‘Wide-Eyed and Legless: Inside the Tour de France’ by Jeff Connor (1988)

Wide-Eyed and Legless was originally published in 1988.  During the 1987 Tour de France, the British cycling team, ANC-Halfords, agreed to let journalist Jeff Connor travel and stay with the team full-time.

1987 is a legendary tour for a number of reasons – not least for Irish people given Stephen Roche’s victory.  This was ANC-Halfords first (and last) participation in the Tour  and they really weren’t ready for the race.  They didn’t have good enough riders and they didn’t have good enough financial (and therefore technical) support. They were exceptionally disorganised by comparison to the modern sport of cycling.

The team even ended up letting Connor drive some of their vehicles because they ran out of people to do so.  The level of access Connor was given results in his perspective at times being more like that of a technical support person than a journalist.

The book suffers from not being clear in what it is trying to achieve.  It is half narrative from an insider’s perspective of the troubled ANC-Halfords team and half a broader race report of the 1987 Tour.  Ultimately the book feels like two ideas mashed together and works as neither.  The kernels of a fascinating emotional insight into the struggles of the ANC-Halfords riders and team members are there but aren’t fleshed out as the book becomes more of a routine retelling of the Tour’s progress and conclusion.

The cover of the book quotes cycle sport as declaring it ‘The No.1 cycling book of all time’.  Perhaps in 1988 it may have been but it isn’t in the same league as books like Rough Ride or Put Me Back on My Bike.  I expected more, largely based on this cover quote, which led to the book leaving me somewhat underwhelmed.

A decent read but doesn’t live up to the hype.

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‘One Football, No Nets’ by Justin Walley (2018)

FIFA often boasts about having more member nations than the UN.  But what about those sub-national regions that aren’t recognised by FIFA and don’t get to make the leap that Gibraltar have made and compete against the established nations?   In recent years there has been a growing interest in these football minnows with books like Up Pohnpei leading the charge.  The CONIFA World Cup last Summer gained plenty of attention as the minnows of the world competed against each other in London.

One Football, No Nets is set in this world where football meets questions of regional sovereignty.  The book tells the story of Justin Walley’s attempts to take the Matabeleland side (a region in Western Zimbabwe) to the CONIFA tournament.  Walley, a British man coaching in Latvia, was determined to try his hand at international football management and swapped his relatively comfortable live for the unknown in Africa.   He devoted more than a year attempting to forge the team into shape and manage the logistics (and finances) of getting them to London.

The story is told in an in-depth diary format.  At times the logistical challenges appear insurmountable with limited resources, poaching of players and visa problems.  Walley goes to all possible lengths to drum up support and funding for the team – including enlisting the help of the legendary Bruce Grobbelaar.

The book is at its best when giving insight into the struggles of daily life in Zimbabwe during the final days of Robert Mugabe’s long period in power.  Walley captures the paranoia, fear and cautious optimism present in the country on the cusp of historic regime change.

If the book has one weakness, it is that players’ own stories and personalities don;t feel fully developed.  Ultimately none of them remain memorable in the way that, for example, the lady who Walley lodged with does.

The case for why Matabeleland should have a team separate from the Zimbabwe national team is never made quite clear in the book.  I’ve read that the region is culturally and ethnically distinct in many ways from the rest of the country, but Walley doesn’t dwell on this in the book.  Throughout the story he seemed very cautious about expressing sentiments of regional sovereignty which would have provoked the anger of the Zimbabwean authorities (and understandably so!).

There is an additional final chapter which at first glance appears unnecessary but is just too entertaining to have been left out.  Walley covers his time as a fan at the World Cup in Russia during which he became a mini-celebrity and foreign brand ambassador for the region of Tatarstan.

Overall, the book is a pleasure to read.  Walley writes with openness, honesty and humour about the challenges he faced in trying to fulfill his, and the players’, dream. It is quite a personal book and your reaction to the book may very will mirror your feelings about the author.  For me, Walley comes across as one of life’s dreamers – a man determined to experience the world rather than simply pass time.   As I type this in my office at lunchtime while looking at Walley’s twitter feed showing him enjoying a trip to Brazil, I can’t help but admire and envy his courage, free spirit and sense of adventure.  An interesting man and an interesting book.

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‘Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football’ by Bob Lederer (2018)

Every sports fan has a favourite specific season.  The lineup of their favourite team from that year holds a special place in their heart.  For me, it will always be the Ireland team that went to USA ’94 with the Ajax team of that generation running them close.

For Bob Lederer, the 1968-69 New York Jets have held that special place in his heart for nearly 50 years.  On January 12, 1969, the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts to win Super Bowl III.  As for many great NFL teams, the quarterback, in this case the legendary Joe Namath, is celebrated as the central character in the victory.  His talent, his charisma and his charm gave him the nickname ‘Broadway Joe’ and guaranteed A list celebrity status.  For Lederer  however, the rest of the Jets were a team, not a supporting cast, and he clearly has a burning desire to ensure that all of the players get their due recognition.

Beyond Broadway Joe is a must for any diehard Jets fan.  It is also a comprehensive look at one of the most famous games in football history.   Lederer had exclusive access to coach Weeb Ewbank’s playbooks and game plan for Superbowl III.  Together with interviews with a huge range of people all seemingly delighted to reminisce, the book is a fascinating study of a 50 year old game that helped establish the credibility of the American Football League.

The book is a real labour of love and the joy Lederer felt in researching and writing it shines through every page.  It is an unusual layout with the main story beats recounted in the first 50 pages before each team member is given a chapter to tell their own story.

It’s also an interesting read for anyone interested in the origins and evolution of the NFL, the Superbowl and the professional game more generally.  There seems to been a spate of books on American Football’s origin in recent years and this is a interesting, if narrowly focused, addition that growing body of work.

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‘Astroball: The New Way to Win It All’ by Ben Reiter (2018)

A 2014 Sports Illustrated cover which declared that the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, would win the World Series in 2017 has gone down in legend.  It would almost have been more believable to pick Leicester City to win the Premier League the year earlier.   Improbably, Ben Reiter’s prediction came through as the ambitious blueprint for rebuilding a baseball club set out in his SI article came to fruition on schedule.

Reiter therefore is the ideal writer to chronicle just how the Astro’s rose to success.  Astroball is the story of how a farsighted owners and executives learned from Moneyball and went on to find a new path to success.

The stars of the book are Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his top analyst, Sig Mejdal. Both came to the Astro’s in 2011 having had some success in Arizona.  Both were determined to figure out how to combine stats with instinct and get the best results.

Reiter highlights three main improvements – better draft picks through understanding stats in a new way, coaching improvements for individual players by focusing on their form and tendencies and a recognition of the intangible role that veteran players have in bringing the team together at crucial moments.  There were some bumps along the road – such as failure to sign an injury prone first draft pick – but the faith in ‘the Process’ proved justified.

Reiter clearly had exceptional access and the trust of those he spoke with.  It’s a very well written book which captures the balance of appealing to baseball fanatics and non-fanatics alike.   It’s a fascinating account of team building in the post-Moneyball era.   A really enjoyable read.

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‘Jacobs Beach: The Mob, the Garden and the Golden Age of Boxing’ by Kevin Mitchell (2010, republished in 2019)

This is a review of the new US edition of Jacobs Beach published by Hamilcar.  The original book was published in 2010.  Some online reviews of earlier versions refer to factual errors but it appears to me that any of these have been resolved in this new US edition.    

For me, King of the World by David Remnick first illuminated the shady world of gangsters and crime that lay under the surface of professional boxing.  Since reading Remnick’s masterpiece and Nick Tosches Night Train, I’ve always been fascinated by the underbelly of professional boxing’s past and felt that a true history of the fight game can only be one which considers this underbelly in depth.

Jacob’s Beach sets out to tell the story of the behind-the-scenes powers in boxing in the USA (and effectively the world) from the 1930’s onwards.  It covers boxing’s golden era when top fighters were global figures and title fights commanded universal public attention.

The book centres around Madison Square Garden and the powers that controlled that fabled arena. Jacob’s Beach refers to a famous strip of pavement across the road from Madison Square Garden, the home of a legendary ticket tout named Mike Jacobs.  However, the real villain of the piece is Frankie Carbo, a mobster who dominated professional boxing for years.  The level of corruption is still shocking to see in black-and-white, from fixed fights to blacklisted managers and the right connections being far more important than right hooks.

If Carbo is the main villain, the book’s hero is the unlikely figure of US Senator and failed Presidential candidate Estes Kefauver.  The Senator’s attempts to shine a light on corruption through public hearings was the first serious dent on the mobs ability to operate in the shadows.  Ultimately, mob influence would fade as the spotlight on their activities grew brighter.

Mitchell holds no punches throughout the book with scathing comments on a whole range of characters. He is particularly scornful of the boxing writers who were on the take and wrote stories to suit their mob paymasters.   Mitchell also seek to skewer a few myths, in particular the Hollywood narrative of James ‘Cinderella Man’ Braddock.

Mitchell, perhaps unconsciously, appears to mimic the stylised writing of the legendary golden era boxing writers (of whom the book is sometimes scathing).  At times it reads like sections of the book were written in a previous era, with a punchy and colorful style, but they are written well and always an interesting read. The book zooms in and out on various characters and I found I naturally consumed it in bitesize chunks.

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‘The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball’s Most Improbable Dynasty’ by Adrian Wojnarowski (2005)

The Miracle of St. Anthony is my one of top three all time favourite sports books.  I’ve re-read it a few times and imagine I’ll do so every few years.  Not only is the writing fantastic but the story is incredible.

Wojnarowski follows legendary Coach Bob Hurley and his St. Anthony High School basketball team through he 2003-2004 season.   Hurley is an old school, tough as nails, coach who motivates through discipline.  Ultimately he is a source of stability and loyalty to his players and his commitment to improve their lives is remarkable.

Bob Hurley gained national fame when his son Bobby became a legend at Duke University.   He has turned that fame into a way to raise funds for the school by coaching clinics for wealthier schools.  Hurley has turned down multiple job offers at collegiate level recognising that St. Anthony’s survival was heavily dependent on his presence.

The season plays out like a novel keeping the reader gripped as the life stories of the coach, the nuns who manage the school and the players unfold.  2003–04 was a unique year for St. Anthony’s.  Unlike most years when the team would expect to send 3 or 4 players to major college teams, most of the players weren’t reaching academic standards.  Off the court, it seemed like the players lives were struggling and their presence on the team never assured.   These challenges meant Hurley’s coaching ability was tested to the very limit.  Wojnarowski couldn’t have picked a better year to follow the team.

Unsurprisingly, the book reminds me of Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink, one of the original and classic ‘behind the scenes for a season’ sports books.  However, while there are superficial similarities between coaches Bobby Knight and Bob Hurley (hugely successful, very tough on players), Hurley is a much more impressive and admirable figure.  Hurley’s toughness is not just aimed at basketball success but at steering the players to a better path in life.  Hurley sees his job as his calling – and has turned down opportunities to earn much more money in collegiate coaching.   Knight by contrast seems driven only to win for winnings sake.  As one character in this book notes, you wouldn’t want your loved one’s coached by Knight whereas Hurley was the best thing to happen to many of the kids who crossed his path.

A simply wonderful book.

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‘Seabiscuit: An American Legend’ by Laura Hillenbrand (1999)

What a book! What a story!

For a time, Seabiscuit was the most famous individual in America.  In 1938, the horse received more coverage in American newspapers than FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend tells Seabiscuit’s story of adversity, success and fame through the lives of the three men (arguably four) who turned him into such a success.  Owner Charles Howard made millions introducing cars to California, often accepting horses as trade ins.  Tom Smith, the trainer, who saw Seabiscuit’s potential when even the most famous trainers in the US had missed it.  And Red Pollard, the half-blind,well-read jockey who couldn’t catch a break until he joined up with Seabiscuit.  The fourth, partly overlooked man, was jockey George Woolf who rode Seabiscuit in some of his most famous races when Pollard was injured.

The most fascinating aspect of the book is just how famous Seabiscuit was.  He became a sensation almost overnight (despite finishing second in a race) as people became captivated by his emergence from nowhere to take on the very fastest horses.  Despite the ever-present risk of him being scratched from a race before it began, tens of thousands flocked to see him every time.

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Seabiscuit’s one-on-one race with War Admiral was the Pacquio v Mayweather of its day.  The challenge that fans were dying to see but looked like would never happen. But Seabiscuit’s fans got much luckier than modern boxing fans and got to actually (eventually) see these two great champions compete at their very peak.

Hillenbrand has sketched a vivid tale of adversity, triumph and pre-WWII America. The book is exceptionally well written and flows like a great piece of fiction.  The characters come to life, the stakes feel real and the joy and despair of horse and humans alike shines through.

There is a lot of material in the book about horse racing and horse training generally.  While its not a sport I’m particularly knowledgeable about, I found the details fascinating and it helped me get much more into a story that could easily have become and over-sold underdog tale.  Hillenbrand paints such a clear picture of what a jockey must have experienced that it puts the reader right on the horse’s back and made me nervous about the outcome of often low-stakes races that happened 80 years ago!

Seabiscuit: An American Legend is regularly placed on lists of the greatest sports books.  It fully deserves it’s place at the very pinnacle.

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