The William Hill Sports Book of the Year is a long-running literary prize that was co-created by the late John Gaustad, founder of the magnificent Sportspages bookshop in Charing Cross Road. Gaustad said he wanted to open “a shop as a haven for people who wanted to know about sports books”. As someone who discovered the shop in my late teens, it was exactly that, and I can’t be the only one who was desperately sad to see it close in 2006.
Thankfully, the William Hill award, aka the Bookie Prize, has survived and Gaustad’s conviction that “sports books can be as good as any books” has been proved right time and time again by the many wonderful reads it has championed. Here are a few of the books that made this year’s shortlist and some classics that would be excellent presents for the sports-mad reader in your life…
The Breath of Sadness by Ian Ridley
I was delighted to see Ian Ridley’s book on this year’s William Hill shortlist. It’s an account of his beloved wife Vikki Orvice’s death from cancer and the summer he spent watching county cricket in an attempt to help him deal with this loss.
In the mould of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, both of which he quotes from, Ridley has both desperate things to report and clear-eyed things to say about grieving and the impossibility of ‘moving on’. He skillfully interweaves these sections of the book with dispatches from the boundary edge, including some entertaining grumbles about the state of the modern game. Cricket brings shafts of light and levity as Ridley slowly allows himself to find some respite in the ebbs and flows of the game. Orvice was a trailblazing sports reporter for The Sun and Ridley, himself an experienced journalist, has written a moving tribute to the love of his life.
Dark Trade by Donald McRae
Boxing is perhaps the sport that has inspired the greatest number of truly special sports books, and the Bookie Prize has recognised many of these over the years. Previous winners, Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C Ward and Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser, are must reads, but my favourite has to be Dark Trade, which gave its author Donald McRae the first of his two William Hill wins in 1996.
The book is a kaleidoscopic account of the boxing world in the early to mid 90s. Its subtitle is ‘Lost in Boxing’ and McRae meets a host of big names including Prince Naseem Hamed, Mike Tyson and Oscar de la Hoya as he disappears down the rabbit hole. As a boxing fanatic, he relishes getting up close to so many of the boxers he reveres, while also becoming increasingly troubled by the sport’s brutal realities both inside and outside the ring. Dark Trade is well deserving of its classic status – my copy still bears a Sportspages ‘Hall of Fame’ sticker – and it would be a perfect present for any fight fan who hasn’t read it.
Born Fighter by Ruqsana Begum
Born Fighter by Ruqsana Begum (with journalist Sarah Shephard) deservedly made it onto the William Hill shortlist this year and is certainly another one to add to the gift list. Begum’s story of how she went from Muay Thai kickboxing novice to world champion, despite an eye-watering number of obstacles getting in her way, is told with a compulsive directness and provides an engaging insight into the uber-masculine world of professional fighting.
The World Beneath Their Feet by Scott Ellsworth
You might not have to be mad to try and climb Mount Everest, but according to this William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2020 nominee, it probably helps. I love a book packed with eccentrics and Scott Ellsworth has found plenty to populate his account of the various attempts by climbing teams from across the world to scale the heights of the Himalayas in the first half of the 20th century. I particularly enjoyed discovering Lady Houston, a funder of one climb who was instrumental in the creation of the Spitfire and is said to have once purchased 615 parrots and had them taught to chant ‘Votes for women’ in unison. The World Beneath Their Feet is a detailed and entertaining read, even if, like me, your knowledge of mountain climbing is scant.
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss and A Season with Verona by Tim Parks
Growing up loving football in the 90s meant becoming entranced by the Italian game. It was the combination of the 1990 World Cup and Channel 4’s peerless coverage of Serie A that did it. My love for calcio was further cemented when I plucked Joe McGinniss’s The Miracle of Castel di Sangro from the Sportspages shelves. It’s an account of a remarkable and at times scarcely believable year in the life of a tiny Italian club – shadowy mobsters, tragic deaths and a wildly eccentric manager all feature. Some readers baulk at the ending, but despite the divisive denouement, I still adore it.
Miracle was shortlisted for the William Hill prize but didn’t win, and the same is true of Tim Parks’ less-heralded but no less brilliant A Season with Verona, which charts his experience of watching unfashionable Hellas Verona as the club struggled to maintain its position in Italy’s top flight. Either of these books would make for a fine present, or do the double, if you’re feeling generous.
A Handful of Summers by Gordon Forbes
The summer just gone was a strange one for tennis fans with no Wimbledon to watch. For those who sorely missed the tennis, Gordon Forbes’ entertaining and nostalgic memoir about the sport in a bygone era – he was a pro in the 1950s and 60s – may plug the gap a little. Its publication pre-dates the William Hill prize, and I’m sure it’s just the kind of book that John Gaustad had in mind when establishing his award.