Reading between the lines: here’s our bumper Christmas book reviews

Heading for the shops this weekend? Expecting a few book vouchers in your stocking next week? Never fear, we’ve done our homework.

Image: bowenmurphy via Flickr

IT’S THAT TIME of the year again. So, whether you’re buying a book for the sports fan in your life this Christmas, or sure you’ll find a few more vouchers in your stocking this next week… this is for you.

Our writers pick some of their favourites – and some of our readers too.

Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson

by Paul Kimmage

Published by Simon and Schuster

The strength of ‘Engage’ by Paul Kimmage lies as much in what it isn’t as what is. Its premise – focusing on an England U-21 tight-head prop whose life was changed when a training ground accident left him paralysed from the neck down – suggests a well-intentioned but fairly bleak idea for a book.

And while Matt Hampson’s autobiography is not exactly an easy read, it is by no means a misery memoir either.

It avoids the temptation of descending into schmaltzy sentimentality, with passages just as likely to depict Hampson’s mortified reaction when he awakes to discover his girlfriend has painted his toenails pink, as it is to portray his gruelling and painstakingly gradual recovery.

Kimmage thus succeeds in capturing Hampson’s inspirational essence with a style that is in equal parts idiosyncratic (the book deliberately reads like the screenplay for a courtroom drama) and subtle.

Any other approach would have done a disservice to both the reader and its subject.

- review Paul Fennessy

  • Reader’s Twitter review for Engage: “Inspiring + darkly humorous story of young English prop’s battle to gain quality of life after paralysing injury” by @shaneoleary1

Inside the Peloton Nicolas Roche, with Gerard Cromwell

Nicolas Roche with Ger Cromwell

Transworld Ireland

Road cycling isn’t just one of the most gruelling professional sports, it’s also one of the most secretive.

Quite unlike the worlds of football or rugby, where prolonged press scrutiny has served to induce a level of transparency, the peloton remains a tight-knit collective governed by esoteric traditions and an inflexible code of etiquette that values loyalty and discretion above all else.

Critics would argue that it’s precisely these tendencies that lie at the heart of cycling’s recent struggles to re-establish its credibility, but to the faithful, they’re what make the sport so irresistibly romantic.

As both a team leader with French outfit AG2R La Mondiale and son of Ireland’s only Tour de France winner, Nicolas Roche is better equipped than most to walk the line separating his colleagues’ claim to privacy from the curiosity of the uninitiated.

It might not be the most elegantly constructed of narratives, but fans will rarely find this blow-by-blow account of his life on the road anything less than compelling.

- review, Conor Nagle

‘Joking Apart – My Autobiography’

Donncha O’Callaghan with Denis Walsh

Transworld Ireland

A book for rugby fanatics, Joking Apart is a unique insight into one of Munster and Ireland’s best-known second rows.

Forever labelled a ‘messer’, the autobiography charts his life from his early childhood and schoolboy rugby days to his experiences with Cork Con, Munster, Ireland and the Lions.

One thing is clear from the very beginning – despite his reputation, the lock has always been very serious about rugby.

O’Callaghan details the limits he felt he needed to achieve in order to give himself an edge over team-mates; he also writes candidly about the disappointments – occasions he believes he let both himself and his team down – and the incidents and encounters that shaped his career.

Brutal honesty is a central trait in autobiographies these days but O’Callaghan has also been part of many of the finest days in Irish rugby over the past decade. He has helped Munster win two Heineken Cup titles, he was on the field in Cardiff when Ireland won the Grand Slam in 2009 and the book concludes with his thoughts on the Rugby World Cup just gone. Littered with golden nuggets of information, ‘Joking Apart’ is an easy and enjoyable read.

- review, Niamh O’Mahony

I’m Not Really Here

Paul Lake


At my 10th birthday party, several of my Man U-supporting mates were in tears. And why? Due to a famous 5-1, orchestrated by a talent compared to Gazza at the time, and Paul Scholes later – Paul Lake. Lake just missed out on Italia 90, but was pencilled in as a future England star.

All of this was doomed to be unrealized, with Lake suffering a horrendous spate of injuries, forcing his early retirement and spiral into depression.

This honest book showcases the end of the pre-Bosman world, where club owners saw players as their employees, not an asset for the club. Lake saw the downsides – today, a star player getting a cruciate ligament injury would be an occasion for the club to do its level best to ensure their return, but in the early 90s, Man City scrimped on his medical and rehab requirements and his return was a secondary concern to its cost.

Lake himself is an intelligent and thoughtful man, far from your footballer stereotype, and the book is hugely enjoyable.

- review, Conor McMcKeating, Whiff of Cordite

The Grudge: Scotland v England, 1990

Tom English

Yellow Jersey

A rollicking read, setting the social and sporting context of the famous Scotland-England Grand Slam game in 1990. Two opposing line-ups who didn’t really like each other; an English team revelling in their new-found verve with a young and vulnerable captain leading a dressing room of large and larger than life men into battle; fiercely driven management; and all in the context of the greatest political tension between the nations in generations.

You feel huge empathy and get into the dynamic of both sides, which is to English’s credit. One gets a sense of the visceral importance of the Borders in the heart of Scottish rugby, and the death of the region in the professional sense gives the reader real worries about how Scotland will
ever replicate the successes in the book.

Some of the most likeable characters in the book are those who wore the white rose – Carling and Moore for example. Any rugby fan will love this.

- review, Conor McMcKeating, Whiff of Cordite

Donegal’s Kevin Cassidy celebrates scoring the winning point in extra-time against Kildare. He’s no longer on the panel. (INPHO/Morgan Treacy)

This Is Our Year: A Season On The Inside Of A Football Championship

Niall Bogue.

Ballpoint Press

You’ve heard of this book, right? It’s the one whose co-operation with Kevin Cassidy got the Donegal stalwart thrown off the panel last month for breaking Jim McGuinness’ code of omerta.

It seems even the winning score of an All-Ireland quarter final is not enough for a bit of leeway up in the harsh north-west.

Still, don’t be turned off by the replication of Cassidy’s quotes in every news outlet in the land. As Niall Bogue charts the course of the 2011 Ulster Championship he has rooted out plenty of absorbing testimony from the northern province’s other big names.

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Ryan McMenamin and Stephen McDonnell are perhaps the most recognisable collaborators but each interviewee has allowed Bogue past the iron curtain which usually surrounds a county team. Particularly in the first half of the book, before the Championship’s restrictive tension fully kicks in.

The book documents the Ulster Championship but each of the stories, in which players desperately juggle the art of being an elite athlete by night with a normal life by day, will ring true anywhere in Ireland.

A solid and interesting read whether you’re an Ulster aficionado or merely interested in delving into the inner workings of a county team.

- review, Sean Farrell

  • Reader’s Twitter review: “Loved ‘The Best Game Ever’ by M Bowden. Brings what is recognised as the best game of American Football ever to life vividly” by opersson1986

Without A Shadow Of A Doubt

Joe Kernan and Martin Breheny

Irish Sports Publishing

If there is only one story worth telling from the past 40 years of Gaelic football, this is the one. Joe Kernan takes us through a life which at times seems to mirror Ireland itself, but we can’t help but feel he is still holding something back.

From his deep roots with Crossmaglen Rangers, who played and trained (quite literally) in the shadow of British helicopters swooping to land at the nearby barracks, Kernan takes us through his revolutionary management of Armagh and his short tenure in Galway

Throughout the book Martin Breheny’s straight, no-nonsense style lends itself perfectly to the deep gruff voice of ‘Big Joe’. However, looking back over his career, Kernan is incapable of hiding his sharp competitive streak. Time has healed no wounds, he still argues the toss of every red card and every defeat – even a 1972 school’s final defeat to St Patricks’ Cavan where the referee of the day is named and blamed.

There is no room for accepting defeat in Joe’s world and at times the recriminations overstep the mark into cringe-worthy territory and it makes you seriously doubt that we are seeing an unguarded side of Kernan, but maybe that is just the man’s way.

- review, Sean Farrell

Alan Quinlan with his son AJ in the changing room after the Connacht game with Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara in May. (Pic INPHO/Billy Stickland)

Red Blooded

by Alan Quinlan with Kevin MacDermot

Irish Sports Publishing

From the highs of Heineken Cup success with his beloved Munster to the lows of being suspended from the Lions’ 2009 tour of South Africa for an eye-gouging incident Alan Quinlan’s autobiography is an essential read for any rugby or sports fan this Christmas.

Quinlan’s honesty and consistency shone through whilst wearing the famous red jersey of Munster and the former Irish international delivers an equally frank account of both his professional and personal life in this engaging read.

Quinlan’s warm reminisces about his early years growing up in Tipperary (including a run-in with former Tipp hurling all-star Nicky English) contrasts sharply with the harsh realities of what it took to become a professional rugby player and establish himself in the Munster and Irish international sides. Much like his playing career the former Munster hero never flinches from recounting several personal traumatic experiences and it all adds up to a cracking read.

review, Ger McCarthy

Places We Play, Ireland’s Sporting Heritage: A Review.

Mike Cronin and Roisin Higgins

Collins Press

This book explores the facts and history from nearly every significant sporting location in Ireland.

The book begins chronicling Ireland’s heritage and social happenings and how they helped create our present sporting landscape.

Not too wordy and easy to read, you pick-up little gems of information about the story of a site without even realising. It is easy to lose track of time as you browse over the vast collection of impressive pictures that accompany every well written and relevant piece that has the homely feel of an older family member’s photo album throughout.

With a vast array of sports to choose from, the book not only caters for hard-core sports fans, but also the man on the street who wants to know how Croke Park got its name.

Enjoyable and informative, the book is an ideal buy for someone looking to escape the hectic Christmas schedule for an hour or two, whether they are a sports fan or not.

review, Brian Kirk

  • Reader’s Twitter review: “The Football Men by Simon Kuper. Profiles without the rubbish. Honest, concise and interesting. Prescient in many cases too,” by kevin_coghlan

Walk On – My Life in Red

Ronnie Whelan with Tommy Conlon

(Simon & Schuster)

Largely based on his club days at Liverpool, this is a whirlwind trip from the glory of Rome in 1984 to the horrors of Hillsborough in 1989.

Whelan’s international career is confined to a chapter but it’s a good one. There are no major insights but a fantastic description of THAT goal at Euro 88: “People say it was a classic overhead kick but it wasn’t”. He describes it as his JFK moment. There’s tensions with Jack but sure wasn’t that the case for most players, particularly those more gifted as Whelan undoubtedly was.

He points out “It’s no state secret that we liked a drink on those days” but the points came before the pints, he maintains. While that may have been true of his trophy laden career at Liverpool it did not appear to be the case with Ireland as he documents going on “the lash in Limerick” after that draw in Liechtenstein, then taking that infamous trip to Harry Ramsden’s before getting “stuffed by Austria”.

This book offers no major insight into Whelan’s career at club or international level but is a decent read for any Liverpool fan whose partial to the Boys in Green.’s sporting Advent calendar, day 15

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