Gráinne Daly takes a look at the best sports book reads over the past while
The ghosts of Christmas past gather dust on shelves, never to be read again. Among these are the sports biographies written a few seasons too early. Ronan O’Gara’s comes to mind, published the year before he won the Heineken Cup with Munster, it was an exercise in bad timing. Looking back now after his career has extended into management, the decision to publish prematurely seems even more myopic.
Those that say the best sports stories are rarely about sport are correct. The best sports narratives transcend the pitch or the track striking a chord deep within us. Christmas gifts of the last three years didn’t disappoint when I unwrapped Philly McMahon’s The Choice (Gill Books, 2017) Eamonn Magee’s The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee (Mercier Press, 2018) and Richie Sadlier’s Recovering (Gill Books, 2019). Three different sports, three different types of athlete, each a compelling story that deals with addiction and sport. Unsurprisingly, the three books are award winning with Magee’s earning the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of The Year 2018.
Niall Kelly did an outstanding job in writing Philly McMahon’s story that charts the life of the All Ireland winning Dublin footballer. It is an account of growing up in Ballymun, a community that was ravaged by a heroin epidemic that held so many youths in its grip, including Philly’s brother John. The young McMahon viewed sport as a means to escape the anti-social proclivities around him and he committed to playing soccer, later converting to GAA when he joined Ballymun Kickhams. Sport was key in keeping him off the streets at a time when his pals were veering down darker paths. When he ascended to the Dublin senior football ranks, his family including his brother John, could not have been more proud. In a heart-breaking turn of events, John lost his life. The story tells of how sport helped Philly through his grief and inspired his decisions to develop his own businesses. On winning his first All-Ireland his initial thought was ‘I’m an All-Ireland champion and I’ll have these memories forever. It’s almost perfect.’ John’s absence being the ‘almost’ in his almost perfect memory.
Where McMahon and Sadlier describe their books as memoirs and both are written in first person narrative, Magee calls his a life-story. And what a life-story it is. When approached about having his story written, former world champion Eamonn Magee said that ‘my life’s not a book, it’s a f*cking movie script’. And that’s how it reads – an action packed story with chapter names such as ‘Ardoyne on Fire’, ‘Robbery and Revenge’, ‘Exile’, ‘Hatton and the RA’. We see a rainbow of aggression ranging from the controlled kind in the boxing ring to being shot by the IRA and the murder of his son. Having recently watched Apache: The Life of Carlos Tevez on Netflix, it may well be the perfect unvarnished story for the big screen. A shocking account of a troubled individual who appears to have been his own worst enemy, Magee found both stability and instability in his boxing. Long periods between fights the province of drinking and drugging for Magee. Paul Gibson penned the book and had a big job on his hands in bringing an enormous amount of content to the table. The result is not as smooth a job as Niall Kelly turned out with The Choice and verges on excessively detailed in parts. In her book On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oats says that ‘one of the primary things boxing is about is lying. It’s about systematically cultivating a double personality: the self in society, the self in the ring.’ It may be a case that Magee defies this in so far as boundaries aren’t of concern to him. Whether the gloves are on or off, his life has been one long fight and continues as such. Alcohol dependent, running a gym and eroded by depression and grief, his mother’s summary of him as a ‘lost soul’ seems so tragically appropriate.
Recovering is Richie Sadlier’s story of his footballing career that was halted all too early on account of a body that gave in to persistent injury. In spite of extensive treatment and rehabilitation, he was forced to concede to his bodily vulnerability and quit professional football at an early age. As with The Choice, its author Dion Fanning achieves a style that credibly resembles the voice of the RTÉ pundit we have come to know on screen over the past number of years. Through periods of injury and in the aftermath of his playing career, Sadlier was no stranger to drink and drug fuelled benders. Although his father’s alcoholism had caused difficulty for the family in his youth, Richie was not deterred from drinking to blackout on a regular basis. Abuse by a former physiotherapist is revealed in the book that lays bare the sacrifices and commitment it took for him to make it in football. He recounts his decision to quit drugs and get help for alcohol dependency in what has turned out as a bright new chapter in the life of Richie Sadlier. Perhaps the least interesting aspect is ‘The Football Men’ in which he speaks of his relationships with fellow pundits in RTÉ, or in summary Eamon Dunphy. It gives Sadlier’s account of the loveless relationship between the two but when he asks ‘Why should I care what Eamon Dunphy thinks about anything?’ I can’t help but wonder why bother including the chapter in what otherwise is a mature reflection.
Each of the three books gives insight into the relationship between sport and addiction. Sports participation requires commitment, and that commitment often verges on the obsessive. It simply has to in order for an athlete to reach his or her peak potential such is the compulsive nature of competing and in particular, winning. This compulsion or addiction to sport is common among athletes and fans alike. In his wonderful book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession, Eric Simons talks about sports in metaphors: as war, love, poetry, ritual, beastliness and religion. That these three books contain a variegation of sports metaphors is undeniable: the working-class sports hero, the rise and fall and resurrection of the champion, survival of the athlete against the odds. They chart the bruises of life and the pain and glory of sport but most of all, they speak of love.