Winning selection from SportsBooks

Finding a publisher for a sports book idea that does not immediately guarantee ringing tills or multiple internet sales has seldom been tougher, which is why fans of the more esoteric -- or at least less mainstream -- contributions to the genre should be grateful for the work of the Cheltenham-based outfit, SportsBooks.

Formed in 1995 by former Daily Express athletics correspondent Randall Northam, the original purpose of SportsBooks was to publish the yearbook of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians, of which Athletics 2010 is the latest edition.

But it grew to become much more, each year giving a chance to titles that would not necessarily appeal to mass-market audiences but which nonetheless warrant a place on the bookstore shelves, books that in their own view “deserve to be out in the marketplace.”

The acquisition of the Nationwide Football Annual (formerly the News of the World Annual and the world’s oldest football book) has helped SportsBooks maintain this reputation and this year’s catalogue is no exception.

Football titles include Stan Anderson: Captain of the North, the autobiography of the only player to have captained Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, which paints a picture of life as a professional footballer in the 1950s north-east, where the game offered some an escape from a life spent underground in the area’s massive mining industry.

Anderson, a midfield player known for his passing ability, was a member of the England squad at the 1962 World Cup in Chile. He went on to manage Middlesbrough, Doncaster Rovers and Bolton Wanderers in England and AEK Athens in Greece, retiring from full-time involvement in football in 1981 and devoting his next 20 years to caring for his wife, Marjorie, a victim of crippling arthritis.

He kept in touch with football through scouting, joining the company of (mostly) men who trek up and down the country checking out opposing teams and checking up on potential signings for their respective employees.

Their world is described in another SportsBooks title, Scouting for Moyes: The Inside Story of a Football Scout, an engaging and humorous account of the 2009-10 English football season as witnessed by Les Padfield, a scout for Premier League club Bolton Wanderers.

Padfield was himself a magnet for talent spotters as a schoolboy footballer. His dreams of playing for a living remained just dreams but, after establishing a career in teaching, he returned to the game to help unearth other young hopefuls, at first in the London area where he lived but ultimately around the world.  The witty title was inspired by his first assignment, back in 1996, to watch Crystal Palace play Tottenham on behalf of Preston North End, then managed by David Moyes.

The football list also offers The Boys from the Black Country, Mark Gold’s history of Wolverhampton Wanderers, which takes the reader through the rollercoaster story of the Molineux men with an entertaining lightness, even speculating on what sort of terrace chant the great English composer and devoted Wolves fan Sir Edward Elgar might come up with had he been alive today.

SportsBooks has also given an opportunity for cricket literature to gain a timely addition in the shape of The Victory Tests: England v Australia 1945, written by Mark Rowe, a journalist and historian, who has put together a detailed and fascinating story of the 1945 series between England and an Australian Services side containing most of the country’s cricketing greats.  Although not officially contested for The Ashes, the series attracted massive crowds, reflecting the atmosphere in a country desperate for a return to normal life after six years of conflict and hardly caring about the result.



High-rollers City not yet in the big league

Who is the most expensive signing in the history of the Premier League? 

Correct. Robinho at £32.5 million, signed in September 2008 from Real Madrid and symbolic of the age of excess into which Manchester City had been drawn by the arrival of Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi as a force in English football.

But is he really the costliest player, in relative terms, compared with those blessed -- or otherwise -- with the label previously? City may be the richest club in the world and their spending may have soared past £300 million but, in real terms, they have some way to go before they can be regarded as the biggest spenders in the Premier League.

So say the authors of a fascinating analysis of transfer spending since English football was elevated to a new financial status when the Premier League was born in 1992.

Using an innovative formula that converts transfer fees from any year to current values, Pay As You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era offers a whole host of data comparing the performances of clubs and managers in relation to expenditure so that judgments can be made over the relative merits of successes achieved in different seasons.

By the Pay As You Play formula, Robinho rates a mere 26th in the list of most expensive signings, well down on the previous record holder, Andriy Shevchenko of Chelsea, whose £30.8 million move from AC Milan in 2006 is reckoned to be worth £53.5 million at today’s values.

In fact, 11 of the top 12 most expensive transfers in Premier League history involve either Chelsea or Manchester United, the exception being Alan Shearer, whose £15 million switch from Blackburn to Newcastle in 1996 would be worth almost £40 million today.

Some of the data simply confirms what we knew anyway, that success tends to come to those with the biggest spending power, although it is interesting nonetheless to note that it is not always the costliest squad in any given year that comes out on top. Indeed, sometimes the biggest spenders do particularly badly, as Newcastle fans know to their painful cost.

Their massive expenditure in the late 90s meant that they twice assembled the most expensive squad in the Premier League but the 1998-99 collection finished only 13th and the 1999-2000 crop just two places higher.

Given the sheer volume of statistics assembled, Pay As You Play might have struggled to entertain the reader and at times the subject matter veers towards academic dryness, particularly in the section headed Competitive Balance.  If there are many football fans familiar with the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index or the Lorenz Curve, for example, they must have been keeping it to themselves.

Elsewhere, however, lead author Paul Tomkins does well to keep the tone bright and engaging and the club sections benefit from ‘expert view’ entries from bloggers and journalists.

Pay As You Play was clearly a mammoth project but it has been undertaken with sufficient care to become a significant work of reference for those involved in football.

Click on the link to buy Pay As You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era directly from Amazon.

For more on football, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.



Sports Books for Christmas

Part Four -- Five from the Turf

Ruby: The Autobiography

Not unusually, Ruby Walsh is injured. The Irishman, winner of two Grand Nationals and two Cheltenham Gold Cups, has suffered 12 breaks or dislocations in his career. At different times, the occupational hazards associated with his sport have left him with an ankle, a leg, both hips, both shoulders, his left arm, both wrists, a collarbone and several vertebrae effectively in bits. For good measure, he had to have his spleen removed in 2008 after a horse kicked him in the stomach. At the moment, the tibia and fibula in his right leg are undergoing repairs. But Walsh is philosophical. He points out in this honest and revealing life story, co-written with Irish journalist Malachy Clerkin, that you can’t ride half-ton horses at 50kph and expect not to get injured. But he has also ridden more winners at the Cheltenham Festival than any other jockey in history.  He describes many of these, with fascinating insights into riding tactics, in an engaging autobiography.

McCoy: A Racing Post Celebration

Ruby Walsh might have achieved even more had his career not coincided with that of his great friend, Tony (“A P”) McCoy, the winner of a staggering 15 jockeys’ championships, and whose Grand National victory on Don’t Push It in 2010 enabled him to achieve one of the few targets that had proved elusive to him, having already won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the King George VI Chase.  The Ulsterman is favourite to be named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award -- never previously won by a jockey -- and the Racing Post has trawled its archives to celebrate his career, aided by the excellent Brough Scott, whose words both introduce the story and set the various reports in context.

McCoy on Denman and Walsh on Kauto Star were both upstaged by Imperial Commander when the two met head-to-head for the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup in what was meant to be the ultimate turf showdown between two great jockeys on two brilliant horses. Nonetheless, despite this deviation from the intended script, Jonathan Powell’s story of this famous jump racing rivalry, which has been likened to Bjorn Borg’s epic struggle for tennis supremacy over John McEnroe and Seb Coe’s efforts to get the better of Steve Ovett on the athletics track, makes a strong contribution to the history of National Hunt racing.  Powell, who also helped Paul Nicholls -- trainer of both Denman and Kauto Star -- write an outstanding autobiography, Lucky Break, is a racing journalist of 40 years’ experience.

Frankincense and More: The Biography of Barry Hills

Robin Oakley may have made his journalistic name as the political correspondent of the BBC, where he occupied that position from 1992 to 2000 between John Cole and Andrew Marr, but he has a long-standing interest in horse racing and has written the Turf column for The Spectator magazine since 1994. His cleverly-titled biography of Barry Hills, who funded his establishment in a training yard at Lambourn in Berkshire with the proceeds of a gamble on Frankinsense in the 1968 Lincoln Handicap, charts the career of one of the sport‘s most enduring figures, describing the ups and downs of a career encompassing six decades and Hills’s 20-year battle with cancer.

Enemy Number One: The Secrets of the UK's Most Feared Professional Punter

Every horse racing fan at some point indulges thoughts of making a living off the backs of the bookmakers, exacting revenge on the gleeful retainers of incalculable losing bets and doing so not once but time and again.  Patrick Veitch, a former Cambridge University maths prodigy, has stung the bookies so many times there are virtually none left who are prepared knowingly to accept a bet from him.  Mind you, given that he has won more than £10 million in a mere eight years, it is hardly surprising that even the likes of William Hill and Ladbrokes tremble at the mention of his name.  In fact, he is still taking them to the cleaners, thanks to a network of agents employed to place his bets for him. His story reveals not so much his secrets as his incredible story, which involved being on the run for a year after a Cambridge gangster demanded a share of his winnings in exchange for not breaking his legs.

Click on the text or picture links to buy these titles.

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Sports Books for Christmas

Part Three -- An Independent selection

If you are looking for gift ideas for a sports-loving reader in your life, don’t just take The Sports Bookshelf’s word for which titles are likely to be well received from the choices on offer this Christmas.

At this time of year, book suggestions make popular subject matter for newspaper columnists.  For instance, UK daily The Independent devoted a whole section to the best books for Christmas across a range of genres, with sport put in the spotlight by Chris Maume.

Maume is intrigued by the idea, advanced by Mathew Syed of The Times in Bounce: How Champions are Made (Fourth Estate) that high achievement in sport is less down to God-given talent than sheer hard work.  “See that David Beckham? That could have been me,” Maume muses. “I could have become the most famous footballer in the world – if I'd put in 10,000 hours of motivated, high-quality practice.”

He is also impressed with the ever-insightful Simon Barnes -- another Times man -- as he names the 50 sportsmen or women he has most admired in A Book of Heroes: Or a Sporting Half Century (Short Books), which Maume describes as “a romantic selection,” in which “most of the consensually feted postwar idols are there.”  But, he adds, not all are obvious choices.

“Tim Henman, for example, never reached the summit of his sport despite his best efforts. Barnes is also generous to the tainted: Ben Johnson's in there, and Flo-Jo.”

Among the cricket books that caught Maume’s eye are Blood, Sweat & Treason: Henry Olonga, My Story (VSP), which tells the story of what followed after Olonga and his Zimbabwe team-mate Andy Flower took their lives in their hands by donning black armbands during the 2003 Cricket World Cup to signify the death of democracy in their homeland.

“A story engagingly told,” Maume writes, going on to praise the “beautifully crafted” A Last English Summer (Quercus) in which Duncan Hamilton weaves his thoughts on the state of the game into a journey around an English season, while “writing with intense feeling for an age that's sliding away.”

Maume joins the chorus of applause for the unlikely William Hill Sports Book of the Year contender Blood Knots: Of Fathers, Friendship and Fishing (Atlantic) in which Luke Jennings, dance critic and novelist, constructs a memoir of his English middle-class childhood around an obsession with fishing and which Maume says rivals Hamilton’s work as “the best-written book of this year’s bunch”.

He also nominates Catrine Clay's Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend(Yellow Jersey Press) for “fleshing out beautifully” the story of the Manchester City goalkeeper famous for winning the FA Cup with a broken neck and hails Brian Moore's autobiography Beware of the Dog: Rugby's Hard Man Reveals All (Simon & Schuster) as a worthy winner of the William Hill award for being “a compelling read from the early revelations of child abuse onwards”.

Maume’s list concludes with We Were Young and Carefree (Yellow Jersey Press), the autobiography of Tour de France champion Laurent Fignon, who died of cancer in August at the age of 50, in which Fignon is “ruthlessly honest, about himself and about cycling, and provides a gripping insight into an unrelentingly hard world.”

Read the full article in The Independent.

To buy any of the titles listed, click on the pictorial or text links to purchase securely from Amazon.

For more sports books for Christmas, see The Sports Bookshelf selections for Football and Cricket or visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.



Why the 2018 World Cup may be a force for good in Russia

England might not find the subject too palatable right now but once the disappointment of failing to land the right to host the 2018 World Cup has worn off there will be an inevitable thirst for knowledge about football in the nation that did emerge from the FIFA vote as the winner, Russia.

There is probably nowhere better to start than the highly regarded Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game, written by the English-born, Moscow-based journalist Marc Bennetts.

It does not paint an edifying picture. Published in 2008, Football Dynamo makes no attempt to romanticise football in Russia, even though Bennetts finds much to admire about it.

There is a strong focus on the problems that beset the game in Russia, with stories of corruption, political interference, violence, racism and financial shenanigans.  We learn that corruption is so widespread as to be seen as “just another factor, like home advantage and recent form” in deciding games.

Bennetts argues that there are parallels between football and the state of the Russian nation, suggesting that hooliganism -- another scar on the game -- is merely a reflection of a violent society, that overt racism is hardly surprising in a country that has few black immigrants and that the prosperity enjoyed by the leading clubs mirrors the emergence of an oligarch class whose power lies in money rather than political dominance.

Prominent in this new Russian elite, of course, is Roman Abramovich, a man who Bennetts points out has split Russian opinion.  While some applaud Chelsea’s owner for having the financial muscle to wield such influence on football in a western nation, others believe his billions would be better spent on improving the lives of the less fortunate in his homeland, a country where extreme poverty exists alongside vast wealth.

It is not a book likely to convince those left with a sour taste by FIFA’s insistence that the country they chose for the 2018 venue is a fitting host but Bennetts believes the decision can be a force for good for Russian football and the nation itself.

Writing on the Sabotage Times website ahead of the bid decision, Bennetts suggested that to Russians “who have never been abroad (the vast majority)” and to whom black footballers are “truly and utterly alien” the World Cup finals will be a short, sharp shock.

“Russia will be forced to adapt to black fans and sides,” Bennetts said. “It might not be a cure-all, but it will be a start.”

To buy Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game just click on the link.

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