Belfast Telegraph

Declan Bogue: Getting chapter and verse from sporting names is real privilege we must never take for granted

 

By Declan Bogue

Don't ask how, but I happened upon a blog from publisher Geoff Armstrong last month reporting that for the second year running, no sports book in Australia had sold more than 15,000 copies.

There can be few 'outdoorsy' countries obsessed with their sport more than Australians, with their appetite for Rugby League, Union, Australian Rules football, cricket and horse racing. And yet it seems their devotion goes no further than watching it on the television.

This makes print runs closer to 1,000 than 10,000 for books on the likes of, say, Shane Warne.

Happily, that virus has not spread to these shores. Year on year, dozens of sports books are written and flourish, which has the double effect of shining a light into the recesses of sporting personalities and gives yours truly an annual idea for a column as I advance my recommendations for the January sales.

Given that this page is primarily concerned with Gaelic Games, the big autobiography to land this year was former Tyrone captain 'Sean Cavanagh: The Obsession' (published by Black and White Publishing).

Aptly named. Cavanagh's book, ghosted by the prolific Damian Lawlor, does not spare him as he recounts rumours of infidelity, and refusing his wife's request for him to pick up their children from school as he was lying on his accountancy office floor stretching to prepare himself for training with Tyrone.

Naturally, a lot of the headlines were swallowed up by the unravelling of Cavanagh's relationship with his manager Mickey Harte, but this is only a fraction of the real interest. There is much for the amateur psychologist (and who among us doesn't fancy ourselves in that role?) to get their teeth into here.

Ultimately, it is a portrayal of what a successful inter-county player will do and the relationships some are willing to test to be as good as they can.

A novel idea came in the form of historian Paul Rouse's 'The Hurlers: The First All-Ireland Championship and the Making of Modern Hurling' (Penguin Books).

Using the first All-Ireland hurling final played as the template, Rouse rips through the formation of the GAA and codifying of its games, and brings to colourful life the high-jinks and strokes pulled by GAA founder Michael Cusack. It's heavy on detail at times, albeit it still works stupendously well.

I required a change of pace following such a meaty course and while 'The Boys of '93' (Merrion Press) by Maria McCourt was based on another historical moment, her efforts in capturing her uncle Eamonn Coleman's incredible achievement in winning the 1993 All-Ireland Championship with Derry left us with a book that burns brilliant white at just the right length.

There is a chapter given over to an interview with Gary Coleman, Eamonn's son, where he details how he was marginalised after his father was unceremoniously removed from his post and his difficulties with the men left in charge.

Your eyes will swivel at how all those things you hear being said are recounted in lurid detail here. "You're only a f****** ball-pumper!" as Coleman said to one selector a scorching highlight. Now 25 years on from Derry's only Sam Maguire, and the poison is still seeping out from the implosion.

If the overall excellence of the current Dublin senior football team feels like forever, then it does no harm to take a step back in time to when they weren't so good but the craic was 90, as Irish Sun journalist Neil Cotter has superbly captured in 'Dublin: The Chaos Years' (Penguin Ireland) charting a line between the 1995 All-Ireland-winning team to the 15 years of failure that followed.

As you might expect, few recent voices are in here, and you won't get Jim Gavin reclining with a few scoops as he laughs off the seasons of glorious failure, but with characters such as Keith Barr, Johnny Magee, Paddy Christie and even Bertie Aherne, you don't need it.

Finally, the last GAA book I will mention here is Cora Staunton's autobiography 'Game Changer' (Transworld), with the help of ghost writer, the experienced Mary White.

Winner of the Bord Gais Sports Book of the Year, this opens the door on books on females within the GAA and captures Staunton's life as a high-performing athlete across Gaelic football and Australian Rules ladies football while battling the usual small-town begrudgery and having family members in much too close proximity to some messed up individuals in the stands who attend games to abuse the players.

In an effort at self-improvement this year, I looked into a number of intriguing titles across other codes.

Boxing has always yielded the richest sporting literature and there are very simple reasons for that - the protagonists are generally from colourful backgrounds with social deprivation, the promoters and agents are almost without exception charlatans, and it is in the fighter's interest to become a self-marketing trash talker to ramp up the hype and increase the purses.

That's a heady mix and leaves some people with skewed values. It's that sense you get as you speed through 'The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee' by Paul D Gibson (Mercier), which recently won a share of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

Uncomfortable and compelling, Magee himself is everything that has been listed in the previous paragraphs along with a side serving of alcoholism, drug dealing, street violence and a chequered history with paramilitaries. An incredible story.

Niall Kelly won the same award in 2017 with his re-telling of Dublin footballer Philly McMahon's life in 'The Choice', and he has achieved something beyond conveying a life story in 'Fighter', (Gill Books) the autobiography of Limerick's Andy Lee.

Helped by Lee's depth and intellect, you end up with a deeper knowledge and empathy for the plight of boxers everywhere, taken along also by his relationships in particular with his now wife Maud, and legendary trainer Emanuel Steward.

The last book I read this year was my stablemate Jonathan Bradley's 'The Last Amateurs' (Blackstaff Press) on Ulster Rugby's improbable 1999 European Cup triumph.

Imagine how awkward that next meeting between us in the office would have been had the book been a dud. Happily for the reviewer, it was excellent.

Bradley's skill as a writer lies in being able to cram so much detail - the type that sport fans crave - into tight sentences, yet leaving them with a breezy feel. It's the difference in eating a light salad instead of a full plate of spuds and no less satisfying for it.

The concept that popular sports website 42.ie has for an annual book is laudable and worthy. It simply takes the choice cuts from throughout the year from their own writers and recycles them into a book.

Naturally there is a temptation to think that this pool is a little shallow and could do with a wider cast. Whatever potential there is for an annual Best Irish Sportswriting Anthology modelled on the American version, it would - you'd know rightly - be destroyed by nepotism.

If we can't have that, then this is the next best thing and it turns out that 'Behind The Lines: Great Irish Sports Stories From The 42' is a rattling great collection of stories - essays may be a more accurate description

Finally, we come to another tough read, but worthy of anyone's collection to warn them of the inherent dangers of gambling addiction, Declan Lynch's 'Tony 10', (Gill) where Lynch tells the story of a bright young man making his way through the post office system but his life is consumed and eaten whole by what became - to these eyes and many more - a simply terrifying compulsion to gamble; €10,000,000 in total.

Hold a gun to my head and ask me for my top three and I'll take my chances with the captors to ask for four. They would be the Magee and Lee autobiographies, and 'The Last Amateurs' along with 'The Boys of '93'.

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