Sunday, September 21, 2008

Some Of The Best Sports Books Ever Written

Well September is almost over. And if where you live is anything like where I live, then Christmas ad's on radio and tv have started already. Actually the first ad I heard for Christmas was back in July so I guess the Christmas market never really goes, or is that just my little corner of the world.

Anyway, here's a list of books that I've read over the last few years and one or two that were recommended to me, Cricket isn't my favorite sport but it's highly recommended by Sanjeev if you're interested.

I'd recommend any of these books to fans of any sport. Some let you inside the game, some let you inside the mind of a professional athlete and basically they're just good reads.

Hope you enjoy them.

The 1st Book on the list is:

Almost Everything you ever wanted to know about Sport by Tim Harris

A phenomenal undertaking by Tim Harris. And at almost a 900 pages this book covers pretty much everthing you've always wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

Covering a massive range of topics the book is split into 8 separate sections. And will give you answers to question you didn't even know you wanted to ask.

Why is soccer played in halves? Where does the scoring system in tennis come from? Why is golf played across 18 holes instead of 100? And why don't NFL matches play on Saturday?

Giving you a look at sports through the ages from the origin of the Olympic Games and the orignal bribes (yes they even took them back then) to how drugs and money have affected modern sports. A brilliant book.

Full Time: The secret life of Tony Cascarino by Paul Kimmage and Tony Cascarino

For those who don't know "The Ice Cream Man" is one of the most loved soccer players ever to play for Ireland. Except he wasn't from Ireland. He was Italian and left that little detail out when Ireland came looking for him.

Charting the life story of Cascarino, and starting out with him wanting to be a hair dresser when his dad wanted him to work on building sites. This book is probably the most honest sports book ever written. The book offers a brutal assessment of Cascarino as a player, admitting he had the same skills as a wheelbarrow. But offers insights into his battles with the mental side of the game with his constant wars with the voice.

But most interestingly the book offers you a birds eye view of his life off the field, from his infidelities that eventually lead to his marriage breakdown to his inferiority complex instilled in him by his family and ultimately to his triumphant return to top level football in France after clubs in England and Scotland wouldn't touch him with a barge-pole.

Cascarino leaves no stone uncovered and often dismisses large chunks of his career to concentrate on his life off the field. Making Cascarino one of the few athletes to actually allow the reader to see him as a person, warts and all.

I couldn't recommend this book highly enough to every fan but especially soccer fans.

Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage

After reading Cascarino's book and knowing that Kimmage had written a book about cycling I trawled through a few book shops in search of it. Eventually I came across it in it's 10th anniversery version.

Originally released in 1990 Rough Ride follows Kimmage's career in the world of cycling. Progressing from street racing with his friends to the Youth championships and Amateur Championships where he established himself as one of the top young riders in the world and finally on to professional cycling.

But this is where the book takes an unexpected turn. Kimmage does not go on in fairytale fashion to win titles. No he goes on to struggle and become an also-ran. But here he sees all the guys he used to beat as an amateur destroying him as a professional. Why? Do they train better? No...they use drugs.

This is a heartbreaking account of Kimmage coming to realise that he'll never make an impact unless he joins the ranks taking steroids not just to win but to be able to compete the next day.

Kimmage's book is a seminal point in the world of cycling. At first it was ridiculed, this couldn't happen in our sport and Kimmage was ostracized from the world of cycling. Friends and colleagues turned on him and few would even talk to him.

Paul Kimmage's book is brave. As he became whistle-blower to the systematic doping of athletes in the sport he loves. He knew what would happen to him on this revealing and that just makes his actions braver.

This book is not only about drugs in sport. It also shows how in the world of cycling the lesser riders like Kimmage are used as pawns to elevate the better riders. How they're ridden to exhaustion day after day and then told to lay back while the No 1 rider who has rested all day in their slip stream rides on to victory.

One of the bravest sports books ever written. And 10 years on you would think Kimmage must feel some kind of satisfaction at seeing cycling and the Tour De France trying to clean up it's act. But he has kept his dignity intact and has never hollered I told you so.

Pure Dynamite by Tom Billington and Alison Coleman

I know that Pro Wrestling is not every-bodies cup of tea. But Pure Dynamite is a cut above most other biographies and is easily the best wrestling bio ever written.

The book starts with Tom wrestling in Britain, where he realises if he wants to hit the big time he'll have to go to North America. But the price he pays for stardom in wrestling is much more than the plane fare.

The book follows his career across the continents. And offers a unique unhindered insight into the lonliness of being on the road. As The Dynamite Kid was not with WWE at the time the book is brutally honest and un-edited by it's management.

Like any sportsman Tom Billington had a dream. To be the best at what he does. But in wrestling that means being away from your family for around 300 days a year. Not having time off. Picking up constant injuries and not being let rest to let the injuries clear up. Eventually leading Tom into addiction to steroids and harder drugs, and the collapse of his family. And eventually his career as he now finds himself in a wheel chair after suffering numerous injuries to his back.

This book appeals to fans of all sports because it's about a guy following his dream but not realising the price he'll have to pay if he succeeds.

Tailgating, Sacks and Salary Caps by Mark Yost

The NFL is one of the most successful leagues in the world. But what makes the NFL so special is that every team has a chance of winning. The league is set up in an amazingly fair way. From the college draft where the worst teams get the chance to strengthen by picking the best players available to the financial model which is the real reason behind the leagues and indeed the teams successes.

For those who don't know there is a socialist approach to the NFL. Through financial initiatives like revenue sharing and salary caps every team is given an even footing. Making the playing field off the field a level one unlike the English Premier League where the teams are run like competing businesses.

This financial set up has allowed teams like the Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles compete with teams who have a much larger fan base and who have the ability to make more money than they do. Team like the Washington Redskins, NY Jets and the Chicago Bears although much bigger franchises compete evenly against the Packers and the like.

However in 2006 a group of owners led by the Chief Executive of the Washington Redskins proposed changes to the leagues financial systems. He proposed that the franchises should be allowed to earn revenue from initiatives like stadium naming rights, jersey sponsorship, exclusive radio and television deals and exclusive local sponsorships. And that any money earned from these deals should be kept by the franchise involved. Mark Yost looks at the proposed changes and how they would impact on the sport.

Tailgating, Sacks and Salary Caps offers an insight into the NFL system and how the model has benefitted everyone involved in the game. How owners and players alike, consider themselves as partners involved in a bigger picture and how even though they're well paid the league is what is important, not squeezing the system and your opponent dry.

As someone who follows Soccer closely I must admit, the NFL financial model does seem like the system that all leagues should look at.

Back from the Brink by Paul McGrath

Paul McGrath is one of the best soccer players to have ever played in England. This book follows his career through highs and lows during the 80's and early 90's. But instead of just focusing on his career the book offers a fly on the wall account of his troubled life outside the game.

This book is not an easy read. Not because of the style of prose but because of what McGrath had to endure as a child and how his troubled childhood led him to bouts of depression and alcoholism.

When McGrath was going through his toughest times off the pitch he seemed capable of pushing everything to one side when on it. Producing magnificent displays for club and country alike. McGrath was named as one of the best defenders in the world after his performances for Ireland in the World Cup at USA '94. What is even more remarkable about this feat was that McGrath was in the twilight of his career and had been unable to train for club or country for around four years, due to horrendous injury problems with his knees. McGrath took a cortisone injection in each knee before almost every match.

The book follows McGrath through hard times as a child. Dealing with racial abuse on the streets of Dublin because of the colour of his skin. Being abandoned by his mother in a home for children and of bouts of depression where he could be catatonic and refuse to leave his bed for weeks. And how all of these combined to drain Paul of self confidence throughout his life, and lead him towards alcoholism.

Legend is a phrase used too often in sports. But after what McGrath had to go through he's a legend on and off the pitch.

From Lance to Landis: Inside the American doping controversy at the Tour De France by David Walsh

David Walsh is a cycling journalist. And after reading Rough Ride my interest in the sport was piqued. I heard Walsh giving a radio interview about doping in sports and that he had written a new book which tried to show that doping and cycling have always gone hand in hand.

David Walsh loves the sport of cycling. And he tries to find a whistle blower or a smoking gun within the cycling world. Someone who will come forward and admit what goes on behind closed doors.

What Walsh tries to do through circumstantial evidence is prove that Lance Armstrong, the greatest Tour De France rider of all time was doping too. Walsh provides evidence by comparing greats like Marco Pantani to Armstrong. Pantani pretty much dominated cycling until Armstrong became No.1. But Pantani had been systematically doping for years so much so his hematocrits (red blood cells-average male level is 40% to 50%) levels hit an incredible 60%. Enough to kill a man. Walsh goes on to impress upon the reader that to compete with let alone beat the likes of Pantani Armstrong had to be doping too.

I had read "It's not about the bike" by Lance Armstrong and had considered it to be one of the most uplifting books I'd ever read. But after reading Walsh's account of doping in cycling Lance's book seems like a pack of lies.

This is an important book for any sports fan to read, it deals with doping and how it renders the sports we love impotent.

Only a Game? by Eamon Dunphy

Eamon Dunphy is one of the most controversial journalists / analysts in the media today. But few people realise he was a professional footballer in the 60's and 70's. And although he wasn't blessed with great skill he did have a great work rate.

Only a game? follows Dunphy as he played for Millwall in the 1973/74 season. By this stage of his career Dunphy had become somewhat of a journeyman and an outspoken figure within the game and wasn't afraid to air his views. But realising he hasn't got too long left in the game he is relishing the new season with his club. With a few decent signings they should easily win Division 2 and get promoted to the top league where the likes of Leeds Utd and Liverpool lie in wait.

Told in diary form Only a Game follows Dunphy and Millwall from the start of the season where everyone is optimistic about promotion to Dunphy being dropped from the team and eventually sold. It show's Dunphy's despair as the best players at the club are sold only to be replaced by tippy tappy kids who now think they've made it.

The book also shows how the clubs at the time really owned the players. The houses they lived in, the cars they drove and how all of these could be taken away by merciless managers. It offers an insight into teams where you don't exist if you're not in the team and all of sudden your social circle is removed. It shows that football in the '70s was a harsh world and where nothing was tangible.

Dunphy shows the professional side of the game to the reader in an unglamorous way and that professional footballers are filled with the same fears as the rest of us. Dunphy slowly realising that Millwall want rid of him but that they own the house he and his wife live in is a particularly good example.

The book doesn't offer a fairytale ending because the season didn't have one for either Dunphy or Millwall. Essential reading for anyone interested in knowing what professional sportsmen go through especially in the 70's.

Well that's the short list I've compiled. I could have added some more but I think there's already too many soccer books on my list. I'd like to thank all the people who recommended "Dynamo-defending the honour of Kiev" to me after my article of the match in question. (Dynamo Kiev vs The Nazis). I ordered it from Amazon so I'm waiting for it to be delivered. Hopefully it'll be on the list for next Christmas.