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Sports books 2016: The well-crafted works that trumped hasty cash-ins

Sports books
Watching the Wheels; The Artist; Stroke of Genius; For the Glory: the Life of Eric Liddell; My Turn

They say that journalism is the first draft of history, but these days the hasty cash-in book isn’t far behind. Leicester City’s triumph at odds of 5,000-1 in football’s Premier League was one of the finest sporting tales of this or any year. Barely six months on, it has inspired a volume of literature that would put Fanny Brawne to shame.

Leicester-themed books were hitting the shops within days. Unsurprisingly, many were not very good. There isn’t much point chronicling something so fresh in the memory; you may as well hand out copies of last week’s newspaper. Great events demand perspective, and perspective demands distance.

Fearless

Perhaps the only Leicester book that really understood this was Jonathan Northcroft’s Fearless (Headline, £20). His stylish narrative delves deeper than the stock themes of heart, spirit and long-ball football, and argues that it was, above all, a triumph of the collective over the individual; the slow build over the quick fix. 

From Nowhere (Ebury, £20) is the autobiography of Leicester’s rags-to-riches striker Jamie Vardy. He is difficult to admire, particularly when he racially abuses an Asian man in a casino. But a visceral honesty distinguishes his book from the usual ghostwritten shades of beige. What emerges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident, is an angry and flawed human, but a human all the same.

Joey Barton could have used a little of Vardy’s humility. No Nonsense (Simon & Schuster, £20), the memoir of football’s self-appointed philosopher-thug, was finally delivered after Barton had fired two ghostwriters and then tried and failed to write the book himself. He quotes liberally from Immanuel Kant, Cicero and American Indian wisdom, and describes himself, without evident irony, as a “terrorist in the eyes of authority” and a “freedom fighter in the eyes of fans”. He feels like David Brent, but with worse jokes.

Joey Barton: No Nonsense

My Turn (Macmillan, £20) is the last testament of the peerless Johan Cruyff, who died in March. Preoccupied with settling old scores rather than expanding on his vision of beautiful football, it feels like an interesting artefact rather than an important document. A more rewarding companion piece is Andrés Iniesta’s The Artist (Headline, £9.99). The Barcelona midfielder is the heir to Cruyff’s genius in many ways, and this part-autobiography, part-biography goes a long way to demystifying one of modern football’s most secretive players.

The England football side plumbed new depths in 2016, with defeat to Iceland followed by the loss of not one but two managers. In Fifty Years of Hurt (Bantam, £20), Henry Winter tells the story of England’s barren half-century since winning the World Cup in 1966. A former football correspondent of this newspaper, Winter’s access to an exhaustive range of A-list interviewees is admirable, but analytical thought feels a bit thin at times.

Fifty Years of Hurt

The year’s best cricket book is devoted to a single photograph. Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) examines the 1905 action shot of the Australian Victor Trumper, one of the most famous images in the history of cricket, and, through it, tells the story of early photography, Australia’s budding nationhood and how we perceive athletes. Haigh may be a journalist, but there is a historian’s rigour to his work, which stands out in an age where sports books are often indistinguishable from lengthy newspaper articles. 

It is a tribute to cricket writing’s enduring breadth that it can also accommodate Six Machine by Chris Gayle (Viking, £16.99), in which the crowd-pleasing Jamaican discusses batting, parties and what he so tactfully describes as his “woman adventures”.

The End of the Road

The goldfish bowl of elite sport affects its participants in different ways. When Damon Hill, the 1996 Formula One world champion, was 15, his father Graham – himself a former world champion – died in an air crash. In the macabre, brilliant Watching the Wheels (Macmillan, £20), Hill recounts how that night made and then unmade his life. His racing career was driven by an urge to reincarnate his father by emulating him. In retirement, the ensuing identity crisis pushed him into depression. The book slows down for the horrible bits, like a driver rubbernecking at an accident in the opposite carriageway.

In a year of match-fixing in tennis, doping in athletics and corruption in football, it is just as well to remind ourselves that being an athlete is no bed of roses. The End of the Road (Bloomsbury, £18.99) by Alasdair Fotheringham is a gripping account of the 1998 Tour de France, wrecked by the doping scandal that would become known as the “Festina affair”. Anna Kessel’s Eat Sweat Play (Macmillan, £12.99) exposes endemic sexism at all levels of sport – and features an interview with Mel C of the Spice Girls, which frankly would have improved every single book here.

For the Glory: the Life of Eric Liddell

But in an Olympic year, it is fitting that an Olympic tale should be the most uplifting. Which is not to say that For the Glory: the Life of Eric Liddell (Doubleday, £20) by Duncan Hamilton is a happy story. At the 1924 Olympics, Liddell won the 400m, a story immortalised in Chariots of Fire. The devout Scot then went to Asia as a missionary, where in 1943 he was captured by the Japanese. His stoicism earned the admiration of the entire camp. 

For the Glory is wonderful: painstakingly researched, intelligently structured and written with flair. It is also a bulwark against the hasty cash-in,  the demand for instant exegesis. Why settle for a first draft when you can have the final word?

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