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.
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.
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.
My favourite book of the year. I’ve struggled to finish this review because I’m trying to capture the book and not just gush with praise. Bundini:Don’t Believe the Hype didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them away, and it deserves to be considered among the very best biographies.
Muhammad Ali is possibly the most written-about sports figure of all time. I’ve already written a post on the best books I’ve read on Ali. Throughout every book, film, documentary on Ali, Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown hovers in the background as a mysterious, often thinly drawn, character whose importance is undeniable but whose contribution, and very essence, appears unknowable. I’ve always been fascinated by Bundini yet unable to picture who he was and sort between differing depictions of a quasi-mystical sage and a drug addled thief.
Bundini is best know for penning the immortal line ‘floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee’. He was a corner man, a hype man, a philosopher, a friend, a confidant, a spiritual guide and a hundred other things for two of the greatest boxers of all time – Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson. But none of that captures the unique contribution Bundini made to their careers and indeed the lives of those around him.
I’ve written this paragraph 5 times trying to capture my own take on Bundini but I think it’s best to leave it to George Foreman who the book quotes as saying ‘Bundini was the source of Muhammad Ali’s spirit’. Bundini was no saint and had plenty of flaws but he was a man full of love. He was one of those rare people who have an energy about them, who have charisma and colour and vibrancy. I am very much not that type of person myself but I am very drawn to those who bring a passion, a love and an uncontrollable energy to the world and those around them. That these gifts are often accompanied by demons, addictions and personal flaws makes them all the more compelling.
Snyder has done an incredible job in capturing Bundini. Both his magic and his flaws. The heart of the book is Bundini’s son, Drew ‘Timothy’ Brown, a man whose own life story merits a biography. As Synder sets out in the introduction, this book is a much the story of a father through his son’s eyes as it is an objective biography.
Great biographies need both a compelling subject and the right biographer. Robert Caro’s masterful series of books on Lyndon Johnson would not have reached the same heights if not written by a writer with as a keen a fascination of the workings of power. The years Caro spent writing The Power Broker shaped his future work on LBJ.
Similarly, Snyder is the perfect person to capture Bundini’s life. An incredibly talented writer, the son of a boxing trainer, and a professor of rhetoric and hip-hop, it’s hard to think of a better background for exploring the life of a man who influenced the world’s best boxers with his words and spirit.
As an aside, the book also made me realise that Muhammad Ali’s old training camp has been opened to the public and is less than an hour drive from my in-laws in Pennsylvania. I absolutely cannot wait to visit!
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tiger Woods is probably the most famous sportsman in the world. His fall from grace was one of the most watched, talked about and written about stories in sports.
From his car crash in 2009 which unleashed the floodgates, he continued to struggle until he hit a nadir on Memorial Day in 2017. Fresh from yet more spinal surgery, Woods was arrested for driving under the influence. It seemed inevitable that Woods’ life as a golfer was as good as over. How wrong that assumption proved to be.
In The Second Life of Tiger Woods, GOLF magazine senior writer, Michael Bamberger, draws upon his extensive contact book to document Woods fall from grace and subsequent triumphant return to win the 2019 Masters.
While the narrative jumps back and forward in time quite often, the main focus of the book is on the most recent few years of Woods’ life. Those who have followed Tiger’s closely will know a lot of what is written about his early years. The book is at its strongest when its detailing the incident around his DUI and his subsequent return to glory.
The book does take two remarkably long digressions on whether Woods had gotten away with rules infractions in breach of the spirit of the game and the difficult to cover question of performance-enhancing drugs. The rules infractions material is a overdone especially as I don’t buy into the sanctimonious “meaning of golf” stuff. It’s a game and all games have cheaters.
The material on PEDs is by necessity circumstantial. Bamberger investigates rumours and draws a connection between Woods and the people who helped Alex Rodriquez to dope. It’s hardly a smoking gun but its admirable that the book tried to cover a topic often left untouched.
The meat of the book is Tiger’s redemption story. It’s a story of overcoming injuries and personal struggles, of maturing and becoming a more rounded person both in and outside of work. Bamberger is wisely cautious though to warn that no one really knows Woods and we should be careful of too easily believing he is a changed man.
Bamberger has a fairly unique and colourful writing style and the book is often times a vehicle for his wit and insight as much as reporting of Woods’ life. This is understandable given Tiger didn’t agree to be interviewed for the book so it does unfortunately lack Tiger’s own perspective. I do think the book needed a tighter edit though with the quality writing and insight getting lost at times.
All in all its an entertaining and interesting addition to the ever growing library of books on Tiger Woods.
Just after winning the Champions League with Juventus in 1996, Italian international striker Fabrizio Ravanelli signed for Middlesbrough, an unglamours club in the north of England. Even at 12 years old this made very little sense to me but also seemed absolutely wonderful.
That signing was the icing on the cake of local businessman Steve Gibson’s project to reinvent the club. In 1994 Gibson had been appointed the new chairman of Middlesbrough. He quickly embarked on a plan to turn the club from also-rans into contenders. He appointed Manchester United legend Bryan Robson as player-manager, built a modern new stadium and sought to sign international superstars who could be lured by the growing salaries on offer in England.
International players arrived from around the globe, with Ravenelli and Emerson getting the most attention. But the heartbeat of the team was the Brazilian international Juninho. After Juninho single handedly destroyed his team, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson called Juninho “the best player I’ve seen in the Premier League this season” and that view was made official when he was named Premier League player of the season.
Middlesbrough’s 96/97 season was a roller-coaster of all roller-coasters with debut hat-tricks, Wembley Cup finals, contentious point deductions, relegation battles and so much more. The team went on runs of being totally unplayable and runs where it looked like they forgot how to play football. They played in a swashbuckling style, scoring for fun and having fun while doing it. It remains one of the most memorable seasons of any Premier League team and
Yer Joking Aren’t Ya brilliantly captures the sense of possibilities and excitement of that memorable season. Game by game, Flight game-by-game, Flight chronicles the season as it happened. Diaries of a season always risk becoming repetitive accounts of games and goals but Flight perfectly balances this, inter weaving background on the club and key characters throughout. The history is pitched perfectly for both those familiar with and those totally new to this era of English football.
The real joy of the book is how it captures something eternal about sports fandom. I often wonder how fans of mid-table Premier League teams find the energy to care about whether their team finishes 8th or 16th each season. Is ‘survival’ really an objective that can sustain interest year after year? That 96/97 season for Middlesbrough serves as a reminder that success is about so much than trophies, its about the memories, the moments, the highs and also the lows.
The book was simply a joy to read and a wonderful nostalgia trip. I would have devoured it in a day if didn’t keep going to YouTube to rewatch highlights of Juninho, Emerson and Co.
Tom has published an article on the season which which you can check out here.