‘The Breath of Sadness: On Love, Grief and Cricket’ by Ian Ridley (2020)

I genuinely do not know how to review this book.

The Breath of Sadness is a book about grief. While it’s also about country cricket – the domestic multi-day format of cricket which has been gradually declining as shorter forms gain in popularity – it is mostly about Ian Ridley dealing with the loss of his wife Vikki Orvice, a talented and much loved sports writer.

Ostensibly the book is about the role cricket played in Ridley trying to deal with his grief. As the book says, attending the sport gave Ridley a destination, an activity, a peaceful place where he could grieve. As he put it, it allowed him to be “in solitude with but humanity still at hand. If I wanted, I could be distracted by the game going on in front of me, by its subtleties unfolding”.

Mostly however the book is a love letter to Ridley’s wife Vikki. I have to confess not being hugely familiar with her work (I don’t read the Sun newspaper which she worked for). While reading the book I regularly searched for previous pieces of her work and it is clear that the tributes she was paid for her writing talent are thoroughly deserved. It’s also clear from Ridley’s words that she was even more remarkable as a person.

I really feel I’m not doing the book justice here. It brought tears to my eyes at least 3 times while reading it. More than once I had to put it down. It is raw in the truest sense of the word. It is raw in a way that is difficult to read at times but written with a style and a talent that makes you eager to continue. It is also honest in a way that is as rare as it is refreshing.

We read books for lots of reasons – entertainment, light relief, intellectual curiosity and so much more. It is a rare book that makes you look at your loved ones a little differently, makes you appreciate them that little bit more, makes you grateful for them that little bit more.

The Breath of Sadness is not the type of book I normally read. While it captures something special about the shared experience of sport it is much more than that. It’s a heartbreaking book but a remarkable one.

‘Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties: The Life and Times of a Boxing Icon’ by Thomas Myler (2020)

Despite reading a (possibly worryingly) large number of boxing books, the life of Jack Dempsey was one I hadn’t read about in any great depth. While the name is intimately to familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in boxing, the details of his life and career are likely less well known.

In Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties Thomas Myler recounts Dempsey’s story. It really is a remarkable tale with Dempsey beginning as a homeless bar fighter traversing the country by railway. Eventually he would punch his way to the top of the sport and become an iconic figure at a time when the heavyweight champion of the world was one of the most famous men alive. As the title suggests, the book does a superb job of placing Dempsey in his time and place and brings both the era and the man vividly to life.

Myler is a well-known and talented boxing writer and historian who has interviewed pretty much everyone there is to interview in boxing. What makes this book a great combination of subject and writer is that Myler had the privilege of interviewing Dempsey before he died which adds an authenticity to the book which is rare in one looking back so far into the past. Many of Dempsey’s fights are subject to conspiracy theories and rumours, none more so than his first title fight in 1919 and his last fight against Gene Tunney. Myler does a great job in separating fact from fiction and presenting Dempsey’s story as he sees it. A fine addition to any boxing fan’s library.

‘The Man of All Talents: The Extraordinary Life of Douglas Duggy Clark’ by Steven Bell (2020)

Outside the realm of die-hard rugby league and wrestling history buffs, Duggy Clark is an unknown figure. Within the history of those sports in Britain Clark is a legend. He was among the pioneers of rugby league, championships with Huddersfield and England, and earning a place in the sports Hall of Fame. He was also a champion wrestler (the grappling kind, not the WWE kind!).

Steven Bell, a Huddersfield native, has colourfully and entertainingly brought Clark’s remarkable story to life. The level of research is remarkable, including significant contemporaneous sources and Clark’s own diaries and memoirs. Bell paints a colourful story piece by piece while also placing events in their historical context.

The writing style is unusual for non-fiction, often reading in the style of historical fiction rather than a classic biography. At times I did find myself wondering where the line between pure history and creative licence was exactly but this does nothing to take away from the enjoyment of the book.

Overall this is a fascinating, unique book with a particular appeal to fans of both sports in which Clark excelled. More broadly however it is also a fascinating story told in a captivating manner.

I haven’t read Bell’s previous sports book From Triumph to Tragedy: The Chapecoense Story, about the Brazilian soccer team left devastated by a plane crash, but am definitely adding it to the to read pile!

‘The Greatest: The Times and Life of Beryl Burton’ by William Fotheringham (2020)

Beryl Burton is undoubtedly the greatest cyclist I had never heard of. Her palmarès is up there with anyone else and includes 7 world championship gold medals. (As an aside, I absolutely love that when you google palmarès the first link is to Sean Kelly’s wiki page). Other ridiculous achievements including breaking the men’s 2-hour time trial record and basically every women’s record you can think of.

William Fotheringham’s work will be well known to any fan of cycling books (along with his brother Alasdair). Two of his earlier books, Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson and Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi remain among my absolute favourites.

The Greatest is therefore that brilliant combination of the perfect biographer for a fascinating subject. Fotheringham tells the full story of Burton’s life in detail for the first time. She emerges as incredibly driven and forthright – someone who wanted to compete against and to beat all comers, whether that be men or her own daughter! She managed to overcome a serious childhood illness and compete at the highest level despite holding down a job that required hard manual labour.

Like all of Fotheringham’s biographies, The Greatest is exceptionally well researched and paints a clear, uncompromising picture of its subject and the times she lived in. He also covers the sexism Burton and any other female cyclists faced during the time.

Ultimately, The Greatest is an attempt to give Burton the historical recognition she deserves. It’s highly readable and a welcome collection to any cycling fans library.

The greatest cyclist you’ve never heard of

‘Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Laker Dynasty’ by Jeff Pearlman (2020)

A new Jeff Pearlman book is always something to savour. I really enjoyed his various biographies, especially his recent Gunslinger on Brett Farve. However, his in-depth deep dives into iconic sports teams (both on and off the field of play) are among the very best sports books.

Pearlman previously chronicled the Magic Johnson / Pat Riley led LA Lakers in the excellent Showtime. It’s the definitive book on the Showtime Lakers era.

Three-Ring Circus sees Pearlman return to familiar territory of an LA Lakers championship winning team. The book tells the story of next 1996 to 2004 Lakers as Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson combined to create a 3 time champion team.

Shaq of that era emerges as a loveable figure both in the public imagination, to strangers and to anyone who showed him love and respect. The book is full of stories of Shaq’s remarkable kindness but it also paints a picture of a man who knew his own value and for whom being loved / respected was all important.

Jackson remained steadfastly himself during his time in LA, a character familiar to anyone who remembers his remarkable achievements with Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. He was an unorthodox coach, unloved by his fellow coaches and unafraid to hustle for jobs that weren’t vacant. He was also an incredibly successful man-manger and possibly the only coach who could have wrangled Shaq and Kobe into working together for the benefit of the team.

While all three men share central billing, inevitably, due to his fame, personality and talent, Kobe Bryant sits firmly at the centre of this story. Pearlman pulled no punches in presenting Bryant how his peers experienced him during this time. The Kobe Bryant portrayed in Three-Ring Circus is deeply unlikeable yet also admirable in his determination and work ethic. A man you wouldn’t want to spend time with but one who was destined to be successful.

It’s clear throughout the book that most of Pearlman’s interviewees spoke to him before Bryant’s tragic death. It’s a little jarring to read such an honest and unflattering portrait of someone so soon after they died. Pearlman goes into a fair bit of detail on the serious rape allegation that overshadowed Bryant’s early successes and mentions the oft-forgotten fact that Bryant all but accepted the young lady didn’t consent to their encounter when apologising after charges were dropped. It makes for difficult reading having consumed months of glowing memorials to Bryant’s legendary career since his death.

Shaq and Kobe 1 on 1

As Pearlman says in the introduction, however, the Kobe of then is not the Kobe of post 2005. Its easy to judge someone who experienced an unimaginable life lived in the public eye since he was a teenager. I’m not sure how well I (or anyone) would come across in a book detailing their life between 17 and 25.

The book doesn’t neglect the other important personalities and Pearlman’s tireless research ensured he got fascinating insights from lots of other players who helped to make the Lakers championship teams. As he says in the book, people seemed to really enjoy talking about this team and their experiences which is reflected in how enjoyable it is to read about them!

Despite the Lakers remarkable success with 4 final appearances and 3 championships in 5 years, and some remarkable runs of form, the team seemed to constantly be on the verge of falling apart. It is testament to both the players’ overwhelming talent and Jackson’s remarkable ability to manage superstars that they achieved such success. This was a dynasty that was never going to last however. Neither Shaq or Kobe could ever be happy in the others shadow, both needed centre stage and the adulation that came with being the dominant player on a championship team.

Three-Ring Circus is a fascinating slice of basketball history. A must for any sports book library.

Shaq and Kobe: Dynamic Duo Documentary

‘Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard’ edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas (2020)

‘History is written by the victors’ is one of those many quotes that gets attributed to Winston Churchill. History is written about the victors might by more accurate when it comes to sport. It’s the stories of winners that we remember and that get the most books, articles and attention.

Losers is a fascinating collection of stories written from the perspective of losers – a very broadly defined term given that the essays cover some very successful athletes! The stories all share a common theme of reflecting on defeat in sport, its impact and the challenges of bouncing back. Fourteen of the essays are new unpublished work and are complemented by eight classic pieces including Gay Talese’s superb essay on Floyd Patterson.

The stories each offer different perspectives and range from sombre to hilarious. The subjects covered range from obscure to famous. Each story is insightful and works well as a standalone piece. Like all good collections, however, the sum of the whole adds up to more than its individual parts. Together the collection represents a brilliant reflection on human nature. Stories of how we respond to failure, and bounce back (or at least try to) capture something far more universal than the more written about moments of unbelievable glory.

The quality of the collection is reflected by how difficult I’m finding to pick a favourite. I’ll go for Jeremy Taiwo’s (as told to Stefaine Loh) reflection on being the 2nd best decathlete in the USA and Brian Platzer’s take on two young table tennis players chasing Olympic glory. Each story is a treat though and the collection one to saviour.

Losers is published August 18 2020

‘The Hitler Trophy: Golf and the Olympic Games’ by Alan Fraser (2016)

When I went as a spectator to the Rio Olympics, golf was the one sport my wife refused to attend. Despite my protesting that the sports historic return to the Games was reason enough, she maintained that you only watch sports at the Olympics where it represents the pinnacle of that sport. Had I known golf and the Olympics had such an interesting history I might have been able to make a stronger case to go!

The Hitler Trophy tells two stories – one of a small golf tournament organised in Baden-Baden on the fringes of the Berlin 1936 Olympics and also the broader backstory of golf’s connection with the Olympics.

Golf’s official Olympic backstory is largely forgotten. The only two tournaments it appeared in, Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904, were a total bust. Indeed in Paris, players were unaware that they were part of the 1900 Olympics and the first player awarded a gold medal for golf was unaware of that fact. The game quickly disappeared (officially) until its return in Rio. In The Hitler Trophy Fraser paints a vivid picture of these early tournaments and their colourful characters. Later in the book he also details the much more recent campaign which led to golfs successful reemergence as an Olympic sport.

The main focus of the book however is the little known Baden Baden tournament. Sanctioned personally by Hitler, the tournament had many of the trappings of an official Olympic event. Fraser recounts what details are known about the victory of two fascinating Englishman against a limited field. The highlight of the book is Fraser’s subsequent research tracing what happened next to the trophy and the cast of characters. Most intriging of all is his quest to determine whether Hitler really was in a car en route to present the trophy when it looked like the German team might emerge triumphant.

The Hitler Trophy is brilliantly researched and beautifully written. Fraser has spoken to probably every living descendant of the key figures. Full of fascinating characters and sprinkled with great wit throughout, it is a fascinating, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

‘Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion’ by Jordan Florit (2020)

Usually picking up a book is the start of a journey into a story. This book has been a little different with the actual book coming as the immensely satisfying end of a fascinating and enjoyable process. Author Jordan Florit launched a project on Kickstarter with a view to raising enough just money to fund this self-published book. Along the way he has kept his nearly 200 backers entertained, informed and eagerly anticipating the finished book.

Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion is a fascinating examination of Venezuelan football and its broader society. When thinking of South American football, Venezuela is probably the last country that comes to mind – off hand Salomón Rondón was the only Venezuelan player I could even think of. Despite a population 30 million people they have never qualified for a World Cup!

In his own words, Jordan chose Veneuela as his focus for a couple of reasons. Firstly, ‘the people’. Throughout the book, the warmth and kindness of the Venezuelan people shines through as Jordan shares stories from his travels, the games he saw and the people he met.

Secondly, ‘add something positive to the conversation on Venezuela’. Given the vast news coverage of poverty, desperation and corruption, its a real antidote to see the country presented in a different light.

Red Wine & Arepas is comprehensive, well-written and highly readable. I really like the approach chosen of telling the wider story tho of Venezuelan football through chapters that zoom in on specific subjects. Each chapter broadens the overall narrative while telling a fascinating vignette of the country and its football. The book also mixes these broader football stories with Jordan’s own personal travelogue expertly.

A special mention for the fact that Jordan also covers women’s football in the country. It’s an unusual and welcome addition which gives a more complete picture of the role the game plays in Venezuela.

As you read through the book, the central team of football as a religion emerges organically. Jordan clearly has an immense amount of faith that the country will come good, that it has too many good people not to. The faith of the Venezuelan themselves, in their own identity and their football has clearly rubbed off on him.

Jordan has done an incredible job. The book leaves you with a deep appreciation for the country, its culture, its football and its people.

Following the project through Jordan’s regular updates has been a joy. Jordan’s enthusiasm and passion for this project, and life in general, has been infectious. I really look forward to seeing what he does next.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Red Wine & Arepas. Check out Jordan’s twitter feed @TheFalseLibero to find out how to do so.

‘State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation’ by Melissa Isaacson (2019)

As a kid, my entire week would be determined by how my soccer team did on Saturday. I lived for Limerick Schoolboy football . I still list being named the best player in my league at under-10 level as one of the top 5 moments of my life! I’m fully on board with the significance of school age sports!

There are some superb accounts of particular seasons of underage sports teams – The Miracle of St Anthony and Friday Night Lights remain two of my favourite books. Very few such books either cover women’s sports or offer a first person account of a writer’s own teenage sports career. State: A Team, A Triumph, A Transformation is Melissa Isaacson’s account of her high school basketball team – the 1979 Illinois State Championship winning Niles West High School team

Girl’s high school sport had only just started in the area as US law (Title IX) requiring equal treatment of girls in all school activity had passed 3 years previously. Isaacson’s compelling first-person account of a group of high school girls who came together to win a State championship really captures the time and place of that new dawn in women’s sport in the USA. It touches on gender discrimination, the struggle for equality and the particular challenges for girls discovering their athletic identity.

State is at its core a love-letter to team sports. It captures the hard work, the joy, the pain and the friendship that comes with playing for a team at a time in your life where it can matter more than anything. The book paints a vivid picture of the girls and their coaches. Isaacson draws the reader in and gives a real sense of who these people are and in particular what basketball meant to them. The writing puts you in the moment. At times the book gives a little bit too much on-court detail, but Isaacson’s fluid writing style ensures it never feels bogged down.

Isaacson became an award-winning sports reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covering the Chicago Bulls during their championship years. Many will have seen her as a talking head on the recent The Last Stand documentary. Isaacson spent years writing this story and this level of detail, attention and love, together with her quality in as a writer is clearly apparent in the book.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith (2014)

Pele, George Best, John Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Eusebio. Some of the greatest player of all time and just a few of the superstar players to appear in the North American Soccer League.

The NASL was a professional soccer league in the USA and Canada which ran from 1968 to 1984. In true American fashion, it aimed not just to survive but to become the biggest league in the world. While it ultimately crashed and burned, the story of its rise and fall is a fascinating piece of football history.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a comprehensive, entertaining and brilliantly written account of the NASL.  Plenderleith avoids sensationalism and offers a fairly objective look at what went right and what went wrong as the league evolved. 

Some goals from the New York Cosmos

The structure of the book works really well. It’s real quality is Plenderleith’s ability to zoom in and out of the on-pitch action while keeping the reader engaged. This is not an easy task and he wisely avoids a chronological narrative. No one really cares who won championship, its about the surreal journey along the way.

By spreading the gospel of soccer and promoting it extensively in schools, the NASL arguably laid the foundations for the sport’s tremendous popularity in America today at grassroots levels. It’s fairly clear that the NASL expanded too quickly and was too optimistic about future success. Few of the teams could make money and most played in stadiums that were far too large.

One of the most interesting stories from the NASL was the variety of rule changes. Some things became widely accepted – especially the use of more substitutes, and moving to more points for a win.  Some of the interesting rule changes weren’t a failure but didn’t survive FIFA’s scorn – especially the penalty shootout and the 35 yard offside line.

George Best’s famous LA Aztecs wondergoal

You can’t discuss the NASL without mentioning the New York Cosmos, the undoubted superstar club of the NASL era.  Owned by Warner Communications, they invested mega bucks to bring Pele, Beckenbaur and other superstars to the club. They were the best team, with the biggest crowds but its not clear whether they were beneficial to the sustainability of the league.

Plenderleith is fairly dismissive of the documentary ‘Once in a Lifetime’ which paints a very glamorous picture of life at Cosmos.  He suggests its sensationalised and likely reflecting the agenda of the main participants rather than a more objective overview. I must admit I still think its a really enjoyable documentary!

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a really enjoyable read. Packed full of interesting anecdotes and first hand accounts this history is as entertaining as the subject it covers. Highly recommended.