Best sports book? Don’t bet on it

A year ago, highlighted the fact that the 2006 William Hill Sports Book prize went to a book that had been first published in 2004. Here, ANTON RIPPON looks at the 2007 shortlist and is disappointed to discover it includes one book that is not really a sports book at all, plus a less-than-convincing American account of “soccer”, and arguably not even the best book about Brian Clough published recently

Book awards have one serious flaw: they rely upon publishers actually entering their books. And, as not all do, the field can never be regarded as truly comprehensive.

So does the shortlist for this year’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year award – winner to be announced at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly on November 26 – reflect all that is good about the 2007 crop of sporting works?

Well, yes. And probably no.

It’s certainly good to see Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me (Fourth Estate) there. Hamilton’s 20 years spent in close and almost daily contact with Brian Clough, when the author was a shy young reporter on the Nottingham Evening Post, have been put to good use in one of the best Clough books ever written.

But the presence on the shortlist of one book about Clough raises the question as to why another is not: David Peace’s acclaimed The Damned United (acclaimed in the sense that it was described in The Times as “probably the best novel ever written about sport”).

Works of fiction, as The Damned United is, are not barred from the “Bookies Prize”. Indeed, Nick Hornby’s writing career was launched, and the reputation of the William Hill award established, when Fever Pitch won it in 1992.

Anyway: The Damned United was published in August last year, so could not be entered for this year’s William Hill. Nor did Faber see fit to enter it last year, either. Thus, the “best novel ever written about sport” will never win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

Also missing from this year’s list is one volume that I would have put forward, George Edwards’s Right Time Right Place (Tempus), an account of Clough’s Baseball Ground days. Edwards was the Derby Evening Telegraph’s chief football writer at the time and he brings a fresh perspective to Old Big ’Ead.

Indeed, had Edwards and Hamilton got together, they could have collaborated on the definitive Clough work, for each had unique insight into different chapters of his career. Of course, neither knew the other was beavering away and, knowing them both well, I doubt it would have suited either to have done anything but plough their own furrow. But the point is that Fourth Estate entered their Clough book and, as far as I know, Tempus didn’t. So here is the book awards flaw: for every title entered, there are several worthy of the same consideration.

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That is not to suggest that this year’s shortlist is lacking in overall quality. Sir Bobby Charlton’s autobiography is long overdue, and he could have had no more talented a ghost writer than James Lawton, whose work is what makes me buy the Independent. I long admired The Times’s coverage of football, especially The Game supplement until it became obsessed with celebrity columnists. I soon tired of reading how difficult it was for Gabby Logan, what with her having twins and all.

My problem with Sir Bobby Charlton: The Autobiography (Headline) was that I could never get out of my mind the fact that it was Lawton who was actually providing the words. But, as Lawton himself wrote: “You cannot flick one page, or one tape recorder button, and find an easily accessible Bobby Charlton. You try to build, piece by piece, the image of the man…” And in this, the ghost had achieved everything he set out to do.

It is a fascinating job, especially when Charlton tells Lawton about his early years. He recalls being taken by his coal miner father to collect his wages from the pit-head office (brother Jack actually did a stint down the mine). One also wonders what today’s academy players would make of sleeping two to a bed, which is what United’s juniors had to do in their digs in a large Victorian house in the early 1950s.

The key episode, of course, is Munich, which Charlton realises that he has to revisit before he can move on and, indeed, make much sense of his life since. The chapter where Sir Bobby attempts to explain the rift between his wife and his mother is far too long, but that is a minor quibble. I should imagine that this is as near to the definitive Bobby Charlton as we are ever likely to get.

Down Pompey?
These, then, are two of football’s three representatives in this year’s William Hill shortlist, and they both deserve to be there. I’m not sure about the third. Up Pompey (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is, according to its sub-title, about “ a clueless American sportswriter” who “bumbles through English football”. The sportswriter in question is one Chuck Culpepper, twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Culpepper, of course, is only clueless when it comes to “soccer” and this account of his adventures is probably aimed at British readers who don’t understand the difference between our sport and the way the Americans do things. It’s a bit Bill Bryson meets the Premier League, and I’m not sure what it’s doing here.

In contrast, Tommy’s Honour (Harper) by Kevin Cook is surely a real contender. In the middle of the 19th Century, Tom Morris scratched a living by producing more effective golf clubs using hickory shafts, making “featheries” (primitive golf balls made from pieces of leather, stuffed with feathers and sewn together) and caddying for the well-off but fairly hapless members at St Andrew’s, then home to sheep and rabbits.

Cook, a former editor in chief of Golf Magazine, tells how Tom Morris turns St Andrew’s into a course we’d recognise today, wins the Open Championship four times, and then watches the emergence of his son, Young Tom, who, at 17, becomes the youngest player to win the Open.

The boy comes to be regarded as Scotland’s greatest golfer, before his wife and son both die in childbirth and he takes to the bottle, himself dying only a few months after the tragedy. He was 24. Old Tom soldiers on, surviving his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchild, before he dies at the age of 86, breaking his skull in a fall. It is a dark and brooding storyline, and Cook weaves it together magnificently.

Gripping though it is, I’m not sure that Left For Dead: The Untold Story Of The Tragic 1979 Fastnet Race by Nick Ward, with co-author Sinead O’Brien (A & C Black), is actually a sports book, but more a tale that would find a better home in one of those true life adventures so loved by Reader’s Digest.

The story itself is well-known. The worst storm in the history of modern sailing claimed the lives of 15 sailors during the biennial race from Cowes to the Fastnet Rock off south-west Ireland. Ward’s boat capsized several times. The skipper was lost overboard and three crew members took to the life raft. Ward remained on board with a dead crew mate – they were both presumed lost – and alone faced the storm.

In 1980, Ward decided not to speak again of how he survived that dreadful night. He kept the promise until O’Brien, a Dublin-based documentary filmmaker, persuaded him to open up nearly 30 years later. It’s a ripping yarn. But is it a sports book?

Simon Wilde’s Shane Warne: Portrait Of A Flawed Genius (John Murray) completes the shortlist. When Warne burst upon the scene in 1992, the most remarkable thing about him was that he was a top-rate leg spinner. Never mind his appearance – and later on, his seedy off-field activities – what set him apart was the fact that he was a world-class practitioner of a dying art.

Wilde takes this leg-spinning lark as the key to Warne’s very being. The result is a readable biography – the subject himself wasn’t interviewed – but, in the end, it is just another attempt at a warts-and-all account of a wayward sporting “genius”, albeit a slicker one than anything that has gone before.

What other cricket books out there didn’t get entered for this award? That’s the flaw.

Past William Hill Sports Book winners

2006: Unforgivable Blackness, Geoffrey Ward
2005 : My Father and other Working Football Class Heroes, Gary Imlach
2004 : Basil D’Oliveira, Peter Oborne
2003 : Broken Dreams, Tom Bower
2002 : In Black & White, Donald McRae
2001 : Seabiscuit – The True Story Of 3 Men & A Race Horse, Laura Hillenbrand
2000 : It’s Not About the Bike – My Journey To Life & Back, Lance Armstrong
1999 : A Social History of English Cricket, Derek Birley
1998 : Angry White Pyjamas, Robert Twigger
1997 : A Lot Of Hard Yakka, Simon Hughes
1996 : Dark Trade, Donald McRae
1995 : A Good Walk Spoiled, John Feinstein
1994 : Football Against The Enemy, Simon Kuper
1993 : Endless Winter, Stephen Jones
1992 : Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby
1991 : Muhammad Ali, Thomas Hauser
1990 : Rough Ride, Paul Kimmage
1989 : True Blue, Dan Topolski

Anton Rippon is a football writer who has worked for the Sunday Telegraph, Guardian, Times and 442 magazine. The author of more than 20 books, for 25 years Rippon owned and ran Breedon Books, a sports publisher

Read our coverage of last year’s William Hill Sports Book Awards:

Book’s a winner, but two years too late

William Hill’s response

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