With the summer now officially here and exams over for many of us, we at We Are Free Agents thought it would be good to compile a wee list of our favourite sports books to read over the next couple of months. We asked a few of our contributors and friends of the site for their recommendations. Here’s what they have to offer. Enjoy!
(Callum Carsson, freelance journalist and Glasgow Rocks expert)
I first read this book when I was around 11 or 12 years old, and it is still the best book about football I have ever read. I think I have read it about 4 or 5 times overall. It was this book that first instilled in me a soft spot for the Catalan giants, which of course has only increased in recent years. It was first published in 1998, long before both the success of the Rijkaard era and the Guardiola era which has just drawn to a close. The book covers the entire history of Barca up until that point but still Burns manages to treat each period with the analysis and respect it deserves. A particular stand-out is the period covered from the end of the civil war to General Franco’s death in the 1970s. When reading these chapters, you get a sense of why Barcelona became “Mes Que Un Club” for the Catalans, the only symbol of identity they had. This of course made the club a target for Franco and his regime and in an era where so many supporters feel their clubs are victimised, this really puts things in perspective. Few club can have a story to compare with the Di Stefano scandal, whereby the Argentinian turned out for Barca and was set to sign for them when the authorities intervened and stopped the move and well… the rest is history. Burns, who has also written books on Diego Maradona and David Beckham’s time in Spain, manages to create an enthralling, rich portrait of Barcelona’s ascent from small club started by English and Swiss emigrés to the social phenomenon that it is today.
Rising from the ashes of the Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough disasters the English Premier League has become one of the dominant forces in European and world football. David Conn looks beyond the superficial success of the league’s teams to the financial motivations behind the inception of the Premiership. Insights into how the Taylor Report was manipulated so big clubs could increase their money-grabbing, how the promised financial support for lower league clubs has dwindled, and how unscrupulous businessmen have taken advantage of much-loved community institutions makes for bleak reading. But the point is not to put football to the sword: it’s that clubs that mean so much to so many people deserve better than the likes of Sir Dave Richards, Peter Ridsdale and Ken Bates. If you ever wondered how English football got itself in such a terrible state of moral and financial degradation, this book will show you where to point the finger.
(Alan Mahon, We Are Free Agents contributor)
Playing Gaelic Football outside of Ireland means that I routinely get posed the rather difficult question of what exactly the sport is. The difficulty of explaining the sport’s rules and how it is played (the solo, the fist-pass, the scoring system, and so on) pales in comparison with the difficulty of explaining what the sport means. In explaining Gaelic Football’s meaning we can discard the official rulebook of the GAA and look instead to Harte – the autobiography of legendary Tyrone manager Mickey Harte. As a representative of the game there are few that rival him. He guided a small Ulster county to 3 All-Ireland Championships between 2003 and 2008. But for all the greater glory, Harte’s book explains that Gaelic football is all about the passion of playing for your parish, your club and your county. Gaelic football is an amateur sport and as such it rests on the hard work of proud men and women in their communities, divided from each other by local patriotism but united by the love of the game. Harte’s life-story is one of public triumph and of personal agony, his achievements reconcile all that is particular and universal within Gaelic football and is my recommendation as the first point of reference to anyone curious about Ireland’s indigenous sport which sustained by passion alone.
Aggression, hunger and sheer bloody-mindedness dominate Roy Keane’s autobiography. The biggest selling sports book of 2003, delicately ghost-written by acclaimed sports writer Eamon Dunphy, takes us into the black heart of a “winning mentality”.
From his humble beginnings at Cobh Ramblers, to his short spell under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forrest (the great manager referred to him as “Irishman”, never by his name), to his incarnation as one of the world’s finest midfielders, Keane is direct and forthright throughout. Each one of his adversaries is defeated – Jack Charlton, Alfe Inge-Haaland, Mick McCarthy in particular – and crushed by Keane’s masculine assertiveness. Indeed, it’s the book’s final chapter that bristles as Keane dissects his bitter fall-out with Mick McCarthy. Deftly written, it bursts from simmering resentment into an incandescent tirade. It makes for astonishing reading. Keane was heavily criticised in the immediate aftermath of the book – he was handed a large suspension and fine from the FA after the admission he deliberately injured Haaland – but remains unrepentant. Does it matter? Of course not. Roy Keane cares not what you think.
For so many people following a football team is not so much about the love of a team and what they represent, but a combination of said love in conjunction with a distinct hatred of another. Celtic and Rangers will probably testify that, as will Boca Juniors and River Plate and AC and Inter Milan.
The Edinburgh derby between Hearts and Hibernian may be on a smaller scale, but the bitterness that oozes between the two teams is visible, as seen in Hearts’ celebrations following their Scottish Cup win over their rivals just recently. Smith, a diehard Hibbee, crosses the divide by deciding to do the unthinkable and follow Hearts for the 2004/05 season. His book documents his experiences of Tynecastle and away days, and the heartache of not witnessing Hibernian’s finest season in recent years (they finished third under Tony Mowbray, Derek Riordan and Gary O’Connor were at their best). For fans of Scottish football, Smith’s writings may not be anything new, but a very good read nonetheless.
Two words seem to sum up this book: “contradiction” and “catharsis”. The book itself is based primarily on a year in James Willstrop’s life as a squash professional, something that not enough people know about.
The surprise, to me at least, and it’s acknowledged by the James, is that the focus on that is somewhat lost as the author finds himself using the opportunity to put down on paper some of his demons and the book becomes, in many ways, a personal catharsis. I think that adds to the richness of the book and makes it more interesting to those who are not as close to the sport as I am. He covers the death of his mother in quite a great deal of detail and he clearly was very close to her, just as he is with his father.
Anyone who reads this and thinks being an elite athlete comes naturally will be in for a rude awakening. What I found doubly interesting was both the similarities and the contrasts with Jonah Barrington’s legendary “Murder on the Squash Court” in terms of the psychology of the training and the volume and pain endured and James acknowledges Jonah’s contribution to his development in the book.