Here’s a selection are five of the greatest sports books ever written, and some honorurable mentions to quite a few others. The books range from non-fiction to novels, and from the heart-breaking to the hilarious. The five selected books all cover different sports (football, cricket, table tennis, boxing and snooker), but the one thing they have in common is that they are all utterly brilliant, and well worth a place on your shelf…
A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke, by Ronald Reng (2011)
Any number of football books could have been included in this list. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss, Alex Bellos’s Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life and Full Time by Tony Cascarino and Paul Kimmage are all fantastic, while David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round and Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years With Brian Clough by Duncan Hamilton, a previous winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize, are both essential reading. But it’s another winner of the prize that is the first name on the team sheet and quite possibly the best sports book ever written. German football journalist Ronald Reng’s account of the life and death of his friend Robert Enke, a talented but desperately troubled international goalkeeper, is superbly crafted and, ultimately, utterly devastating.
Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy: the Untold Story, by Peter Oborne (2004)
Just beating Simon Hughes’s WHSBOTY-winner A Lot of Hard Yakka as the cricketing selection for this list is another of the William Hill prize’s past winners. Oborne tells the incredible story of Basil D’Oliveira, the mixed race South African who represented England in the late 60s and, as a result, became the central figure in an international incident that dealt a huge blow to the Apartheid regime. Oborne’s book endures as a meticulous tribute to a truly great man.
This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own, by Jonathan Rendall (1998)
Rendall was a wayward but prodigiously talented journalist who died in sad circumstances in 2013. He wrote brilliantly about sport, particularly boxing, for a number of national papers in his relatively brief career. He wrote books, too, including Twelve Grand, a playful account of how he wagered all of his advance for that particular book on a series of different sports bets. But it’s This Bloody Mary, a Somerset Maugham Prize-winner, that goes down as his masterpiece. It’s a journey through the mad universe of boxing from Rendall’s shifting point of view; he’s variously a participant, fan, reporter and, at one point, manager of a highly promising prospect. The book feels very much part of that grand tradition of boxing writing, while also being in a class entirely of its own. Undoubtedly possessor of the best title from this selection, and it’s also got the best opening line: “It was a few hours after Frank Bruno attacked me at Betty Boop’s bar in the lobby of the MGM Grand that I decided to get out of boxing…”
Pocket Money, by Gordon Burn (1986)
Burn’s most famous books are highly detailed and unflinching accounts of the life and crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper and Fred and Rosemary West. He was on lighter territory with Pocket Money, his book about the world of snooker when the sport was at its zenith in the mid-80s. Burn’s novelistic approach works wonders as odd couple Steve Davis and his promoter Barry Hearn emerge as the stars of the show.
The Mighty Walzer, by Howard Jacobson (1999)
Memorable novels about sport are less common than their non-fiction counterparts but a few of them certainly deserve a mention. A Fan’s Notes, Fred Exley’s ‘fictional memoir’ written from the point of view of an alcoholic, obsessive fan of the New York Giants, is a seminal work, The Damned United by David Peace is an audacious blending of fact and fiction and the Sri Lankan cricket novel Chinaman is tricksy and very entertaining. But Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer is the pick of the bunch, a hilarious coming of age novel about a young man growing up with an obsession for ping pong.