Which of these 7 sports books deserves to win the prestigious William Hill prize?

Jonathan Eig’s book on Muhammad Ali is among this year’s stellar connection.

THE WINNER OF the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year will be announced at a ceremony in central London on Tuesday.

The following seven books are in contention for the prize…

1. The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory by David Bolchover (Biteback Publishing)


David Bolchover’s book is a moving tale of the first superstar football coach. Not only did Béla Guttmann leave a lasting legacy on the game, he also had a remarkable path to get to such a position of prominence.

‘The Greatest Comeback’ details how Holocaust survivor Guttmann went from near-death experiences and the tragic passing of family members, to coaching Benfica to the European Cup in 1961 and 1962, becoming the first side apart from Real Madrid to lift the trophy, after the Spaniards had won the first five competitions after its onset.

In addition to being essential reading for football aficionados, the book paints a vivid picture of war-torn Europe, showing how individuals such as Guttmann managed not only to survive but to produce inspirational feats amid such dark times.

- Paul Fennessy

2. Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster)


So much has already been written about Muhammad Ali. Yet rarely if ever has the sporting legend’s life been written about with such insight and depth as Jonathan Eig manages in his 542-page opus.

Arguably the definitive account of one of the 20th century’s trailblazers, Ali: A Life is based on more than 500 interviews with the late boxer’s family and friends.

The book looks at Ali’s rise to prominence, his miraculous ascension from villain to hero in the eyes of the American public and the unfortunate physical decline that saw him battle Parkinson’s disease in the later years of his life.

- Paul Fennessy

3. Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager by Ian Herbert (Bloomsbury Sport, Bloomsbury)


No manager in football’s history has achieved so much in such a short space of time as Bob Paisley.

After several years working under Bill Shankly, Paisley took charge of Liverpool and guided them to 14 trophies in nine years, overseeing their first-ever European Cup triumph in 1977 and then repeating the achievement twice more. Yet despite this phenomenal success, Paisley has been somewhat overlooked and widely perceived in a stereotypical manner until recently.

Ian Herbert’s biography finally does justice to the one of the game’s greats. Based on extensive interviews with those who knew him best, the book portrays a complex person that is a million miles from avuncular individual portrayed in the media.

‘Quiet Genius’ provides insights into the Liverpool legend’s managerial philosophy, the reason he often was unpopular with certain players and his under-reported life both before and after Liverpool FC, in the process creating a comprehensive picture of this iconic figure.

- Paul Fennessy

4. Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth (Bloomsbury Sport, Bloomsbury)


I confess to having a too-close relationship with parenthesis but I think this book may have cured me. Jenny Landreth’s penmanship, her wit and her extraordinary ability to wind a personal story into the vast history of how the female human swims are diminished only by the overuse of the bracket for cheap, but eventually tiresome, giggles.

It is a small fault though, and probably one for the editor rather than the author herself. It will be my one criticism as there is a long list of people this book will be perfect for: swimmers, history buffs, sports fans, feminists, mothers, late bloomers, etymologists — or anyone who does or doesn’t know what the word philolutic means — and sure, misogynists should probably give it a go too.

One of Landreth’s heroes Annette Kellerman wrote that the ‘water always teaches me a new story’. In Swell, Landreth not only finds her own ‘waterbiography’ but reveals how the woman’s struggles were played out in the water, just as they were on land.

Recounting beach and lido segregation, ridiculous bathing outfits, the Suffragette movement, the all-male clubs and a lack of suitable teachers, she tells us how “everything the women wanted, they had to negotiate with men who weren’t inclined to give it”.

She introduces us to not just Kellerman, but a host of other champions who we never knew we owed such a debt of gratitude. If you’re a woman and you’ve learned how to swim, it is because of the likes of Agnes Beckwish, Hilda James and Fanny Durack. You should meet them in this book. They — and their colleagues in natation — will bring you across the Channel many times, around the UK’s lidos and Down Under where some costume debacles saw their end.

Swell is not just a worthy history lesson though. Landreth manages to keep you entertained and, often, laughing — particularly in the first 200 pages. Despite my contrary opener in this review, its place on the William Hill shortlist is welcome and celebrated by this reader. Not only because it is a woman’s story told for everyone with all women in mind, but because it contains my favourite description of one of my all-time great sporting events — London 2012:

“I was reminiscing about that Olympic summer with my daughter, recalling the feelings that the whole city was caught up in, the comradeship, the possibility and excitement. About how it was as if we’d subconsciously decided, as one, to defy the stereotypes of what being a Londoner is. How for one summer we weren’t rude, unhelpful, surly and uncommunicative, but instead qualitatively added to people’s experience of the city, and practically led sing-songs on the bus… I recalled how frustrated I was that my own cynicism had stopped me signing up to be a volunteer helper on the basis of … well, I can’t actually remember. I can remember being opposed to giving my time, but not why. How utterly ridiculous, and how self-defeating cynicism can be. The idea of being negative was baffingly pointless long before the brilliant Opening Ceremony started. ‘I loved that summer,’ my daughter said. ‘We spent the whole time watching TV.’

- Sinead O’Carroll

5. Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire by Andy McGrath (Rapha Editions)


‘Bird on the Wire’ takes a look at the life of legendary British cyclist Tom Simpson.

The accomplished athlete died tragically young at the age of 29 on on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. Amphetamines and alcohol were later found to have been in his system and his untimely death has overshadowed his sporting achievements to a degree.

Andy McGrath’s book attempts to document Simpson’s life in full, taking a deeper look at his many phenomenal achievements in cycling in addition to examining a character who was in equal parts endearing and flawed.

The result is an insightful biography of one of cycling’s most talented and tragic figures, replete with vivid photography from the era in question.

- Paul Fennessy

6. Centaur by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao (Doubleday, Transworld)


It would be an unusual thing for a non-sports fan to pick up an autobiography about an athlete they’re not familiar with in a sport they don’t care about. But if that same person was to pick up Centaur by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao, they would not be disappointed.

In fact, it’s not really even a sports book.

It’s a book about a life — a devastating and difficult but yet somehow stupendously successful life.

Murphy was fated to be somebody. The precocious kid with no fears and innate abilities as both a businessman and sportsman we meet in Limerick was built to be a modern-day champion.

But fate also had something else planned for him. On 2 May 1994, the day after Ayrton Senna’s death, his instincts failed him and he was centre of a horrific accident, which led to his obituary actually being published by the Racing Post. His recovery was in some ways miraculous, in others just what you would have expected from the young man described.

In Centaur, Murphy does not hold back. His memoir even more chilling given he lost over four years of memories and, eventually, his life’s great love. We also hear from Joanna. “I was new Joanna, he was a new Declan. Someone had drawn a line in the sand and stupidly, unknowingly, we had crossed it,” she says.

Centaur traverses that line — over and back, a rollercoaster of emotions. Both Murphy’s and the reader’s. From his feelings of dread before the race because of Senna to waking up with as broad an accent as he had, aged 12. From ‘first meeting’ Barney Curley on the Late Late to riding that one last time. Rao, as co-writer, knits the man, the horse and the ghost together and one feels by the end, we don’t just have a book, but a full sense of the man for the first time since 2 May 1994.

- Sinead O’Carroll

7. Breaking Ground: Art, Archaeology and Mythology edited by Neville Gabie, Alan Ward and Jason Wood (Axis Projects)


An obvious anomaly on this year’s shortlist, Breaking Ground: Art, Archaeology and Mythology is the story of Park Avenue football ground and how archaeologist Jason Wood and artist Neville Gabie played leading roles in revitalising a largely forgotten part of Bradford’s history.

The book, with its combination of evocative words and imagery, is a fitting testament to the legacy of Bradford Park Avenue FC, a club which went out of business in 1974 and has since been resurrected after reforming and joining the 13th tier of English football in 1988.

More than anything, the book emphasises the power that a relatively small but impassioned and committed group of local football supporters can have on a community at large.

- Paul Fennessy

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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