Ridley marks milestone with crafted chronicle of the Premier League

Recommended in football books

Two decades ago, to mark the last season of English professional football in its traditional single-league, four-division structure, sports writer Ian Ridley embarked on a journey around the domestic game, from the top right down to grassroots level.

He aimed to capture a snapshot of football at what he knew was a watershed moment in its history, with the birth of the Premier League about to bring about a transformation.  His book, Season in the Cold, won critical acclaim.

At that point, football in England was in crisis, tainted by hooliganism, with attendances in decline at antiquated stadiums, and debts on the rise.  These were the factors which had collided catastrophically in two disasters, at Bradford and Hillsborough.  The Taylor Report into the latter, its recommendations leading to the compulsory development of all-seater stadia, had set the wheels of change in motion but the establishment of the Premier League and the riches generated by the new cash cow of satellite television would take change to a whole new level.

Now Ridley has retraced his steps to paint a new, updated picture of the state of the game in a sequel, There's a Golden Sky.   As in 1991-92, he analyses the state of the top clubs, but also stops off at many places further down the football pyramid, such as Crewe and Blackpool and Portsmouth, and takes the pulse of the non-League game for which, as former chairman of Weymouth and the current chairman of St Albans City, he has a particular affection.

He finds football at the highest level enjoying unprecedented wealth, the leading players earning astronomical rewards, yet ponders whether it has lost touch with reality. There's a Golden Sky, which takes its title from the opening verse of the football anthem, You'll Never Walk Alone, includes some fascinating interviews, including the chairmen of Wembley FC and Truro City and the Chelsea supremo, Bruce Buck, referee Mark Halsey and fallen star Paul Gascoigne.  He revisit’s the Doncaster Belles women’s team and searches for the soul of the game back on Hackney Marshes.

There's a Golden Sky serves as a history of football in the last 20 years, chronicled by one of the best writers working in football today.

Ian Ridley began his career as an editorial assistant on Building magazine and was sports editor at the Worksop Guardian before joining the Hemel Hempstead Evening Post Echo.  His first post on a national newspaper was with the Guardian and he has since written for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, the Observer, the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Express.

In addition to Season in the Cold, His previous books include biographies of Eric Cantona and Kevin Keegan and Floodlit Dreams, which described his term as chairman of Southern League club Weymouth.  He has also collaborated on autobiographies with Tony Adams, Paul Merson and Steve Claridge.

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How a football fan with his ear to the ground found chants to be a fine thing

Sports books for Christmas

Scratching your head for a Christmas gift idea? Let The Sports Bookshelf guide you through the maze of possibilities to make the right choice. Here are a few of the more amusing sports books published this year:

Who Are Ya? The talkSport Book of Football's Best Ever Chants, by Gershon Portnoi (Simon & Schuster)

The excited buzz of a packed stadium is every bit as important as the competitors in making a sports event a genuinely big occasion and nowhere is that more true than football, where the crowd are participants as well as spectators.

Indeed, football is unique in that not only do supporters cheer or boo in approval or otherwise, they turn their feelings, thoughts and observations into words and then set them to music, so that the action on the field comes with its own soundtrack, too.

Over the years, British football fans in particular have developed a huge repertoire of songs and chants, from club anthems down to ditties aimed at individual players, so many that sports writer Gershon Portnoi has turned them into a book.

Portnoi, former sports editor of Nuts magazine and until recently deputy editor of TalkSport’s online magazine, says it was a journey on a tube train that inspired him to start noting down words and researching origins.

“A bunch of lads were looking in my direction when they burst into singing a song about Christian Dailly, the former West Ham player,” Portnoi said.  “They were aiming the song at me because my hair apparently made me look like him.

“It started me thinking about the whole culture of football songs and how they are often not only funny but in many cases very clever and I wondered if I could make them into a book.”

Having enjoyed success with a previous book of cricket sledges -- entitled Why Are You So Fat? -- Portnoi set about researching.

Combining those chants he had heard himself with others found on supporters’ websites and in YouTube videos, he found enough eventually to fill 176 pages.

“The most difficult part was verifying who had claim to be the originator of a chant and there were quite a few grey areas and disputes, particularly where a club has adopted a song as an anthem where there is no obvious connection with their team,” he said.

These range from Stoke’s regular singing of the Tom Jones classic Delilah, Birmingham City’s Keep Right On to the End of the Road and Liverpool’s You’ll Never Walk Alone to the bizarre and unfathomable Wheelbarrow Song beloved of Notts County fans.  Sung repeatedly to the tune of On Top of Old Smokey, it consists of just eight words: “I had a wheelbarrow, the wheels fell off.”

“That was one of the stranger ones,” Portnoi said. “It started at a game against Shrewsbury at Gay Meadow in 1990.  One version of the story is that some County fans saw someone pushing a wheelbarrow and were inspired to make fun of a Shrewsbury song by putting their own words to it.

“Whatever the origin, it acquired a mystical significance because after being 2-0 down with 10 minutes left, County came back to draw 2-2 and went on a run that saw them promoted.  So the song stuck.

“The research took me about six months.  Of the chants, some like the Notts County one are bizarre, others just a bit silly, but some are really fantastic pieces of poetry.”

One word of warning to anyone lucky enough to find Who Are Ya? in his Christmas stocking: the author's accuracy with the wording of the chants does not make allowance for sensitive ears -- some would consist almost entirely of asterisks if he did.  Not one to be read out to the relatives, perhaps.

Also recommended for a football-themed sporting laugh are Daniel Taylor’s Squeaky Bum Time: The Wit and Wisdom of Sir Alex Ferguson (Aurum) and David Moor’s The Worst Football Kits of All Time (The History Press).

Cricket fans meanwhile will enjoy CrickiLeaks: The Secret Ashes Diaries (John Wisden & Co Ltd), written by Alan Tyers and illustrated by Beach.

From the team responsible previously for W.G. Grace Ate My Pedalo, Crickileaks is an hilarious collection of 40 imagined cricketing diaries, along with the illustrated book covers they might have inspired.

Featuring spoof journal entries drawn from throughout Ashes history, CrickiLeaks ‘reveals’ the innermost thoughts of the greatest cricketers of the last 129 years -- Shane Warne, Freddie Flintoff, Sir Ian Botham, Geoffrey Boycott, Donald Bradman and the great W.G. among them -- as well as those of some less obvious personalities.

Readers will discover, among other things, what was going through Mike Gatting's mind as he faced the ball of the century, why Ricky Ponting lost his rag with Ronald McDonald and what really went on between Douglas Jardine and Daphne the Koala in Adelaide Zoo!

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Glamour and danger of great track rivalries take top ranks on the grid in motor racing books

Sports books for Christmas

Scratching your head for a Christmas gift idea? Let The Sports Bookshelf guide you through the maze of possibilities to make the right choice. Here's our selection of motor sport books published this year: 

The Limit: Life and Death in Formula One's Most Dangerous Era, by Michael Cannell (Atlantic Books)

When Dan Wheldon, the English Indycar racing driver, was killed in a spectacular crash in Las Vegas in October, the story made headlines in British newspapers, mainly because fatalities are nowadays relatively rare in motor racing.  

The Limit looks at an era when such tragedies were almost expected. Focusing on 1961, it specifically examines the battle between Ferrari drivers Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips for the Formula One world championship, a battle quite literally fought to the death.

Hill and Von Trips had risen to the top of their profession from very different roots, the former a college drop-out from California who worked as a mechanic to finance his desire to race, the latter from a family with a castle just outside Cologne, a debonair socialite with a taste for nightclubs -- acutely different from Hill, an intense man plagued by stomach ulcers who preferred to spend his evenings in his hotel room, listening to Bartók and Shostakovich on a primitive tape recorder.

Hill was striving to become the first American to win the title, Von Trips the first for Germany.  Their rivalry came to a head at the Italian grand prix at Monza, a course featuring a notoriously dangerous high-speed banked oval on which the drivers would bunch together at speeds of up to 180mph, riding in the slipstream before deciding their moment to pull out and overtake.

Monza had a high count of casualties and while it was by no means the only circuit with a reputation for loss of life --  significant fatalities also occurred at the Nurburgring, Spa and Rheims -- it was Monza that would claim another victim in 1961, when Von Trips lost control of his car and collided with the British driver Jim Clark, spinning off the track and into the crowd, taking 15 spectators to the grave with him. Yet there was no abandoning the race, even as the bodies of the dead were being removed, and Hill went on to win to take the title.

The Limit, written by the American magazine journalist Michael Cannell, is both a gripping and grim account that captures a world of seductive glamour and ever-present danger. The Limit was how drivers described the perfect balance of speed and control that they would try to attain, knowing that to fall short ran the risk of failure but that to go beyond ‘the limit’ was to dice with death.

In the Name of Glory - 1976: The Greatest Ever Sporting Duel, by Tom Rubython (Myrtle Press)

A motor racing rivalry no less fierce but in which happily there were no casualties is the subject of the latest offering from the British author Tom Rubython, a writer and publisher from Northamptonshire whose previous work includes biographies of Ayrton Senna and James Hunt.

Rubython studies the intense and sometimes bitter battle between Hunt and defending champion Niki Lauda for the F1 drivers’ crown in 1976, one in which Ferrari's lawyers issued a series of writs challenging the legitimacy of Hunt‘s victories, on grounds ranging from the width of Hunt’s McLaren car to the composition of the fuel he was using.

It was also the year in which Lauda suffered his most horrific crash, at the Nurburgring, where he sustained severe burns to his head and neck that left him horribly scarred for life yet returned to the track after only six weeks, missing just two races.  Hunt, whose career had been in sharp decline 12 months previously, clawed back the lead Lauda had established by winning five races before his accident and took the title when Lauda -- much to Ferrari’s frustration -- decided that the soaking conditions at the final race of the season, in Japan, were too dangerous.

No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone, by Tom Bower (Faber & Faber)

Tom Bower, a biographer author with a long experience of controversial subjects that has seen Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohammed al Fayed, Conrad Black and Richard Branson come into his sights, saw in billionaire motor racing boss Bernie Ecclestone another with the same ruthless instincts.

This story follows Ecclestone from his days as a playground entrepreneur -- who would buy buns with the proceeds of his two morning paper rounds and sell them on to classmates at a profit -- to the head of Formula One who negotiated a deal with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to secure $280 million dollars of Russian government money to stage a grand prix in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Bower makes a brave attempt to dissect the increasingly complicated business manoeuvres that accompanied a rise to power that began with his purchase of the Brabham team in 1971 and by which he has been able to maintain his grip as president and chief executive of F1’s governing bodies.

He also exposes the shady machinations of New Labour that involved Tony Blair, Michael Levy, Peter Mandelson, Derry Irvine and Gordon Brown in helping Ecclestone and F1 maintain their sponsorship income from tobacco companies despite a ban on their involvement with sport.

Red Bull Racing F1 Car Manual, by Steve Rendle (J H Haynes & Co)

A clever book presented in the graphical style and hardback format of the legendary Haynes workshop manuals, Steve Rendle’s book provides an insight, as its sub-title indicates, into the ‘technology, engineering, maintenance and operation of the world championship-winning Red Bull Racing RB6’ but a lot more.

Its 180 pages cover a wide range of topics, not least the background to the Red Bull team.  Not a workshop manual in the conventional sense -- not that there are too many enthusiasts with an RB6 to tinker with, anyway -- it has been described as more a summary of contemporary F1 technology from the past three years.

Steve Rendle is a life-long motor racing enthusiast and a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers. He has worked for Haynes Publishing for 25 years, and has written over 50 Haynes car manuals and practical technical books.

Memories of Senna: Anecdotes and Insights from Those Who Knew Him, by Christopher Hilton (J H Haynes & Co)

Christopher Hilton, the former Daily Express journalist who wrote the first biography of Ayrton Senna and subsequently penned five more books on the great Brazilian driver, went back to 120 people who knew him, worked with him and competed against him with a single question: what is your strongest memory of Senna?

The result, told entirely in direct quotes, stands as an intimate, heartfelt portrait of the man, from his early days as a karter to his death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Senna -- three times F1 world champion -- had an aura that still provokes emotion even 17 years after his death. Memories of Senna is a re-release of a collection first published in 2003 but loses no impact for that, recalling Senna’s talent, religious faith, intellect and professionalism and his extraordinary ability to monitor his car‘s performance and behaviour even as he raced, long before the technological advances that allow such analysis to be carried out remotely by team technicians via computer screens.

Sadly, after a life in writing that yielded more than 60 books, Christopher Hilton died just over a year ago.  This volume serves in part as a tribute to his career as well as that of his subject.

More books by Michael Cannell
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The world's fastest man and the greatest Welsh all-rounder jostle for position on athletics wish list

Sports books for Christmas

Scratching your head for a Christmas gift idea? Let The Sports Bookshelf guide you through the maze of possibilities to make the right choice. Here's our selection of athletics books published this year: 

Usain Bolt: The Story of the World's Fastest Man, by Steven Downes (SportsBooks)

Considering that he was largely unknown, at least outside the world of track and field, until the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the speed with which Usain Bolt has risen to become to the best known athlete has been extraordinary.

Yet the experts knew what was coming long before the rest of us, among them the athletics writer Steven Downes, who was told to remember the name when he interviewed Bolt at the 2003 world youth championships, after he had won the 200m in a competition record time.

Downes has followed Bolt’s career ever since, watching him establish a permanent place in the record books by winning an unprecedented gold medal hat-trick in the 100 metres, 200 metres and sprint relay, all in world record times, at the Beijing Games, then becoming the first man to hold the Olympic and World 100m and 200m titles simultaneously when he won both at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009, where he ran the 100m in 9.58 seconds, the fastest to date.

Bolt would surely have retained all of those titles had disqualification for a false start in the 100m at this year’s World Championships in Daegu, where he recovered his sangfroid to successfully defend his 200m crown before anchoring the Jamaican 4x100 metres team to victory in the relay, again in a world record time.  Now Bolt is a box office draw like none ever seen, so much so that the 100m final at next year’s London Olympics attracted more than one million ticket applications.

Downes, former editor of Athletics Weekly, has written a fascinating life story that explains how Bolt’s destiny was changed when his time for the 100m at a minor meeting in Crete in 2007 convinced him that the financial rewards being accrued by his compatriot, the then 100m world champion Asafa Powell, could be at his command, too. It was Powell’s world record of 9.74 seconds that the 6ft 5ins Bolt beat when he clocked 9.72 seconds on a blustery New York evening in May 2008, a mark he has since bettered twice.

Running With Fire: The True Story of Chariots of Fire Hero Harold Abrahams, by Mark Ryan (JR Books)

Author Mark Ryan recalls a chance encounter with Usain Bolt in his introduction to what is a fine biography of the man sometimes called the father of modern sprinting, the British athlete who won the 100m gold at the Paris Olympics of 1924, a performance immortalised in the award-winning movie, Chariots of Fire.

It was a meeting -- during the 2009 World Championships in Berlin -- that made Bolt aware that if he wanted to know more about the history of the event he had made his own, then Harold Abrahams was a character he needed to learn about. At the time, he had never heard of him.

He could do no worse than read Ryan’s book, which tells the Abrahams life story for the first time, describing not only his deeds on the track but his influence on the development of athletics as administrator and journalist, in which roles he helped raise the profile of the sport enormously, helping it attain the status that has turned the likes of Usain Bolt into major sports stars.

Ryan’s research shone fresh light on Abrahams’s  controversial involvement with Roger Bannister’s historic first sub-four minute mile and reveals the engaging details of his courtship and marriage to the opera singer, Sybil Evers, a romance which gives the story a wonderful sub-plot.

Read more about Running With Fire

Gold Rush: What Makes an Olympic Champion?, by Michael Johnson (HarperSport)

The 200m world record that Usain Bolt broke at the 2008 Beijing Olympics had for 12 years been the property of Michael Johnson, whose tracks career brought him four Olympic and nine World Championship gold medals, including the unique 200m-400m double at Atlanta in 1996.

Johnson has since become a respected broadcaster and commentator as well as a top-class coach and motivational speaker.

He has drawn on his huge experience in all these areas to present Gold Rush, an analysis of what it takes to win an Olympic gold medal that made the long list for this year’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

Johnson conducted interviews with Bolt, Carl Lewis, Sally Gunnell, Seb Coe, Daley Thompson, Cathy Freeman, Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps, Rebecca Adlington, Chris Hoy, Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent, Lennox Lewis and Michael Jordan among others in his attempt to find common characteristics.

And of course he is able to throw into the mix his own considerable knowledge of what it takes to be a winner, for example describing why he developed his trademark upright running style and how the disappointment of failing to qualify as favourite for the 200m final at Barcelona in 1992 gave him the motivational drive to win in Atlanta.

The John Carlos Story, by John Carlos and Dave Zirin (Haymarket Books) 

John Carlos is another 200m specialist but an athlete who made headlines not through his times on the track but because of the ground-shaking moment at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico when he and fellow American Tommie Smith, who had won gold in the 200m final in which Carlos took bronze, raised black-gloved fists on the podium in what became known as a black power salute.

The gesture, condemned by the athletics authorities but praised by many supporters, including the white Australian silver medal-winner Peter Norman, was seen at the time as a spontaneous act but in this autobiography, written in conjunction with American journalist Dave Zirin, Carlos shows that it was long in the planning, certainly on his part. The black gloves, the bare feet and the beads he and Smith wore around their necks were all symbols taken from an early life coloured by his refusal to accept the injustices that encompassed the African American experience.

As a boy growing up in the New York black ghetto in Harlem, Carlos would steal food from freight trains and hand it out to the poor like a Robin Hood of his age, feeling that his neighbours had been swallowed up and cast adrift by an unfair system. These experiences, combined with the personal hurt of having to give up his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer as a result of racist attitudes, instilled in him a passion to help others reach their dreams that he carries forward even today as a high school track and field coach in California.   Following a philosophy based on the premise that ‘power concedes nothing without demand‘, Carlos was fighting for justice long before 1968.

Zirin, a Sports Illustrated columnist and editor of the liberal American political journal The Nation, has helped Carlos tell a compelling story of which the black power salute was only one detail.

The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn't Stop, by Bill Jones (Mainstream)

John Tarrant earned notoriety of a different kind in Britain in the 1950s and 60s when he became known as The Ghost Runner, emerging from the crowds at high-profile long-distance running events to join and often win the race. Press photographers flocked to such events, knowing his appearance would guarantee them a front-page picture.

But his appearances were more than a stunt.  Tarrant had dreamed of being an Olympic athlete and wanted to join Salford Harriers, hoping it would lead to a place in the Great Britain marathon team at the Rome Olympics in 1960. But his application to join the club was turned down and banned from competing because he had earned the paltry sum of £17 for taking part in boxing matches as a teenager, an admission he made out of instinctive honesty, unaware it would provoke such harsh and non-negotiable punishment.

His life then became focused on delivering a bitter message to the blazered officials at the Amateur Athletics Association, still dominated by a wealthy Oxbridge elite, that they were wrong and had condemned a great running talent to go to waste.

Tarrant died of cancer in 1975, aged only 42, and his story might have slipped away had Bill Jones, who was making a television documentary about working class runners in Manchester, not been handed a copy of a slim autobiography Tarrant had written himself before he died.  Jones was intrigued by the man and the story, which formed the basis for an engaging book, was short-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award.

Ken Jones: Boots and Spikes, by Steve Lewis (SportsBooks)

The name of Ken Jones may not echo with quite the same resonance as some of the above but as an all-round sportsman he is regarded by some, particularly in his native Wales, as peerless.

Not only was Jones an accomplished rugby union international, winning 44 Welsh caps and representing the British Lions 17 times, he also had a career as a sprint athlete, at the peak of which he won an Olympic silver medal as a member of the British 4 x 100m relay team at the 1948 Games in London.

For many years he successfully, and seemingly almost effortlessly, he combined the two.  He was a fixture in the Welsh team between 1947-56 yet captained Britain’s athletics team at the European Games in Berne, where he won a silver medal, and ran for Wales in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver in 1954, winning a bronze, having the previous year scored a memorable try to help Wales beat the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park.

Welsh rugby historian Steve Lewis has put together a thoroughly researched book that also highlights the standards in behaviour with which Jones and his contemporaries complied and which seem alien to so many modern stars, particularly in rugby.  Lewis writes how players would embark on long sea voyages -- Jones sailed to New Zealand with the Lions in 1950 -- and pass their time engaged in “…whist drives, brains trusts and quizzes.”

In the words of one reviewer, reading Boots and Spikes -- another notable work given life by the astute Cheltenham publisher Randall Northam under his SportsBooks imprint --  was “like stumbling upon an unexpected delight.”

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Great players, founding fathers, island hopping and a treasure trove of trivia on the golf lover's wish list

Sports books for Christmas

Scratching your head for a Christmas gift idea? Let The Sports Bookshelf guide you through the maze of possibilities to make the right choice. Here's our selection of golf books published this year: 

The 100 Greatest Ever Golfers, by Andy Farrell (Elliott & Thompson)

Golf writer Andy Farrell afforded himself a self-congratulatory Tweet after Tiger Woods followed Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood in taking the weekend headlines with their tournament wins in California, Hong Kong and South Africa.

All three figure in Farrell’s choices for The 100 Greatest Ever Golfers, a fascinating book that serves not only as a celebration of the finest exponents of the game since the first Open Championship in 1860 but also provides a bite-sized history of championship golf.

Farrell, formerly golf correspondent for the Independent and Independent on Sunday titles and now freelance, has written profiles for each of the 100 players, in which he nicely balances facts and figures with the colour of an appropriate anecdote or two.  But rather than assemble them alphabetically or attempt any sort of order of merit, he has grouped them within eight different time periods, beginning with the pioneer age, between 1860 and the turn of the century, of Allan Robertson and the other forefathers of golf, and ending with the ‘Tiger Era’, beginning in 1995.  The last two entries are the two British major winners of 2011, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy.

In defining what makes for a great golfer, Farrell has looked beyond what each of the 80 men and 20 women of his choice actually won into how they played the game, perhaps with the dedication and commitment of a Padraig Harrington, who contributed a foreword, or with the flair and personality of an Arnold Palmer, whose endorsement of the author’s quest appears on the dust jacket.  The golfers to which crowds flock at the major championships are not always the most successful; sometimes it is the emotions they stir or their capacity to inspire that sets them apart,

Of course, any such list is subjective and Farrell does not suggest that his selection should be seen as definitive, rather as an invitation for debate when golfers gather at the ‘19th hole’.  Indeed, while he believes as many as 70 per cent of the names he settled for would make it into the top 100 among most aficionados, the other 30 would divide opinions.

So, who is the best of all, the greatest golfer of all time?  In conclusion, Farrell offers his own opinion on who should carry that mantle, or at least which two would be last to tee off in some mythical, magical tournament to determine who most deserves the accolade.

He leaves it up to the reader, however, to reach his or her own verdict, having first spent some enjoyable hours in the company of the contenders.

Tommy's Honour: The Extraordinary Story of Golf's Founding Father and Son, by Kevin Cook (HarperSport)

There was a welcome appearance among the golf titles of 2011 of a paperback edition of Tommy’s Honour, which earned author Kevin Cook a place on the shortlist for the 2007 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award when it was published in hardback.

New York-based Cook was commended for telling the story of the two Tom Morrises, father and son, both supremely talented golfers but utterly different in character, who made up a record-breaking golf dynasty.

Old Tom, the father, who grew up a stone's throw away from golf's ancestral home at St Andrews, was a wonderful 19th century character who became an Open Champion three times before running the Royal & Ancient, then the sole governing body of the game. His son, Young Tom, was blessed with a talent even more prodigious than his father, a golfing genius who could be described as the Tiger Woods of his era, and who remains the youngest player to win the Open Championship, having done so at 17 years old. He went on to win it four times in a row, on one occasion after fighting it out with his father at the last hole.

It is at once the story of the birth of the modern game of golf, in which Old Tom was such an influential figure, but also of a complex father-and-son relationship that ended in tragedy with the death of Young Tom at the age of 24, broken by the death in labour of his wife, Meg, and their unborn child.

It is a story told ‘with great tenderness and no little humour‘ according to the Daily Telegraph, while The Guardian said that 'Cook's idiosyncratic history of the early days of professional golf is detailed, loving, and almost novelistic. He captures the incestuous, money-obesessed, sometimes small-minded world of Scottish golf, delightfully.'

The Golf Miscellany, by John D T White (Carlton Books)

Obsessive types always attract odd looks and John White will have had his fair share after religiously devoting a life's worth of spare time to compiling a vast database of facts, figures and quirky stories from the world of sport.

But the Ulster-born sports nut has turned his fanaticism into something of a cottage industry, drawing on his ever-expanding library of the trivial and not-so-trivial to create an impressive catalogue of books that now stands at more than 30.

He is the author of all the titles in Carlton’s ‘Miscellany’ series, covering a range of sports from football and cricket to boxing, Formula One, horse racing and Six Nations rugby, as well as a number specific to one football club or another.

His study of Manchester United’s long history of Irish-born players -- entitled Irish Devils -- enjoyed a particularly warm reception when it was published last month by Simon & Schuster, with the official endorsement of the Old Trafford club.

His just-published and updated Golf Miscellany offers an engaging read for golf fans, assembling a host of fascinating material on topics from players and tournaments to the great golf courses. With the entries pulled together in random order, the book has the dip-in-and-out appeal so popular in Christmas gift ideas but White’s painstaking research should not be underestimated nonetheless.

While not at his computer inputting more facts and figures, John is the founding member of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters' Club in County Down, the largest official supporters club in Ireland. He has been a season ticket holder at Old Trafford for more than 20 years.

Golf on the Rocks: A Journey Round Scotland's Island Courses, by Gary Sutherland (Hachette Scotland)

Think Scottish golf courses and images of the manicured greens and sculpted fairways of St Andrews, Carnoustie, Turnberry come to mind.  Challenging courses, but aesthetically superb. Regally magnificent, as you might expect from the proud home of golf.

But they aren’t all like that, as Gary Sutherland discovered after he set out to play 18 holes on each of 18 courses on 18 Scottish islands, in honour of his late father, a ship’s captain who never sailed anywhere without his golf clubs and, when he wasn't at sea, was generally to be found on the nearest course.

In his father’s footsteps, Sutherland’s journey took him to golf courses with names such as Askernish, Machrie, Shiskine, Scarista and Balivanich, none of which has or is ever likely to host an Open Championship, courses where the hazards tend to go beyond mere water and sand traps to cows on the fairways and greens bordered by electric fences, and where locating the tee can be as difficult as finding the hole.  In one instance, the author was unable to locate even the course he was looking for, despite being absolutely certain of his bearings, and was forced to conclude it had been ploughed up to grow crops.

There is little in the rich history of golf in Scotland that has not been written about many times but the island courses have been strangely neglected, which seems odd when you learn that Askernish, on the island of South Uist, was allegedly designed by Old Tom Morris, one of the founding fathers of the sport.

Sutherland makes no claim to have written a comprehensive guidebook but Golf on the Rocks has been well received as a thoroughly entertaining read that at least goes some way towards filling the gap.

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Hobbs, Trueman, Botham and Swann among a quality crop of cricket life stories

Books about cricket

Stumped for a Christmas gift idea? Let The Sports Bookshelf guide you through the maze of possibilities to make the right choice. Here's our selection of cricket biographies published this year:  

Jack Hobbs: England's Greatest Cricketer, by Leo McKinstry (Yellow Jersey)

In a career spanning 30 years playing for Surrey and England, Sir Jack Hobbs scored 61,237 runs, more than any other cricketer.

His 197 centuries is also a record unsurpassed. He was heralded as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the 20th Century yet his place in the history of cricket always seems to be in the shadow of W.G. Grace, Don Bradman, Wally Hammond and Len Hutton. Why? Perhaps because Hobbs, born in poor circumstances in Cambridge at a time when the town had more than its share of grim and squalid streets, was brought up to be modest and humble and appreciative of his good fortune.

McKinstry, an excellent writer and the author of fine biographies of Geoffrey Boycott, Sir Alf Ramsey and the Charlton brothers, Jack and Bobby, has produced a thorough account of Hobbs’s life that captures the spirit of the age and will help re-establish his proper place in the cricketing pantheon.

Fred Trueman, by Chris Waters (Aurum Press)

Chris Waters, the latest to occupy the influential position as cricket correspondent of the Yorkshire Post, invested many hours in his first attempt to write the biographer of a player, determined to do justice to the Yorkshire and England fast bowler, whose record and character continue to loom large over the history of cricket in the county.  He should be congratulated; he has produced a work to match the stature of his subject.

He undertook the project with the blessing of Trueman’s surviving family members and yet does not allow himself to gloss over any of Fiery Fred’s rougher edges.  He offers praise where it is merited but highlights imperfections just as judiciously, from the poverty of his childhood that Trueman shrouded in myth to the complexities of personality that contributed to the controversial nature of his career on the field and his relationship with the establishment.

As a Trueman biographer, Waters had a couple of tough acts to follow in Don Mosey and John Arlott, both of whom knew their subject personally.  Waters met him only once yet has skilfully interpreted what he gleaned from his research and countless interviews to paint a picture of the man perhaps more convincingly than either of his illustrious predecessors.

Further reading:  Trueman biography reveals real story of 'the finest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath'

Tony Greig, by David Tossell (Pitch Publishing)

David Tossell’s stylishly-written and well-researched books have earned him a short-listing for the British Sports Book Awards on three occasions in three sports, which says something for his consistency and versatility.

He went close to being honoured for his biography of former Arsenal manager Bertie Mee in 2006 and, in 2010, for Nobody Beats Us, the story of the great Wales rugby team of the 1970s, and in 2008, for Grovel!, an examination of West Indies cricket and in particular the 1976 team that won the Test series in England by a 3-0 margin, blowing away the home side with the power of a pace attack led by Michael Holding and Andy Roberts.

Grovel! owed its title to the unwise boast by the England captain, Tony Greig, that a touring side he perceived as lacking backbone under pressure would be made to ‘grovel’.  The comment was not the only controversy in the career of the South African-born all-rounder, the biggest of which, of course, was his involvement with the Australian media magnate Kerry Packer in helping to set up the breakaway World Series Cricket by secretly recruiting players.

Tossell argues that the widespread condemnation that the Packer episode heaped on Greig led to an undervaluing of his contribution to cricket as a player and to an overlooking of a fascinating story, not the least part of which was his battle to succeed despite a history of epilepsy.  His even-handed re-assessment is another fine piece of work.

Further reading: Tossell in line for cricket book award

Arthur Milton: Last of the Double Internationals, by Mike Vockins (SportsBooks)

Arthur Milton’s modesty was such that when he took a job as a postman in Bristol after his career in sport came to an end he did not see it as a humbling experience but an uplifting one, something of which he could be just as proud as his appearance on the wing for the England football team or his six Test caps won as an astute opening batsman.

Unconvinced that he had a story worth telling, he declined all invitations to write his autobiography until 2006 -- the year before he died -- when he asked Mike Vockins, the former secretary of Worcestershire County Cricket Club and a long-time friend, to bring along a notebook and tape recorder and finally commit his story to print.

As the last player to represent his country at football and cricket, he did have a story to tell, and quite a few more, and Vockins, who for many years maintained parallel careers in cricket administration and the clergy, tells them very well, with affection and respect but no lack of thorough research.

Further reading:  Affectionate portrait of a man as happy delivering letters as posting runs for England

Ian Botham: The Power and the Glory, by Simon Wilde (Simon & Schuster)

After seeing three of his books, including biographies of Ranjitsinhji and Shane Warne, make the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, when Simon Wilde turned his attention to Ian Botham it was not difficult to imagine another contender emerging.  In the event, Ian Botham: The Power and the Glory did not even make the long list.

Yet it has won no shortage of critical acclaim.  Peter Wilby, reviewing in The Guardian, said that Wilde‘s ‘perfectly paced and exhaustively researched biography, recalls the magic of that astonishing summer (of 1981, when he almost single-handedly changed the course of an Ashes series) but doesn't neglect the darker side of Botham's career and character, revealing a more complex and nuanced personality than the gruff, self-confident exterior suggested.’  Dan Jones, in the Spectator, said that Wilde’s ‘judgment is sound and his storytelling pleasingly laconic’ and that by identifying Botham's attempt to make himself an early beneficiary from a nascent culture of celebrity, Wilde successfully placed him ‘at the heart of his times.”

Thorough, measured and characteristically well written by Sunday Times cricket correspondent Wilde, The Power and the Glory deserves its place among the cricket biographies of the year.

Graeme Swann: The Breaks are Off -- My Autobiography(Hodder & Stoughton)

In an era when sports press officers, particularly those who serve the interests of the national teams, seek almost unavoidably to make their charges as blandly non-controversial as possible, Graeme Swann stands out.

England’s hugely successful off-spin bowler, no doubt yearning for the days -- not so long past -- when even professional cricket had an inherent social flavour, would rather say what he thinks, play for laughs and refresh himself in whatever way takes his fancy. He is what passes now for a character.

The Breaks are Off makes that very plain, revealing Swann at his wise-cracking, straight-talking and enthusiastically imbibing best in a story that will amuse and delight his army of supporters, who currently number 312,000 among Twitter users alone.

As a biography, it does not reveal as much about the Swann beneath the surface as some readers would probably like, but that should not be taken as a criticism. Swann's romp through the peaks and troughs of his career is a thoroughly entertaining ride and his anecdotes are told with much skill by his ghostwriter, Richard Gibson, whose ability to translate jokey conversation into laugh-out-loud prose has already been demonstrated in David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd’s amusing ramble, the best-selling Start the Car.

Further reading: A bloody nose from Darren Gough marks Swann's debut as an England cricket tourist

More books by Leo McKinstry
More books by David Tossell
More books by Simon Wilde

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