Academic writing, not always unfairly, gets a bad rap. But the best combines the passion of the true enthusiast, a forensic eye for evidence and an ability to tell a compelling story. Those qualities are epitomised by Tony Collins’s The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby (Bloomsbury). Collins recounts the global sweep of the sport’s history, including both codes (union and league) and the North American variants, using original sources to cut through myth and hearsay, and revealing an instinct for telling anecdote and detail. His authoritative account stands with David Goldblatt’s football history The Ball Is Round. Similar qualities show in Goldblatt’s The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football
(Penguin), the recent victory of which in the William Hill sports book of the year award reflected a shift in the judges’ emphasis from the personal to the analytical.
That rebalancing worked against books that might previously have won. Martin Fletcher’s 56: The Story of the Bradford Fire (Bloomsbury) is a compelling memoir of a 12-year-old who lost his brother, father, grandfather and uncle in the football fire of 1985, but it is made remarkable by his adult quest to establish its causes, and should, if there is justice, bring the real prize of reopening the inquiry.
A Man’s World (Simon & Schuster) by Guardian writer and two-time winner of the William Hill award, Donald McRae, offers a sympathetic, superbly researched retelling of the life of Emile Griffith, who fought more world championship rounds than any other boxer, despite really only ever wanting to be a milliner. Griffith lived a parallel life as an “out” homosexual. At his most famous match, in 1962, his opponent Benny Paret made homophobic remarks to him before the bout, which Griffith won by knockout. Paret died 10 days later from his injury.
If a theme runs through this year’s books, it is the circumstances and the psychology, sometimes abnormal, that make winners. Speed Kings (Bantam) – another book by a Guardian sportswriter, Andy Bull – takes Eddie Eagan, the only winner of gold medals at the the winter and summer Olympics in different events, as its main focus, but finds so much of interest among his rumbustious colleagues in the 1932 bobsleigh team that Eagan soon becomes a subordinate character.
Mixed martial arts champion Ronda Rousey’s My Fight/Your Fight (Century), co-written with her sister, Maria Burns Ortiz, is so vivid an account of a ferociously driven competitive temperament as to worry the reader about the psychological effect of her losing her undefeated UFC champion title last month in what was arguably, before Tyson Fury’s victory against Wladimir Klitschko, 2015’s greatest sporting shock.
If history is rarely written by or about losers, Mark Turley’s Journeymen (Pitch) triumphs in breaking the mould, explaining not only the boxing practices that trap professional “opponents” as career losers, but the compulsion that keeps them coming back to the ring.
Addictiveness also figures as a constant undercurrent in Michael Calvin’s Living on the Volcano (Century), in which in-depth interviews with football managers build an authoritative picture of what it is like to work in a world where “common sense is not very common” and “there is a lot of undiagnosed depression”, but in which most of those who are sacked dream only of returning.
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Winners emerge from context and culture. William Fotheringham’s Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling (Yellow Jersey) shows that a now-fading Breton grassroots cycling culture was as important as a desperate will to win in making France’s last Tour de France champion. Robert Dineen’s Kings of the Road (Aurum) engagingly juxtaposes the writer’s own battles as a cyclist with those of British champions such as Tom Simpson, Beryl Burton and Nicole Cooke, whose most dangerous opponent was often officialdom.
In athletics, Richard Moore’s The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory (Yellow Jersey) asks the tough, necessary questions about drugs, but finds more answers in a vibrant national athletics culture; while Simon Lister’s Fire in Babylon (Yellow Jersey) evokes times when West Indian cricketers were similarly dominant.
German football boasts not only the World Cup, but superb writers. Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot (Yellow Jersey) is a fine account of how Germany reclaimed hegemony, while Ronald Reng’s Matchdays (Simon & Schuster), elegantly translated by the novelist James Hawes, tells the story of the Bundesliga through the life of his own worst enemy, player turned coach Heinz Höher.
Another footballing age emerges from the translation by Andrew Clark and Matthew Watson-Broughton of György Szöllősi’s Puskás: Madrid, Magyars and the Amazing Adventures of the World’s Greatest Goalscorer (Freight), a short, evocative biography of the Hungarian genius. And a modern tale is passionately told in Euan McTear’s chronicling of a tiny Basque club’s rise to Spain’s top level in Eibar the Brave (Pitch). Nearer to home, but just as heartfelt, is Sky Sports reporter Bryn Law’s Zombie Nation Awakes (St David’s), the story of how Wales qualified for Euro 2016.
One hundred years after his death, cricketer WG Grace remains a formidable challenge for biographers, and Richard Tomlinson’s exhaustively researched Amazing Grace (Little, Brown) gets us closer to both the man and the cricketer than before, demolishing myths in considerable style.
One insight is that WG was more bookish than the simple soul of legend. He might have enjoyed Steve James’s The Art of Centuries (Bantam), which combines anecdote and insight drawn from personal experience into a fine book on the art of batsmanship.
WG would certainly have deplored the deaths detailed in Stephen Cooper’s revealing history of first world war rugby, After the Final Whistle (History), and, though delighted to see his game spread to new territories, would have been as baffled as Tim Wigmore and Peter Miller, authors of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts (Pitch), by the indifference, at best, of the game’s rulers to such growth.
Two former rugby players offered decent fiction based on the game. John Daniell’s The Fixer (Upright, NZ) has a disturbingly plausible French-based setting, while Eddie Butler applies a quizzically satirical eye and ingenious plotting to Wales in Gonzo Davies: Caught in Possession (Gomer). Novelist Philip Kerr, author of the superb Berlin Noir series, meanwhile brings crisp plotting and characterisation to football in his Scott Manson thrillers, January Window,
Hand of God and False Nine (Head of Zeus).
• Huw Richards writes on rugby union and cricket for the International New York Times and teaches sports journalism at London College of Communication and Brighton University.
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