20121022

The moment that a handshake from Bobby Charlton touched the soul of William Hill 'treble' contender Duncan Hamilton


When Duncan Hamilton won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award for the first time in 2007 the first hand he shook was that of Bobby Charlton, whose autograph he had once queued for in vain as a small boy growing up in Newcastle. It was a moment that Hamilton felt was 'scarcely credible' .


Charlton had been a contender for the award himself for My Manchester United Years, the first volume of his autobiography, brilliantly crafted by the veteran sportswriter Jim Lawton, but it had been beaten by Hamilton's book Provided You Don't Kiss Me, an entertaining, perceptive and well-received account of the time he had spent working with Brian Clough as a local newspaper reporter during the glory years of Nottingham Forest.

Hamilton recalls the moment in The Footballer Who Could Fly (Century), for which Hamilton has been longlisted for the 2012 William Hill award.  The Footballer Who Could Fly is on one level a journey through football in England from the 1940s, a evocative paean to the most gifted players and most respected managers that have shaped the game, but on another level is a rather moving autobiography, at the heart of which is a father-son relationship that Hamilton says was held together only by football and a shared admiration for certain players, Charlton being one of them.

"My Manchester United Years," Hamilton writes, "...is powerfully and beautifully written. I was convinced it would win. But my overriding thought was how my father would have reacted to the fact that I was competing against Charlton in the first place.
" 'You... on the same pitch... as Bobby Charlton?' I could almost hear him say it, the triple spaces between the words served as his astonished punctuation.
"Friends wanted me to get Charlton's autograph for them.  I wanted his signature too -- the signature I'd failed to get 35 years ago outside St James' Park.  With serendipitous timing, I met him on the way into the ceremony.  He was wearing the sort of good suit my father would have worn. Everything was noisy and crowded and hot. As he patiently signed away, I watched the pen gracefully shape his name, which he must have written on more than a million occasions."

When the result was announced and he was called on to the platform to receive the award, Hamilton was almost incredulous.

"The impossible happened," he writes. "My book was awarded the prize.  As I came off the stage, the first person waiting to congratulate me was Charlton, as gracious as ever.  He was standing at the foot of the steps. The handshake, which he'd given at the end of some of football's most epic matches to Pele and Beckenbauer and to Eusebio and Puskas, was offered to me. It seemed scarcely credible. I wanted to tell him about my father.  About the high esteem in which he'd held him. About the afternoon we'd spent watching his last appearance at St James' Park. And how he'd never believe the circumstances of this meeting.  But the words would not come, and the chance was lost."

It could be imagined that the Charlton handshake inspired The Footballer Who Could Fly.  Hamilton, who overcame the handicap of a severe stammer to become a successful journalist and now full-time author, paints some wonderfully nostalgic scenes as he delves into his memories.  But because so much of what he recalls about the football of his younger years is influenced by what his father taught him, the memories are tinged with regret that he and his father were never close on a personal level, at least not in the way he wished they had been.

Hamilton senior, a working class Geordie, was not a man comfortable with shows of intimacy, preferring to preserve with his son the kind of relationship that he had with his own father, one of quiet respect and mutual caring but not something that was ever spoken of as love.  A passion for football, however, was a way in which emotions could be shared.  The book takes its title from a remark Hamilton's father once made about Wyn Davies, a forward renowned for his ability to jump high above other players, whose picture appears on the cover.

Hamilton, who won the William Hill award for a second time in 2009 for his biography of Harold Larwood, would the first to win it for a third time.  He was also nominated in 2010 for A Last English Summer, a reflection on the state of cricket based on a summer spent watching the game in England.

As well as a £24,000 cash prize, the winning author, to be announced on November 26, will receive a £2,000 William Hill bet, a specially-commissioned hand-bound copy of their book, and a day at the races.

The shortlist will be announced on Friday of this week.  The full longlist comprises:
  1. That Near Death Thing: Inside the Most Dangerous Race in the World, by Rick Broadbent (Orion)
  2. Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth, by Adharanand Finn (Faber)
  3. Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run, by Matt Fitzgerald (Quercus)
  4. The Footballer Who Could Fly, by Duncan Hamilton (Century)
  5. The Secret Race - Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle (Bantam Press)
  6. A Weight Off My Mind: My Autobiography, by Richard Hughes, with Lee Mottershead (Racing Post)
  7. Be Careful What You Wish For, by Simon Jordan (Yellow Jersey)
  8. Fibber in the Heat, by Miles Jupp (Ebury Press)
  9. The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final, by Richard Moore (Wisden Sports Writing)
  10. Between the Lines: My Autobiography, by Victoria Pendleton with Donald McRae (HarperSport)
  11. Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton (Particular Books)
  12. A Life Without Limits: A World Champion's Journey, by Chrissie Wellington, with Michael Aylwin (Constable & Robinson)
  13. Jonny: My Autobiography, by Jonny Wilkinson, with Owen Slot (Headline)
  14. Shot and a Ghost: A Year in the Brutal World of Professional Squash, by James Willstrop (Rod Gilmour)
My Manchester United Years, by Bobby Charlton with Jim Lawton, is published by Headline. The second volume of this biography is entitled My England Years.

Harold Larwood, by Duncan Hamilton
A Last English Summer, by Duncan Hamilton
Provided You Don't Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough, by Duncan Hamilton

For information about all of Duncan Hamilton's books, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop

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