‘The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee’ by Paul D. Gibson (2018)

The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee is a remarkable, gripping and brilliant book.  Magee is a well known figure in Irish boxing but has a relatively low profile outside of the boxing world (outside of Northern Ireland at least). My own clearest memories of Magee stem from his fight with Ricky Hatton who was then very much on the rise.  Magee gave Hatton a scare and made him work exceptionally hard for this win.  But I had no idea about Magee’s life or why his story might be more interesting that the traditional tale of a boxer who briefly held a minor world title but ultimately never quite fulfilled his vast potential.

Magee’s sporting life alone would make an interesting book.  Preciously talented, he was denied a place in the Olympics due to internal politics and his refusal to participate in an unjust runoff fight.  His professional career was hampered by his extra-curricular activities but he still managed to win a World title.

However it is Magee’s personal life which make this story special. Magee was a child of the Troubles – the dark period in Northern Ireland’s history when sectarian violence was a regular feature of everyday life.  Magee grew up witnessing his father being interned without trial, constant violence and the British Army patrolling the streets. As the book over says he’s been shot, stabbed, exiled and jailed but he’s all been a world champion. His personality and circumstances drew him towards danger but boxing offered him an alternative path.

Magee’s life is the kind of story that would be unbelievable as a fictional tale.  It is a compelling story filled with violence, tragedy and addiction but also love, victories and a lot of laughter.    Gibson has done a great job shaping countless anecdotes and stories into a compelling narrative.

Magee is a difficult figure to empathise with.  But you cannot read the book and not feel some sympathy for him.  In many ways, the book is an attempt to explain who Magee is, why he is the person he is, and why he never quite fulfilled his potential.  The book is brutally honest and does not shy away from the dark side of Magee’s character and deeds.

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Reading the book I found myself wondering to what extent sporting talent makes us overlook a person’s flaws?  Or at very least, make us look more closely at their background and try to understand their behaviour?   Is it right to forgive a man’s sins simply because he has talent, charisma and a hard luck tale?  Had he not been a world class boxer, Magee would likely have been dismissed by society as a violent troublemaker, a drunk, a gambler, an addict, and a womaniser unworthy of sympathy.  His talents, however, make us consider him more deeply  and this consideration leads inevitably to empathy.

Gibson spent a lot of time with Magee and seems to really care for him.  Finishing the book, I can’t quite figure out how I feel. I cannot judge his self-destructive behaviour as. we all face our different demons in our own way.  However, the charges of domestic violence go beyond self-destruction and can’t be accepted or forgiven by virtue of having a difficult past.   I do feel tremendous admiration for what he achieved in boxing.  He is a man born with extraordinary talent, who achieved remarkable success despite his demons and his difficulties.    A man who is a product of his time and place while remaining very much a unique character.

The book has received widespread praise and jointly won the William Hill Sports book of the year for 2018.  Such praise and accolades are well deserved.  It’s not an easy read, but it is gripping, engaging and emotional.

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‘Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream’ by H.G Bissinger (1990)

Permian football had become too much a part of the town and too much a part of their own lives, as intrinsic and sacred a value as religion, as politics, as making money, as raising children.  That was the nature of sports in a town like this.  Football stood at the very core of what the town was about, not on the outskirts, not on the periphery.  It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves”. 

Friday Night Lights likely needs no introduction for anyone who would read a blog about sports books.  H.G. Bissinger chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas.  The book spawned both a movie and a very successful TV show and the phrase ‘Friday Night Lights’ has become synonymous with the idea of high school football in the USA.

Often proclaimed the greatest sports book of all time, Friday Night Lights is that rare book that fully lives up its praise.  It is also a book that is just as rewarding when read for the second or third time – the tension about how the team will perform is reduced, and the broader story Bissinger sets out to tell comes even more into focus.

Bissinger zooms in on the lives of 6 team members – some black, some white, some poorer than others.  Around these narratives he tells the story of the town – its schools, its history, its people, its politics and its prejudices.

Aside from the gripping football narrative – will the team make it to State – there a number of underlying stories that Bissinger focuses on.  At its core, Bissinger wants to talk about the idea of worshiping high school sports and athletes and the damage that can be caused.  But he cannot resist the allure, the passion and the drama that results from a town putting kids playing football at the very centre of civic life.  Bissinger openly admits that the games he attended remain his happiest sporting memories.

Reading this book in 2018, it’s impossible not to have today’s political environment in mind.  Many books have tried to chronicle the factors that led to Trump’s election, to capture the ‘Real America’, but reading this account from 30 years ago gives you more insight than any of the recent books.   Replace Reagan’s name with Trump and the social commentary could easily have been written today – it’s eye-opening how consistent the issues, concerns and arguably prejudices of everyday working class American’s have been over the 30 year period.

Fundamentally we see a society where life hasn’t lived up the hopes and dreams of many. Bissinger talks about how the town “absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined” – it’s easy to see Trump as the darker side of that same impulse, rather than helping people forget their problems by imagining a better future, Trump gives his supporters a licence to blame those problems on ‘the other’ – liberals, elites, Mexicans, globalists etc. etc. etc.

Above all, this book is superbly written. The descriptions of the matches are intense, the imagery is vivid and the heartbreak and joy feels very very real.  It’s a gripping, entertaining and simply wonderful book.

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‘Little Girls In Pretty Boxes: The Making And Breaking Of Elite Gymnasts And Figure Skaters’ by Joan Ryan (1996)

My first kid is due to be born in 10 weeks time.  Amid the busyness of getting the house ready, buying all the supplies and taking anti-natal classes, I’ve thinking a lot about sharing my love of sport, and of sports books of course, with my kid.

Sport was such a big part of my childhood and so many of friendships and memories are tied up with playing football in particular.   I want to expose them to any many sports and opportunities as I can and hope they find something that excites them as much as schoolboy soccer did for me.

We (and by we, I mean my wife) decided that we wouldn’t find out the sex of our kid in advance.  However, as I daydream about the future, I find myself naturally thinking about playing sport with my son, cheering or coaching his teams.  My brain keeps making the connection of sport with a boy – despite the obvious fact that I shouldn’t be treating a daughter any differently when it comes to exposing them sport.

Recognising my own instinctive bias, I’ve wanted to read more about women’s and girl’s sport.  I’ve tried to take more interest in women’s sport – and it’s been a bumper year for Irish women and historic sporting achievements – and to imagine bringing my daughter to play football and watch football – both men’s and women’s.

It was in this frame of mind that I approached Little Girls In Pretty Boxes, a book that often appears on list of greatest ever sports books.  The book is a detailed behind the scenes look at the world of elite female gymnastics and ice skating.   It is the story of the power of dreams and ambition – and how these forces can lead parents to overlook abusive or damaging behaviour by coaches, themselves and the girls they should be protecting.

The book tells the stories of many well known and less known gymnasts and skaters, including Nancy Kerrigan, Shannon Miller, Kim Zmeskal, and Betty Okino.  For every success story, the book points to many more tragic stories.  It also focuses heavily on the brutal coaching regime of Bela Karolyi.

Ryan paints a shocking picture of young girls dedicating their whole lives and risking their physical and mental health for the slim chance of glory at the Olympics.  Ryan interviewed dozens of athletes, family, and coaches.  Much of the comments from parents whose kids have since retired are full of regret, shame and remorse while some only regret the outcome (failure) and not the process they imposed on their child.

At its heart, the book calls for reflection on the merits of a win at all costs mentally.  It asks readers to reflect on the physical and mental price paid by countless girls and young women.   Personally, I was shocked at the toll the sport had on the elite competitors – delaying growth, permanent injuries and serious eating disorders seemed to have been normal, almost expected, side-effects of their training.

The book is full of villains – coaches, parents and federations who failed totally in thier duty of care.  One thing that emerges clearly however  is the sheer bravery of those girls who make it anywhere near elite level.  The commitment, dedication and effort needed is truly remarkable.

Written over 20 years ago, the book seems sadly still relevant today.  A quick online search reveals countless stories suggesting little has changed.  The heart-breaking testimonies that led to conviction of Larry Nassar for horrific offences against young gymnasts paint a picture even more gruesome than the one portrayed by Ryan in the book.

As a soon to be parent, the book stands out to me as a warning not to live vicariously through your child and to always remember that life is for living, not for ‘winning’. I want my kid to love sport but, in the unlikely event they show much more talent than I have, I’ll be sure to never push them to achieve my dreams rather than let them figure out their own.

After reading this, I found myself instinctively picking up Friday Night Lights for a reread (blog post coming).  Little Girls In Pretty Boxes is every bit as powerful, compelling and moving as that Texas football classic.

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‘Chasing Points: A Season on the Pro Tennis Circuit’ by Gregory Howe (2018)

I think we all have fantasies about our dream careers.  Something we showed a little bit of aptitude and passion for, but were never realistically going to get paid to do.   The rise of reality talent shows suggests this question – could I have made it? – sits inside an awful lot of us.

For me, I did some stand-up comedy in college alongside a few people who have gone on to make a living in the comedy/entertainment world.   I was good but I knew I’d never have enough strings to my bow to achieve much more than getting laughs from a crowd of peers who shared all of my cultural references.  But getting the opportunity to tell jokes while giving speeches at weddings over the last few years, and getting brilliant feedback stirred up the old feelings of  – could I have made it? Or at least, should I have tried?

This long-winded introduction is all to make the point that when reading Chasing Point, the story of a 34 year old man’s attempts to play professional tennis, I cannot emphasis enough how much I wanted Howe to succeed.   I wanted to stop reading after each loss – and unsurprisingly there are a hell of a lot of them – and I genuinely smiled at each moment of success.

Howe had been a very good tennis player but, by his own account, not good enough that a career in the game seemed inevitable or even likely.   He continued to play in tournaments into adulthood and used tennis as a way to see the world – combining holidays with entering some local tournament.

At 34 however, Howe decided to give the game one last shot.  The book covers a year spent mostly on the Futures tour, the third rung of professional tennis, where players fight it out for a tiny number of ATP Tour points with a view to moving on to Challenger Tour and ATP Tour tournaments.   Howe set himself the challenge of winning a solitary ATP Tour point that would give him a World Ranking and access to the ATP Tour.  To achieve this, he would need to win at least three consecutive games against typically much younger players who were trying to launch a career in the game.

Chasing Points exposes the incredibly unglamorous life of the majority of players who try to play tennis professionally.  Trailing across Continent’s, sleeping in crappy hotels, paying to enter tournaments and having to win three consecutive games to see any return (either financially or in Tour points), Howe paints a picture of young men unable to let go of a dream until they had no other choice.  It’s the dual nature of the story that makes Chasing Points so interesting – it’s not just Howe’s journey but also an insight into the struggles of thousands of others on the way up or the way down as they try and try to make it as professional tennis players.

The book has been published 10 years after the season it chronicles.  It’s therefore really interesting to be able to know what eventually happened the various characters Howe meets along the way.   The majority end up drifting into obscurity with some never playing another professional game after Howe beats them.

Howe’s ambitions were relatively modest and highly personal in nature – there’s almost no reward for being ranked the 1,200th best player in the world.  But it’s this personal satisfaction that makes the challenge worthwhile – Howe set his sights on something and commits to trying whatever he can to achieve it.  It’s not a tale of extreme sacrifice – Howe spends a bit of money on the quest but he isn’t poor. It’s not a tale of extreme obsession – Howe doesn’t destroy relationships or his health (in a major way) to achieve his goal.  It’s not a tale of life changing moments or triumph against all the odds.  Instead it’s the story of what success means to each of us and the satisfaction of the journey.  It speaks to that desire to never give up on our dreams and never stop doing what you love.

Chasing Points is a really enjoyable read.  Howe tells an interesting story and he tells it well.  There is a real risk of repetition as each tournament blends into another but Howe gets the balance right – sometimes telling a game in lots of details, sometimes simply mentioning that he lost 6-2 6-2.  Overall I’d highly recommend it for any sports fan or anybody who asks themselves am ‘I too old to try and live my dream?’.

As a 34 year old man who is writing this review in Brussels Airport on the way home from a work trip, in the breaks between taking work related phone calls, I can’t help but reflect on those long-ago dreams of stand-up comedy.  If I end up attempting an open-mic night anytime in the next few months, Greg Howe is getting the blame.

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‘Lionel Messi and the Art of Living’ by Andy West (2018)

Every book has a target audience.  For sports books, it’s always a question as to what ‘fandoms’ the book will appeal to, what’s the Venn diagram of people who would like this.  Do you have to follow the sport? Do you have to be a fan of that team? Would a non-sports fan enjoy it?

About half-way through reading Lionel Messi and the Art of Living, I realised that, for this book, the target audience is me.  I love Messi, I’ve read plenty of philosophy, and plenty of pop social-science books.  I read the book during my commutes to and from the office during the toughest week in work I’ve ever had.  I read it while also in a very reflective mood having spent the weekend buying baby clothes for the first time (my wife is heavily pregnant with our first child).  I’ll never be in a more receptive place for some insights into how to live and never more willing to learn than from the greatest footballer of all time.

Did I mention that I love Messi?  I’ve loved him from the first time I saw him play. I sound like one of the 5 million Liverpool fans who claim to have been in Istanbul but I was boring enough to have watched almost all of the U20 World Cup in 2005 when he first emerged.  My brother’s childhood sweetheart had just broken his heart the day we both finished undergrad and, being freshly graduated and jobless, I spent 6 weeks trying to cheer him up with a diet of rented movies and sport on TV.  I probably don’t love Messi as much as my friend who has ‘Messi 10’ tattooed on his arse, but for me, he is the footballer that defines the last 10 plus years of my enjoyment of the game.

Returning to the book, it is very hard to categorise.  It’s part biography, part philosophy, part self-help book, part Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In some ways it could be read as the foundational book for the Church of Messi – a New Testament built around our one true saviour (from the evils of CR7).  But that may just be by me.

A more balanced, less emotional, review it’s that the book is an interesting approach to examining the factors that breed success in life – by whatever metric you judge that.  West seeks to examine Messi’s football career as a potential guide for how to live – he explores the characteristics which Messi displays and are essential to his success and, by analogy, to success in life in general.

West took the approach of interviewing just 7 people – some in football, some who knew Messi and others with interesting things to say.  Each chapter interweaves these interviews with a study of how Messi demonstrated one of the key characteristics needed to be successful.   The format works really well, the writing is very readable and it’s a book you could easily dip in and out of.

If you want a flavour of what the book is about, West has a great twitter thread (@andywest01) that gives a summary of each chapter.  If you like the sound it from that summary, you’ll love the book.  While I think the overall approach of the book might alienate some readers looking for something more traditional, West has gone for something different and he executes his vision brilliantly.

In summary, I loved it.  You might not like it quite as much but you should definitely give it a shot.

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‘The Binman Chronicles’ by Neville Southall (2012)

I’ve always liked Neville Southall – the legendary Everton and Wales goalkeeper who played into his 40’s.   By the time I was a football obsessive 8 year old, he was already in the later years of his Everton career and the team were a long way away from the League and FA Cup winning teams of the mid-80’s.  Southall appeared to be a throwback to an earlier era as football became increasingly commercially driven.

The Binman Chronicles is a fairly standard ex-footballers autobiography.  It follows an old-school format of focusing heavily on his playing career and, after covering his early years and how he got into professional football, chronologically detailing season-by-season.   The book reads in Southall’s voice but the book could have done with tighter editing with a bit too much repetition – every off-season was boring, he doesn’t like holidays, just loves playing football etc.  It feels too much like interviews with Southall were transcribed directly rather than a ghostwriter editing to capture Southall’s voice and story.

While the book can at times be a bit bland, Southall himself is an interesting character – as anyone who follows him on twitter will know.  Arguably the best goalkeeper in the world during the mid-80’s, he never pushed for big money or a glamours move abroad. A tee-totaller but a piss-taker, he seems to have somehow been both a loner and a senior figure in the Everton dressing room.  Never one to follow the crowd, Southall wears his differences as a badge of pride and seemed to have totally resisted any pressure/temptations to be ‘one of the lads’.   There is a limited amount of detail on his own personal life – apart from his love of Wales and his daughter – but he is ultimately open about his failings and his affairs during his first marriage.

From a footballing perspective, any Everton or Wales fan will be fascinated by the insights into those teams at the times Southall played.  He is open in both his praise and criticism for coaches and fellow players – he has warm words for Howard Kendall and Joe Royle despite some pretty negative experiences with both them, bit is damning in his criticism of Mike Walker’s ill-fated time as Everton manager.   For those who are too young to have experienced English football in the 80’s, the book paints an interesting picture of Everton’s rise to rival Liverpool without really detailing what exactly led to the remarkable improvements during Kendall’s first spell in charge – it seems simply have been better players and good man-management.

I would have enjoyed more about his present work which involves teaching troubled young people.  His own early struggles in education seem to help him build relationships with those who are struggling to find a place in society.  It’s clear that Southall has found a passion that rivals football and is committed to helping.

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‘Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction’ by Shaun Assael (2007)

Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA.  Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport.  The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.

This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true.   The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s.  At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source.   Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.

Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example.  What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids-  it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting.    Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial 

Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing.  These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.

I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out.  It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available.  If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.

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