Books for Christmas: A Sports Bookshelf selection of gift idea for the sports fan

What can be recommended as a Christmas stocking filler from 2015's crop of sports books?

Given the whiff of corruption rising pungently from the upper echelons of athletics and football, this may not be a good Christmas to celebrate the glories of contemporary sport.  As an antidote to unwelcome scandals, there is always the memory of more innocent days to fall back on and this year there are several absorbing diversions.

Football romantics, particularly those with ties in Nottingham and Manchester, have a couple of gems to take them back.

Evocative of a wonderful moment in the history of the English game is I Believe In Miracles: The Remarkable Story of Brian Clough's European Cup-winning Team (Headline), a superb reconstruction by Daniel Taylor of the rise, in the late 1970s, of Nottingham Forest from Midland mediocrities to double European Cup winners under a manager of unconventional genius, Brian Clough.

Taylor's interviews with many of the principal characters vividly recreate the mood of the times and the extraordinary chemistry that developed between Clough, his assistant Peter Taylor and a group of players no one could have predicted would be capable of such high achievement.  Inevitably, given the wealth of Clough anecdotes passed on down the years, there are many familiar stories, yet by putting them in context Taylor has given them a new freshness and perspective. Buy from Amazon, Waterstones and WHSmith.

In Forever Boys: The Days of Citizens and Heroes (Wisden Sports Writing), veteran sports writer James Lawton tracks down members of the Manchester City team that shone fleetingly, but brilliantly, under the maverick management of Malcolm Allison in the late 1960s. The rich language that characterised Lawton's columns in The Independent adds an extra element to the pleasure of reliving a golden era that may have been eclipsed by the modern Manchester City but was infinitely more joyful. Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith. Read more...

Heady days of more recent vintage are also reprised in Amy Lawrence's Invincible: Inside Arsenal's Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season(Penguin), in which the Observer football writer brilliantly captures the team dynamic behind the Gunners' unbeaten 2003-04 season. Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or http://www.whsmith.co.uk/products/invincible-inside-arsenals-unbeaten-2003-2004-season/9780241970492.

If the focus of those titles is too narrow, then there is a wonderfully illustrated celebration of what every young fan wished to find in his Christmas stocking compiled by Ian Preece and Doug Cheeseman entitled The Heyday Of The Football Annual (Constable). Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

And it would be a cold heart that was not charmed by Bryony Hill's beautifully written and lovingly told story of the life of her groundbreaking husband, Jimmy -- now, sadly, stricken with Alzheimer's disease -- in My Gentleman Jim (Book Guild). Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

Back in the present, Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager (Century), Michael Calvin's exploration of the physical and emotional extremes endured by the modern football manager, and The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football (Penguin), David Goldblatt's dissertation on the growth of the Premier League as a barometer of Britain's social, economic and cultural evolution, both make compelling reading.

Buy Living on the Volcano from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

Buy The Game of Our Lives from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

The Game of Our Lives was named William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2015 among a field that included Living on the Volcano and Simon Lister's excellent Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet (Yellow Jersey), which also set sport in a social context.
Lister specifically looks at how the West Indian cricket team of the 1970s, built around cavalier batsmen and fearsome fast bowlers, helped the Caribbean community in London to develop a collective identity and pride in their roots. Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

Among other cricket books, Richard Tomlinson's Amazing Grace: The Man Who was W.G. (Little, Brown)-- published to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of W G Grace and the 150th anniversary of his first-class debut -- is written in an elegantly easy style and brings welcome perspective to a story prone to exaggeration.  Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

The traditions of English cricket are celebrated meanwhile in the sumptuously expansive Summer's Crown: The Story of Cricket's County Championship (Fairfield Books), a magnificently illustrated and elegantly written history of the County Championship, by Stephen Chalke, a worthy winner of the Cricket Writers' Club Book of the Year award for 2015. Buy from Amazon or Waterstones.

Boxing gems include A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith (Simon & Schuster), in which Donald McRae describes how Emile Griffith, a black and secretly gay boxer in 1950s America, overcame colour prejudice and homophobia to become world champion, and Journeymen: The Other Side of the Boxing Business, in which Mark Turley offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of boxing's professional losers, who make a living out of stepping into the ring merely to be notches on the belt of up-and-coming stars.

Buy A Man's World from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

Buy Journeymen from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

Away from the mainstream, Speed Kings (Bantam) - another commended by the William Hill judges -- is a splendid read in which Andy Bull reveals how the eccentric members of America's gold-medal-winning 1932 Olympic bobsleigh team could have stepped from the pages of a Scott Fitzgerald novel. Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

And Lizzy Hawker, Britain's five-times winner of the 100-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, tells an inspirational tale in Runner: A Short Story about a Long Run (Aurum). Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

Also recommended:  Richard Moore’s The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica's Sprint Factory (Yellow Jersey), Raphael Honigstein's Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World (Yellow Jersey), Eibar the Brave: The Extraordinary Rise of la Liga's Smallest Team (Pitch) by Euan McTear and Winner: My Racing Life, by AP McCoy (Orion).



The Summerbee, Bell and Lee years: new book revisits Manchester City's other golden era under Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison

Forever Boys: The Days of Citizens and Heroes, by James Lawton (Wisden Sports Writing) £18.99

Jim Lawton's disappearance from the pages of The Independent has been mourned by many whose reading experience was enriched by the depth and elegance of his prose as he described the great moments in sport from around the world.

Happily, freed from the requirement to deliver a daily commentary -- not that he ever saw it as a chore -- Lawton has had time to research and write a fine book that has taken him back to the beginnings of his career as a national newspaper sports writer in Manchester, when he was privileged to report on the emergence from United's shadows of the Manchester City side managed by the venerable Joe Mercer and coached by his assistant, the maverick Malcolm Allison, who between them oversaw the creation of a brief but brilliantly golden period for the sky blue half of Lancashire's great city.

It might be argued that, in many respects, there has never been a better time than now to be a Manchester City supporter, blessed with a wonderful modern stadium and the expectation, underpinned by the vast wealth of the club's current owners, that the clutch of silverware won in the last five years -- an FA Cup, a League Cup, and two Premier League titles -- is just the start of a trophy-laden era of dominance in the English game, and perhaps beyond.

Yet can the thrill of winning in today's football world, where to be successful requires also to be rich, ever feel quite so electrifying, such a joyous fulfilment of uncertain hopes and dreams, as it did when the field of contenders was wide enough for the beginning of any new season to be ripe with possibility for most of the field, rather than for only a narrow elite?

This was how it was when Mercer arrived at Maine Road in 1965 and saw in the young Allison, then managing Plymouth Argyle but whose ideas had impressed him when they met on a coaching course at Lilleshall, a coach with fresh, progressive methods and the dynamism he knew he lacked himself after a period of ill health.

Mercer and Allison brought together a collection of players, built around the dazzling talents of Mike Summerbee, Colin Bell and Francis Lee, that also won the FA Cup, the League Cup and what was then the First Division title, and tasted victory abroad by winning the European Cup-Winners' Cup.

Listen to Malcolm Allison talking about his Manchester City players

When City were crowned league champions in 1968 they were the eighth team to win the title in the space of 10 seasons, following Wolves, Burnley, Tottenham, Ipswich and Everton as well as the burgeoning superpowers of Liverpool and Manchester United.  In the three years that followed, Leeds United, Arsenal and Derby would be added to the list.  It was an era in which to be the supporter of a football team was to experience a full breadth of emotion, to be braced for the deflation of losing but to be sustained by the real possibility of winning, even if your club did not have the richest owner.

In Forever Boys, Lawton revisits those vibrant days with the aid of first-hand memories, not only those of the surviving members of that Manchester City side - Summerbee, Bell and Lee as well as Tony Book, Alan Oakes and Glyn Pardoe among the less exalted members of the cast - but his own. In a half-century and more pursuing his trade, Lawton has covered every major sporting event and written with such distinction he has been named sportswriter of the year three times among other awards. Yet while he has witnessed countless historic moments at World Cups and Olympic Games, on tennis courts, motor racing circuits and beautifully manicured golf courses, and followed the careers of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods and countless more, he still regards watching the rise of Manchester City as one of the most exciting times in his professional life.
The Manchester City team of the 1960s brought great success to Maine Road
Manchester City's old Maine Road ground, scene of
their triumphs under Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison
Picture by Cjc13 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is a wonderfully evocative book, capturing the personalities of the players and that of the brilliant, charismatic and ultimately flawed Malcolm Allison, as well as the chemistry of their relationships as City grew into the iconic team of the sixties, symbolic of a time which buzzed with hope and possibilities, when it seemed that ambition need not have limits.  Inevitably, it is a deeply nostalgic recounting of those years but then again it was bound to be so, given that it was as he was driving away from Manchester's vast Southern Cemetery, having seen Allison laid to rest with a bottle of champagne alongside his coffin, that Lawton first began to ruminate on an era and a team that influenced so many lives and wondered if more needed to be said about it.

If there is an added poignancy it stems from Lawton's reviewing of his own life and times, the project having coincided with the unexpected consigning to history of the main substance of his career, a victim of falling revenues and ruthless cuts in his now struggling industry.

The Independent was his last long-term employer.  His almost daily columns and his beautifully crafted observations from the great sporting occasions around the world had been essential reading. For those who care to look, Lawton's words can still be found, notably in the Irish Independent.  And now there is this book, of which one needs only to read a few paragraphs to be reassured that his ability to employ the nuances of the English language to infuse the printed page with a lasting resonance is undiminished.

Buy Forever Boys: The Days of Citizens and Heroes from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.



The Game of Our Lives beats strong field to take William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2015 prize for David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt mimicked the reaction of Sir Alex Ferguson to winning the Champions League with Manchester United in 1999 after his book was named William Hill Sports Book of the Year for 2015.

On receiving the award at a ceremony at BAFTA in central London, Goldblatt said: “In the words of Sir Alex Ferguson: sports writing, bloody hell.”

Goldblatt’s The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football took the £27,000 prize ahead of a strong field from which twice past winner Donald McRae's A Man's World and Andy Bull's Speed Kings were both highly commended.

The Game of Our Lives examines how football affects urban identities from the biggest cities to the smallest towns, how a successful team can spark economic regeneration and describes how a sport that seemed to reflect urban decline only a few decades ago is now an economic phenomenon that has boomed even in times of wider recession.

Chairman of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year judging panel, John Gaustad, predicted that The Game of Our Lives would become "required reading for anyone studying the history of late 20th and early 21st Century Britain.”

“This is a serious, insightful yet compellingly readable book on a subject that affects the lives of everyone in the country, be they football fans or not," he said. "Goldblatt looks at football through the prism of its economic, cultural and reputational effect on the UK, and pulls no punches in his conclusions."

Goldblatt’s previous books include the acclaimed The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football and Futeball Nation, a footballing history of Brazil.

In taking the prize, Goldblatt prevailed over a powerful and varied shortlist, including a potential third win from Donald McRae for his biography of boxing legend Emile Griffith, A Man’s World. The shortlist also included in Andy Bull's Speed Kings the first book on bobsleigh to be submitted for the prize.
David Goldbatt proudly shows off his trophy

Also among a six-strong shortlist were Simon Lister’s study of the 1974 West Indies cricket team, Fire in Babylon, Martin Fletcher’s deeply moving Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire and Michael Calvin’s investigation into the secrets of surviving the brutal and unpredictable world of the football manager, Living on the Volcano.

William Hill spokesman and co-founder of the Award, Graham Sharpe, said of The Game of our Lives: "It is an exceptional winner – it has to be, up against this incredible shortlist.”

As well as a £27,000 cheque, Goldblatt was awarded a William Hill bet worth £2,500 and an exclusive day at the races.

Making up judging panel alongside Sportspages bookshop founder Gaustad were retired professional footballer and former chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Clarke Carlisle; broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; broadcaster Danny Kelly; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd.

The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football by David Goldblatt is published by Viking.

Goldblatt is a sports writer, broadcaster and sociologist. His book The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football was described as the "seminal football history" by Simon Kuper.

He has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times and The Independent on Sunday, as well as magazines New Statesman, New Left Review and Prospect.  Born in Watford, he currently lives in Bristol.

The Game of Our Lives is also available from Waterstones and WHSmith

Read also:

William Hill Sports Book of the Year shortlist announced

The full longlist



Counting down to William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2015 Announcement

The winner of the 2015 William Hill Sports Book of the Year will be revealed at a lunchtime ceremony at BAFTA in London on Thursday.  Here is a reminder of the six titles shortlisted for the award.

Speed Kings: The 1932 Winter Olympics and the Fastest Men in the World, by Andy Bull (Bantam Press)

The early days of bobsleigh were dominated by rich and adventurous young men drawn to the thrill of hurtling along sheer ice tracks at breakneck speeds, typified by the disparate group that came together to win the four-man bob titles for America at the Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1932.  Andy Bull traces their back stories in a tale of loose living, risk taking and hell raising from a golden age of decadence.

"Hollywood stars, politicians, royalty, gangsters and other denizens of the demi-monde – hedonists and hucksters, harlots and heroes – flicker through a well-paced narrative," wrote Richard Williams in The Guardian, commenting that although none of the quartet survived to talk to Bull, "such is the diligence of his research and his sensitivity to the story in all its many dimensions that few could feel that he has not done justice to their world."

Also available from Waterstones and WHSmith

Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager, by Michael Calvin (Century)

Award-winning author and journalist Michael Calvin interviewed more than 20 football managers from the Premier League to League Two in an attempt to discover just what it is like to attempt survival in one of the most pressurised and insecure professions in any walk of life, extracting some extraordinary and sometimes harrowing insights into the life of his interviewees, one of whom underwent electric shock treatment in a desperate bid to overcome stress-induced depression.

"Calvin is an exquisite writer but he is also a “proper” journalist," wrote Janine Self at www.sportsjournalists.co.uk. "If a manager wants to keep talking, thus revealing far more than he perhaps intended, Calvin sits back and allow the dictaphone to take the strain then lets the quotes run."

Also available from Waterstones and WHSmith

Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire, by Martin Fletcher (Bloomsbury)

Bradford fire survivor Martin Fletcher tells the gripping, heart-rending story of unthinkable loss following a spring afternoon at a football match, of how 56 people died, and of the truths he unearthed as an adult looking into the circumstances of a tragedy that claimed the lives of his father and brother, his grandfather and an uncle. This is the story – 30 years on – of the disaster football has never properly acknowledged.

Ian Herbert wrote in The Independent: “Above all else, it is a beautifully observed and incredibly detailed memoir of a son's relationship with the father he lost at the age of 12."

Also available from Waterstones and WHSmith

The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football, by David Goldblatt (Viking)

David Goldblatt takes a look at the ways in which British football reflects the changes and fortunes of society. He writes of how English football, once a dying working-class game that reflected the nation's declining fortunes, became the richest, most popular form of entertainment in the country.

"A refreshingly candid view of the English game as the intersection of the scepter'd island's two greatest traditions: tribalism and your puffy-coated-spiv’s fascination with money." --Timothy Spangler for www.forbes.com.

Also available from Waterstones and WHSmith

Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet, by Simon Lister (Yellow Jersey)

Simon Lister explores how the 1970s West Indies cricket team became one of the most successful in history, and how this success, in a sport traditionally associated with British colonialism and racial suppression, fostered a sense of pride among in the independent Caribbean islands and in the West Indian community in Britain.

Nicholas Hogg wrote at www.espncricinfo.com -- "By entwining a social history of the West Indies, especially the post-war exodus to Britain, with the cricketing journey of the Caribbean, Lister has produced an authoritative and at times thrilling text."

Also available from Waterstones and WHSmith

A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith, by Donald McRae (Simon & Schuster)

In this biography of the five-time world champion boxer, Emile Griffith, Donald McRae --twice a previous winner of this award -- writes of the struggles Griffith faced as a gay, black man in an era of deep-seated racism and homophobia. Griffith, taunted at the weigh-in before one title fight, beat up his opponent so severely he subsequently died.  Later, Griffith would speak of the irony of being forgiven for killing a man but persecuted for loving one.

"McRae's work always mixes top-notch research, equally key insights and stellar writing. This book is no different." -- Thomas Gerbasi for www.boxingscene.com

Also available from Waterstones and WHSmith

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, now in its 27th year, is the world's longest established and most valuable sportswriting prize. As well as a £27,000 cash prize, the winning author will receive a free £2,500 William Hill bet and a day at the races.

Making up this year's judging panel are: retired player and former chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association Clarke Carlisle; broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; broadcaster Danny Kelly; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and columnist and author Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the judging panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the Award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop.


Authors on the platform: star line-up at London Festival of Sports Writing 2015

A host of authors will be discussing their books at the London Festival of Sports Writing, which takes place at Lord's Cricket Ground from Thursday (November 12) to Sunday this week.

This is the third year of this new festival dedicated to the best in sports writing, jointly hosted by David Luxton Associates and Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) with the support of media partner London Evening Standard.

The four-day celebration kicks off on Thursday with cricket, football and tennis on the agenda for the opening day.

Among the authors appearing will be Richard Tomlinson, author of Amazing Grace: The Man Who was W.G., William Skidelsky, author of Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession.
Tomlinson will sit down with Lawrence Booth, editor of Wisden, and Jonathan Rice, who compiled Wisden on Grace, to discuss the legacy of the great W. G. on the 100th anniversary of his death in the company of Richard Whitehead, editor of The Times on the Ashes.

Skidelsky will talk about his enthusiasm for tennis giant Roger Federer with Kevin Mitchell, tennis and boxing correspondent of the Guardian and Observer and author of Break Point: The Inside Story of Modern Tennis, with Simon Briggs of the Daily Telegraph chairing the debate.

Later in the afternoon, former England cricketer Steve James (author of The Art of Centuries) and Simon Hughes, ex-player turned TV analyst whose latest book is entitled Who Wants to be a Batsman?, sit down with Times cricket correspondent and former Test captain Mike Atherton to talk about what it takes to make hundreds in first-class cricket.

The focus then turns to football as the Evening Standard's Patrick Barclay joins veteran award-winning journalist James Lawton in a debate with its focus on the great Manchester City team assembled by Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison in the late 1960s.  They are joined on stage by two members of that team, defender Tommy Booth and goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, both of whom feature in Lawton's book Forever Boys: The Days of Citzens and Heroes.  Barclay, a writer with the distinction of having been football correspondent for three of England's quality newspapers -- The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Times -- as well as The Observer among the quality Sundays, is the author among other books of Mourinho: Further Anatomy of a Winner.

Thursday's programme concludes with Observer journalist Amy Lawrence hosting a discussion about Germany's return to dominance on the world stage with Raphael Honigstein, author of Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World, and Ronald Reng, whose latest book is Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga.  Lawrence herself wrote a fine book about Arsenal entitled Invincible: Inside Arsenal's Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season.

On Friday's Agenda

Friday's order of play begins with Phil Tufnell, his autobiography Where Am I? fresh of the presses, in conversation with cricket enthusiast and journalist Emma John, deputy editor of the Observer magazine, about his escapades on and off the field.
Next is more humour with comedian and author David Baddiel on stage with John O'Farrell, author and comedy scriptwriter, discussing a broad sweep of topics including football, fiction, fantasy and FIFA, all of which feature in O'Farrell's new comic novel, There's Only Two David Beckhams.

After that comes a switch to the motor racing track with former Formula One driver Mark Webber, author of Aussie Grit: My Formula One Journey, joins Maurice Hamilton, award winning journalist and author of the recently published Grand Prix Circuits, in a discussion chaired by The Guardian’s Richard Williams, talking about Formula One’s most intriguing battles and circuits.

Friday's programme concludes with Spanish author, journalist and broadcaster Guillem Balague talking about the subject of his latest book, Cristiano Ronaldo, along with performance psychologist Bill Beswick, whose new book One Goal: The Mindset of Winning Soccer Teams is out this month, and journalist Sid Lowe, whose bestselling book Fear and Loathing in La Liga was shortlisted for the Football Book of the Year at the 2014 British Sports Book Awards.

Saturday's highlights

Authors in the spotlight on Saturday's programme include Michael Calvin (author of The Nowhere Men & Living on the Volcano), Patrick Barclay (author of Mourinho: Anatomy of a Winner and The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman) and John Cross (author of Arsene Wenger: The Inside Story of Arsenal Under Wenger), as they join award-winning journalist Henry Winter to try to provide some answers on how to survive as a football manager.

Also cyclist and reformed doper David Millar reveals what life is really like in the peloton with journalist Ned Boulting.  Millar has recently followed up his successful biography Racing Through the Dark with The Racer, a blow by blow account of his final season as a professional.  Ned Boulting is the author of a number of cycling books including On the Road Bike: The Search For a Nation's Cycling Soul.
Earlier in the day, there are discussion events about the paucity of female sports journalists working in the British media and a live edition of the Tottenham Hotspur podcast The Spurs Show, featuring presenter Mike Leigh, club legends Gary Mabbutt and Terry Gibson, sportswriter and Spurs fan Julie Welch, and The Guardian's parliamentary sketch writer and ESPN Spurs blogger John Crace.

Also former rugby stars Ben Cohen and Michael Lynagh will join journalist and author Brendan Gallagher in looking back at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The Sunday menu

On Sunday's agenda is The Cycling Podcast Live, involving the three hosts of the popular show -- Richard Moore, Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe -- in a review of the 2015 cycling season, after which Moore switches his attention to athletics.

After their sell-out appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Moore, author of The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica's Sprint Factory, discusses with Ed Caesar, author of Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon,  what it takes to become a world sprint and marathon champion, with Sky Sports expert Orla Chennaoui in the chair.

Later, cricket journalist Scyld Berry, cricket correspondent of the Telegraph titles and author of Cricket: The Game of Life meets former England captain Mike Brearley, author of the seminal Art of Captaincy, and Ed Smith, the former player turned author and broadcaster, to explore the nature, meaning, and significance of cricket throughout the world and how the sport has remained so popular.

For more information and how to obtain tickets, visit www.londonsportswritingfestival.com.