What the following list includes: two books about Brian Clough, two novels, two books on tennis and a dozen other sports covered, plus backgammon. (Backgammon is not a sport.) And Muhammad Ali gets his own section, as Muhammad Ali should.
What the list does not include: Football Against the Enemy or Beyond a Boundary. Those were numbers 31 and 32. (Sport: cruel mistress.) Wayne Rooney’s My Story So Far.
What we guarantee: at least one book that you’ve never read and can buy now in original paperback for holiday reading this summer.
Addicted by Tony Adams (1998)
Adams was still a regular for Arsenal and England when his jaw-droppingly frank autobiography was published at the start of the 1998–99 season. His drinking problem destroyed him personally yet seemed to leave his football unaffected (wearing bin bags under training kit to sweat out the booze served him well). If any stories were left out, they must have been truly hideous. Here are remembrances of picking through jeans on the bedroom floor to find the least-piss-soaked pair to wear. Expect fights, prostitutes, broken lives, redemption.
Paper Lion by George Plimpton (1966)
To millennial sportswriters who never leave the office (or sofa) to live blog sport on TV, Plimpton’s participatory journalism (“that ugly descriptive”, in his words) must seem preposterous and grand. That Plimpton himself came across ever so slightly preposterous and grand was not lost on the man himself, who pricked that public persona with a terrifically witty, inquisitive writing style that worked best applied to sport. Of his five books about taking part in pro-level match-ups in boxing, baseball, ice hockey, golf and US football, Paper Lion, on the latter, is the finest.
Pocket Money by Gordon Burn (1986)
Burn, known for his mixing of fiction with non-fiction in the New Journalism style, spent a year documenting snooker during its mid-Eighties’ boom, and produced one of the lesser-known classics of British sportswriting. Reading it now, Burn is not the Hunter S of the green baize: his write-up is as straight as Steve Davis’s cue action, yet all the better for it. Every endorsement deal, every shit hotel room from Stoke to Guangzhou, every hour on the practice table, every string pulled by the promoter Barry Hearn: Burn recorded the lot with great skill.
Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years With Brian Clough by Duncan Hamilton (2007)
“A spurious intimacy evolves between you,” writes Hamilton, of the relationship between a football club reporter and the club’s manager. In his case, from the age of 18 for two decades in Nottingham, with Clough, “an extraordinary journey with a contradictory, Chinese box of a man — idiosyncratic, eccentric, wholly unpredictable.” Clough’s one-liners are magnificent, for example, on a time before blanket player representation: “the only agent back then was 007 — and he shagged women, not entire football clubs.” Hamilton’s poignant, revealing book is a wonder.
I Think Therefore I Play by Andrea Pirlo (2013)
I Am Zlatan is held up as the foreign footballer’s must-read memoir, but entertaining though the Swede’s book is, time spent rubbing up against his ego isn’t so enlightening. Pirlo’s, however, has the sort of insight you’d expect from the thinking man’s Greatest Player of his Generation. “You won’t believe me, but it was right in that very moment,” about to take the first penalty in the 2006 World Cup Final shoot-out, “I understood what a great thing it is to be Italian. It’s a truly priceless privilege.” Also learned: he adores video-game football and always plays as Barça.
Laughing in the Hills by Bill Barich (1980)
As mid-life crises go, Barich’s, aged 35, is special. Five rejected novels, mother and mother-in-law dead of cancer five weeks apart, no money, no job, wife with suspected brain tumour. Craving structure, he found it only studying the Daily Racing Form, picking horses methodically and placing small bets. He then told his wife (tumour: false alarm), he’d be moving to a motel next to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Fields racetrack, “convinced there was something special about racing and I wanted to get to the heart of the matter.” There was. He did. His write-up of that time is spectacularly good.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton (1970)
On the face of it, a diary of the 1969 season by a second-string pitcher for the Seattle Pilots baseball team, the only year that team existed, does not leap to the top of the to-read pile. But the total frankness in terms of locker-room talk, player drug use and womanising, bad blood, gamesmanship and other off-topic matters means this is the most inside-a-team book you’ll ever read. It offended baseball so much, Bouton’s 1971 follow-up was called I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally. David Simon, creator of The Wire, put Ball Four in his six all-time favourite books.
The Damned Utd by David Peace (2006)
Brian Clough (see elsewhere on this list) spent 44 days as manager of Leeds United in 1974. Peace’s self-styled “fiction, based on a fact” unpacks this mistake via an unrelenting Clough inner monologue that brings the great man vividly to life. (The Clough family, and Leeds’ Johnny Giles disagreed, the latter winning an apology though the courts.) As a study of football partisanship, one of the game’s most important emotions, it is astonishing. Said Gordon Burn (see elsewhere on the list), “if the English novel needs a kick up the pants… consider it wholeheartedly kicked.”
Muhammad Ali by various
The Greatest has a whole shelf to himself in the sporting library (including, naturally, The Greatest Coloring Book of All Time). Four books in particular stand out, together covering every angle you could wish for. Jonathan Eig’s Ali: a Life (2017) is the best cradle-to-grave account, as good on the flaws as the fabulous. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero (1999) by David Remnick focuses on the Clay-becomes-Ali era of the early Sixties. The Fight (1975) is Norman Mailer’s amazing retelling of the Rumble in the Jungle, and the giant, glossy Greatest of all Time (2003; 2010 reprint) by Taschen, is the coffee table book to top them all.
Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Ever Tour de France by Richard Moore (2011)
The badger, or more correctly, Le Blaireau, is Bernard Hinault, the last Frenchman to win the Tour de France and one of cycling’s all-time greats. Out to get him is his American teammate Greg LeMond, who finished second to Hinault in the 1985 Tour and wants the result reversed in 1986’s race. Reliving the latter contest, Moore forces the reader to pick sides — grizzled veteran versus young upstart, old ways versus new ways, USA versus France — which only heightens the drama. Journo props to Esquire contributor Moore, too, for tracking down both men more than 25 years later for illuminating postscripts.
Open by Andre Agassi (2009)
According to The New York Times: “one of the most passionately anti-sports books ever written by a superstar athlete.” Says Agassi: “I knew in the book I had to expose everything.” So: the unceasing slog, from toddler to champ, that prevented him from loving tennis, or anything, until he met his second wife Steffi Graf. His failed first marriage to Brooke Shields, crystal meth: it’s all here. Props to Agassi and his quest for truth, and also his ghost, JR Moehringer, who got 250 hours of interview time with his subject instead of the typical 30.
All Played Out by Pete Davies (1990)
English football’s second-finest hour — Italia ’90 — led to its finest book. Having spent the year before the World Cup earning the trust of the England players and manager Bobby Robson, Davies was let into the camp during the tournament. He also observed, close-up, the press, fans and hooligans. An epic journey for the team and their chronicler, superbly told with sharp reportage, dry humour and real feeling. In 2010, the book was retitled One Night in Turin, to tie in with the documentary of the same name.
Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (2011)
First, to get ahead of any Twitter storm, we recognise the decision of cricket bible Wisden (the greatest annual sports book ever, of course) to stop using the term “chinaman” to describe a slow left-arm wrist-spin bowler. Such a player is one of cricket’s rare gems, and this novel is about a washed-up journalist trying to find a slow left-arm wrist-spinner who has faded from the spotlight. The author knows a lot about cricket, but he also knows a lot about myth, mystery, obsession, drinking and noble pursuits undertaken by the ignoble.
Mystery Spinner: the Story of Jack Iverson by Gideon Haigh (2002)
Hold your right hand out in front of you, palm facing you, fingers spread, then bend your middle finger at the knuckle. Now try bowling a cricket ball held between thumb and middle finger. Jack Iverson mastered it, and bamboozled batsmen so much that when he played for Australia, the captain, also Iverson’s club captain, would move players from other clubs around in the field so they couldn’t watch Iverson up close. This biography, by the writer many think is cricket’s current best (they’re correct), reveals, at times movingly, why Iverson didn’t become an all-timer.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)
Hornby could not have imagined that his book would be relevant to the football fan’s experience 26 years after it was first published. (That it is still in print, after several bestselling years, would also be a surprise to him.) It’s harder for fans to follow Hornby’s best piece of advice — be seen reading the papers’ back pages on the first days of a new job, to attract fellow supporters — but he absolutely nails the inexorable pull of football fandom. And he had to do it all with boring, boring Arsenal.
Levels of the Game by John McPhee (1969)
This writers’ favourite began life, as most of its author’s books do, as an article in The New Yorker. It is an account of the 1968 US Open semi-final between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, a profile of both men and their place in US society at the time. Ashe is black, Democrat, bookish, skinny; Graebner the opposite. Every sportswriter ever has played the sport-is-life-and-life-is-sport card. In this slim volume, which punches far beyond its weight, McPhee plays it best of all.
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro by Joe McGinniss (1999)
Castel Di Sangro is a small-time football club that miraculously rose through the Italian pyramid to Serie B’s second tier for the 1996–97 season. Equally extraordinary was the presence of McGinniss, a US writer famous for a revealing Richard Nixon book and true-crime doorsteps, as the upstarts’ Boswell. He had fallen hard for soccer after the 1994 World Cup and moved to Italy to document the fairy tale. Instead: corruption, cocaine smuggling, car crashes and conspiracy to go with the calcio.
Fast Company by Jon Bradshaw (1975)
Brilliant, evocative profiles of winning gamblers including Bobby Riggs (of the 1973 ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match), pool legend Minnesota Fats and Tim Holland, backgammon’s best ever. The author, who wrote for Esquire, New York magazine and Vogue, understood these rascals because he admired and shared their qualities. In his introduction to a later edition, writer Nik Cohn remembers Bradshaw’s “conscious roguery, a Rothmans perpetually dangling from one corner of his mouth, and that lopsided shark’s grin plastering the other. He sported Turnbull & Asser silk shirts and Gucci loafers, flashed gold lighters and a Piaget watch.” Touché.
Beware of the Dog by Brian Moore (2010)
England’s 64-cap hooker begins this second account of his life by effectively apologising for the less-than-candid nature of the first, then describing the sexual abuse he endured as a child, why he came to deal with it as an adult and what happened when he told his mum. It’s genuinely stunning. But this book is not on this list because of just one chapter. Everything that follows, including pissed-up rugby tales, personal and professional highs and lows, feels like it’s in the book for the same reasons as that prologue: honest, insightful and crucial to Moore’s life.
The Hand of God: the Life of Diego Maradona by Jimmy Burns (1996)
Burns was the right choice to decode Diego in the post-Fever Pitch wave of sportswriting. As the former FT man in Buenos Aires, he knew Argentina and its favourite son perhaps better than any other English-language writer. The beats of the player’s life are storyteller’s gold: shantytown upbringing, national team aged 17, FC Barcelona aged 22 (when he also had his first line of coke), World Cup winner aged 25, roaring into a camera at the World Cup, full of illegal stimulants, aged 33. Also: mafia, money, mayhem. Burns weaves it all together magnificently.
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis (2006)
Lewis’s Moneyball, about disruptive baseball analysis, often appears on lists of this sort, but The Blind Side is more entertaining, with a you-couldn’t-make-it-up human-interest core that some felt was over-egged in the film version starring Sandra Bullock. Back in the book, two stories are told: how a black US high-school football prospect (crack addict mother, dad killed in prison) changes after adoption by a rich white family, and how the game itself has changed with respect to the “blind side”, a quirk of player growth and tactics.
A Life Too Short: the Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng (2011)
Reng and Enke were planning to write a book together; Reng wrote it alone after Enke killed himself in November 2009. Three months peviously, Enke had kept goal for Germany for the last time. Three years earlier, his two-year-old daughter died after lifelong heart problems. More than once, the pressure of top-level football had come down hard. Rene uses Enke’s diaries, interviews with the keeper’s wife and family and the material the two men generated together in a masterful, moving account of depression and its devastating consequences. Once read, never forgotten.
The Death of Ayrton Senna by Richard Williams (1995)
Williams, former editor of Melody Maker and chief sportswriter of The Guardian, is both the man you want over your shoulder when playing HQ Trivia and the sort of writer who can make you listen to, or care about, someone you had no interest in before reading his take on them. Of course, Senna is beloved; even more so since the 2010 documentary biopic. Williams even-handedly dispels the myths surrounding the Brazilian’s remarkable life, his tragic death and the afterlife of his legend, yet maintains his heroic aura through concise, insightful analysis.
The Illustrated History of Football by David Squires (2016)
Squires has just completed his fourth season of football cartoons for The Guardian, with no sign of let-up in quality or hilarity. (The panel-per-season tribute to Arsène Wenger at Arsenal is especially good, even by Squires’ ridiculously high standards.) His first book, a history of the game with all-new work, is the funniest football tome since Viz’s Billy the Fish Football Yearbook, published 26 years earlier. Last year’s second volume, The Illustrated History of Football: Hall of Fame, is more of the same.
Full Time: the Secret Life of Tony Cascarino by Paul Kimmage (2000)
Everything you’d think the 21st-century footballer is advised to leave out of an autobiog is here: infidelity, itemised career earnings, dialogue with the internal voice of crippling self-doubt (“you pathetic fucker, Cascarino!”), mystery injections from club physios and, most candidly, the fact you were not really qualified to play for your country. “Tony Goal”, as the Republic of Ireland (perhaps) centre-forward was known in France, teamed with Irish writer Paul Kimmage, whose cycling book Rough Ride and rugby book Engage, had a shot at being on this list.
A Lot of Hard Yakka, Triumph and Torment by Simon Hughes (1997)
“There’s nothing exceptional about me; never was,” claims Hughes, in what is the only duff note in a book that proves his statement incorrect. His lid-lift on the jobbing cricketer’s lot is a celebration of shortfalls, on and off the pitch. After all, what is sport if not mostly mediocrity punctuated by rare moments of glory and despair? Hughes has neither of those. He has kit sponsors rewarding improved performance with “a couple of short-sleeved casual shirts” and that time he interrupted coitus to turn over the Donna Summer tape. Very funny stuff.
My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes by Gary Imlach (2005)
Stewart Imlach played for Scotland at the 1958 World Cup and won the FA Cup with Nottingham Forest a year later. Now you know about as much about Stewart as did his son Gary when the old man died. Holding a cigarette card of his dad at a collectors’ fair a few months after the funeral, Gary laments, “How had I managed to let him die without properly gathering together the details of his career, his life story?” Surely doubly galling for Gary, the TV sports journalist, who had likely researched thousands of other sporting lives. This book triumphantly redresses his oversight.