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.