Already pining for sporting thrills? These books should fill the void
- Credit: AP
With the end of the World Cup and Wimbledon, many of us will experience a come-down. Here’s an antidote: some great football and tennis books to keep the buzz alive a while yet
Who, honestly, would be a highish-grade football manager if it wasn’t for the thick pay-packet? And, I suppose, the addictive scent of glory.
The title of Michael Calvin’s book – Living on the Volcano: The Secrets Of Surviving As A Football Manager (2015; £6.50-£9) sums it up perfectly. A manager’s head skims the heavens, yet he’s almost certain to get burned.
Michael examines what makes today’s managers tick, and how they cope with the pressure of handling a budget of millions. What happens if their careers are snatched away in the blink of an eye?
How difficult is it to define yourself by anything than the so-called beautiful game when your chosen occupation (as someone told him) “consumes your life. It eats you up”?
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The author sought the wisdom of coaches such as Alan Pardew (whose life and times feature more ups and downs than a switchback), Mark Hughes, and ex-Colchester United and current England U21 manager Aidy Boothroyd.
How can we not have one of East Anglia’s own? Out this year was Old Too Soon, Smart Too Late: My Story, by ex-Ipswich star Kieron Dyer and journalist Oliver Holt (£13.50 to £20). If you want a tepid autobiography that doesn’t challenge your grey cells or heartstrings, this isn’t it.
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The injection of TV money into the game saw players like Kieron given nicknames such as The King of Bling. For some critics, it irked that young stars were driving Bentleys when they didn’t seem to be fulfilling their potential.
But the book’s about much more than a game involving players being paid heaps for kicking a ball. With commendable honesty, he tells of the gambling and girls, the temptations of drink… and the abuse he suffered as a lad at the hands of someone he should have been able to trust.
Kieron won many fans for his exploits in Ipswich, England and Newcastle shirts. A sensitive man, he made even more when showing his mature, caring nature on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! in 2015.
On national TV, it was clear the baubles and hype of football had done nothing to dent the values laid down during a Suffolk upbringing. And that was brilliant to see.
How could we ignore the book that helped usher English football into a febrile new era (even if it isn’t a smoothly-stylish read)?
Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch (1993; various prices, but think about £8.50 for a Penguin Modern Classics) captured perfectly the all-encompassing obsession of football fandom. It’s funny, poignant and confessional – and was a hit because it chimed with numerous fans whose lives were similarly not-so-perfect but whose self-esteem was bound to the fortunes of their beloved clubs.
Shame Fever Pitch revolved around Arsenal. But, then, you can’t have everything.
Here’s a timely one. In July, 1990 – the last time, before this week, that England reached the World Cup semi-finals – the Lions lost and the match is remembered for midfielder Paul Gascoigne crying after being booked. He’d have missed the final, had England qualified.
It’s all there in Pete Davies’s “One Night in Turin: The Inside Story of a World Cup that Changed our Footballing Nation Forever” (2010; about £8.75-£11) – the result of the author being able to spend nine months with the England squad.
Oh and, of course, England were led by ex-Ipswich manager Bobby Robson. What’s not to love?
This true story you just couldn’t make up. Sixteen-year-old Paul Ferris becomes Newcastle United’s youngest first-team player ever. Fast, deft and from Northern Ireland, he’s dubbed the new George Best.
But within about five years the dream is over, as a succession of injuries steals his skills.
Paul trains as a physiotherapist and later comes back to Newcastle United – his book telling of never-a-dull-moment days under managers such as Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Graeme Souness and Bobby Robson.
Paul conducts the medical check when Alan Shearer becomes the game’s most expensive player (£15m) in 1996 – and becomes firm friends with the striker.
Then he’s off again, his time qualifying as a barrister… but later is tempted back when Alan Shearer takes over as manager in the final weeks of the 2008/2009 season and fails to stop Newcastle being relegated.
But the book is more than just a football memoir. Paul grew up in Lisburn during The Troubles. He tells of his parents being attacked by a loyalist gang, and the family home being petrol-bombed.
Then there were his mother’s ongoing heart problems when he was a lad – which caused him huge anxiety. The title The Boy on the Shed (2017; £14-£20) is a reference to the way he’d climb onto the coal shed and watch his mother working in the kitchen. He was convinced God would not steal her away if he kept looking. She would, later, succumb.
Paul would have his own problems: a heart attack at 48 and, in late 2016, the diagnosis of prostate cancer, which required radiotherapy.
Happily, he’s today in good nick. And his story gives the lie to the suggestion from legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankley that football is much more important than life and death. It doesn’t even come close.
* Because many of the books have been out a while, they can be bought from various sources for various sums. Prices here show the range we’ve seen recently
It’s not just about stunning goals and deft volleys. Sport isn’t black-or-white binary. The emotion of playing and watching comes from all the moments between zero and one: the subtle changes in rhythm and momentum that make it compelling. Life outside the spotlight is also fascinating.
Quirky is good, too. For our first service, try “Tennis’s Strangest Matches: Extraordinary but True Stories from Over a Century of Tennis” (2016; about £8) is gloriously and Britishly bonkers.
Peter Seddon mined a century of sporting history for some of the oddest happenings linked to a tennis court. Such as the Match of the Century between a “Male Chauvinist Pig” and a “Women’s Libber”.
You might have heard of that one – think Billie Jean King – but perhaps not the 1879 Wimbledon final triumph by Yorkshire vicar John Thorneycroft over Vere Thomas St Leger Goole.
Goole was later jailed for life for the “body in a trunk” murder of an affluent widow in Monaco.
There are also tales of matches on the wings of planes – in the air – and one where the players wore regimental dress. Might be a useful attraction, these days, to while away the time during rain delays on outside courts.
Enough trivia. It’s players who really float most people’s boats. We want to know what makes them tick – and whether the ability to produce moments of genius comes with a price.
“Rafa: My Story” (2012; £9/£10) is about a man who seems calm and gentle off court but who is a tiger on it. The book looks at Rafael Nadal’s childhood, victories and defeats, and battles with injury – going behind the façade of a very private person and finding what drives him.
Think about angels and devils and John McEnroe tops the list. The pantomime villain we loved to boo has become an adopted national treasure, via extensive media work with the Beeb.
But Seriously: An Autobiography (2016; about £13.50 to £20) shows us an expert who is never dull: a man who seems at heart shy but who cannot resist being searingly honest – and scathing if needs be.
Demons? Of course. And in true fashion he doesn’t seek to sweep them under the carpet.
Andy Murray appears to be another shy champion – different than more-light-hearted brother Jamie. Behind these great tennis men is the great woman: mum.
In “Knowing the Score: My Family and Our Tennis Story” (2017; about £6 to £19) Judy Murray explains how she helped her talented boys strive to reach their potential. Not that it was all peaches (or strawberries) and cream – there has been sexism along the way, she says, and financial challenges – but shining moments aplenty, too.
And just to show that chasing the tennis dream is not to be attempted lightly, see Gregory Howe’s recent release Chasing Points: A Season on the Pro Tennis Circuit (about £9 to £13).
The odds were stacked against the 34-year-old as he gave up teaching to try to gain a world ranking as a tennis pro. The book traces his year in minor competitions from Bangkok to Kampala, where not surprisingly he found it tough against fitter young men.
There’s a kind of happy ending as – miracle of miracles – he managed to reach the elite Association of Tennis Professionals tour, ending up competing at that level while – somehow – also doing a regular job.
The life of Roger Federer it wasn’t…