempts to decode the enigma of one of sport’s most compelling figures. Once considered unknowable, it’s a weighty tome (512 pages) that succeeds in throwing light into the darker corners of Woods’ life and his well-chronicled fall from grace.
While stymied by the confidentiality agreements that prevented his inner circle and employees from speaking on the record, Benedict and Keteyian conducted over 400 interviews, going the extra mile to tell the stories that reveal what drove Woods’ parents and how their foibles manifested themselves in the creation of an ultimately reluctant, and deeply flawed, American icon.
VERDICT: More than a portrait of Woods the golfer and athlete, this is a compelling and immensely readable portrait of a life that has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy. A forensic and brutally revealing look at the man behind the myth and the boy that was left behind.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? Big for golf fans but also a page-turner for anyone interested in Woods’ bizarre upbringing, his ascent to global fame, his public disgrace and the tools that have allowed him to overcome health problems, including sex and drug addiction, to make a triumphant return to winning ways this season.
Star Rating: ****
ENDURE – ALEX HUTCHINSON (William Morrow)
THEME: A rigorously researched examination of the science of endurance and peak performance, ‘Endure’ traces mankind’s effort to understand human fatigue and explains how its frontiers are constantly being pushed back. From two-hour marathons to summiting Mount Everest, Hutchinson takes a deep dive into the surprisingly elastic limits of human performance and presents the latest research that athletes of all levels can – if they’re that way inclined – use to bolster their own performance.
VERDICT: The kind of read that could easily get bogged down in lab-speak, scientific mumbo-jumbo if the author wasn’t so well-versed in translating it to ordinary schmucks (hands in the air on that front). Few in this department are as adept as Hutchinson, a Canadian writer with the intellect to decode the dizzying landscape of exercise science and the writing gifts to lead the rest of us through its maze to enlightenment. A magnificent work.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? If you’re the type to test your endurance – be it in a Park Run, the local pool or by climbing mountains – you’ll not only be educated and informed by toeing the line to read this, you’ll also be entertained along the way.
Star rating: *****
THE LOST SOUL OF EAMONN MAGEE – EAMONN MAGEE (with Paul D Gibson) (Mercier Press)
THEME: The former Belfast pro insists his life isn’t “a book but a f****** movie script” in the prologue – and this authorised biography has more than enough big-screen material.
Magee has been shot twice, imprisoned, had his family held captive and tragically lost his son in a knife attack while growing up during the Troubles and living in Ardoyne. He recalls his struggles with drink, drugs and paramilitaries – with the help of writer Paul D Gibson – as he progresses from the amateur to professional ranks.
His storied career sees him crowned welterweight champion of the world while “drinking the bar dry” before fighting Ricky Hatton for a WBU title.
VERDICT: Magee’s story is shockingly honest and Belfast native Gibson expertly guides the reader through Northern Ireland’s darkest period. It is fully deserving of both its William Hill and eir Sport book awards.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? Not for the faint-hearted but this is a gripping tale that transcends boxing, sport and Ulster’s chequered past.
STAR RATING: ****
ON THE SEVENTH DAY – EDITED BY JOHN GREENE (Mercier Press)
THEME: This is a novel publication celebrating 30 years of sports writing from the pages of the Sunday Independent. It’s a collector’s item, featuring some of the greats of the genre in their prime, including Paul Kimmage, Eamon Dunphy, Eamonn Sweeney and David Walsh.
Highlights include Dunphy’s remarkable and tender insight into George Best, composed over an afternoon the two spent drinking champagne in a London pub, and Paul Kimmage’s opus, Inside The Team That Mick Built, the story of Ireland’s memorable win over a star-studded Holland team in September 2001.
This is the opening chapter of the book and sets the tone for a stunning collection of articles spanning the years from Euro 88 to this year’s World Cup.
Other featured writers include Joe Brolly, Colm O’Rourke, Brendan Fanning, Marie Crowe, Anthony Cronin, Dion Fanning, Richard Sadlier, Cliona Foley, and Mick Doyle, covering GAA, soccer, rugby, golf, athletics, horse racing, boxing, snooker and more.
VERDICT: ‘On The Seventh Day’ shows how truly great sports writing will never have any difficulty standing the test of time. In its pages, there is anger, joy, humour, sadness, pity, tragedy, beauty; there are memories, controversies and celebrations; tales of addiction and tales of redemption.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? The pieces were chosen by Sunday Independent sports editor John Greene and he has managed to strike the right balance. This anthology has a wide appeal among sports fans – but even those who rarely find themselves picking up a sports book will be pleasantly surprised. Well worth your time.
Star Rating: *****
AT ALL COSTS – DAVY FITZGERALD (with Vincent Hogan) (Gill and MacMillan)
THEME: Fitzgerald is one of the most divisive figures in the game of hurling. His intensity and often voracious encouragement of his teams is appealing to some and off-putting to others but in this telling of the story behind the effervescent man on the sideline, Fitzgerald and Vincent Hogan address everything you could have wondered and more.
As well as learning of what transpired in Fitzgerald’s deepest thoughts in what were very public incidents in the sporting sphere, most notably his on-field altercation with Tipperary hurler Jason Forde, there is also insight into the personal battles faced by the All-Ireland-winning player and manager away from the cameras. It offers a glimpse at the health issues faced by Fitzgerald and the feelings of betrayal he developed towards former team-mates and friends for their public commentary on his management.
VERDICT: Hogan expertly handles, with sensitivity, the deeply personal problems that Fitzgerald faced which was doubly important given the still-existing stigma surrounding mental health illnesses. On the field, there is a level of intrigue developed in learning of the detail involved in inter-county management in this age.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? Obviously one that will interest GAA followers but the wide-ranging topics discussed throughout the book travel far from the pitches and stadiums of the country. A story for all readers, engagingly told.
Star Rating: ****
THE OBSESSION – SEáN CAVANAGH (with Damian Lawlor) (Black and White Publishing)
THEME: Cavanagh recalls his footballing exploits with the help of broadcaster and journalist Lawlor, and the journey which saw him claim three All-Irelands with his native Tyrone.
The Moy clubman learned the game growing up during the Troubles, which would see him move from Coalisland to the Armagh border. The 35-year-old, who hung up his boots last year, also details his relationship with legendary Red Hand manager Mickey Harte, his struggles with arthritis and the media pressure that comes with football stardom.
VERDICT: Cavanagh’s account of being dropped by Harte during the 2009 championship following illness is intriguing but the author takes his time to give new insight.
READERSHIP POTENTIAL? All of Gaeldom and Tyrone football.
STAR RATING: ***