Books about sport used to just be autobiographies of former pros recounting witty stories from the training ground interspersed with the odd book by a former hooligan detailing just how hard and mental they were.
Yet time has moved on. The era of the football hipster, of expected goals, and of the realisation that sports fans are more than able to read is upon us. How very modern.
The sports section of any bookshop is now replete with countless pages of quality literature to get stuck into. Whether it is football tactics, a history of a particular sport, or even fiction, the world of sports writing has been constantly improving since at least Nick Hornby’s ground-breaking Fever Pitch back in the 90s.
Books also make a handy Christmas present, especially for those people you don’t really know what to get – we’ve all been there. Makes them seem intelligent too, getting a book for Christmas, so in the words of Hot Chocolate; everyone’s a winner.
That’s why we have put together the finest minds, or perhaps the only ones available, at Palatinate to give you five of the very best sporting books that would make either a great gift for that sports fan in your life or should be placed at the top of the 2021 reading list that you’re definitely going to complete this year.
The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton & Daniel Coyle – Ben Fleming, Deputy Sport Editor
Doping in sport is an inevitable but all too often unexplored part of high-level professional sport.
Perhaps the most high-profile story is that of seven time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, who famously was stripped of all titles having been exposed as a cheat.
This book tells this story from the perspective of a former teammate, Tyler Hamilton and illustrates the sheer scale of cheating in cycling at that time but also the great lengths that athletes and organisations would go to to cover up these doping violations.
A must read for anyone interested in the less glamourous and more morally bankrupt reality of the sporting world.
The Far Corner by Harry Pearson – James Reid, Deputy Sport Editor
As Durham students, it is easy to remain oblivious to our wider surroundings in the North East. Yet it is an area that is rich in history and culture, something which is laced throughout Pearson’s hazy tour of the region’s football grounds.
It is much a social commentary as it is a book about football, the rich descriptions of places and characters gives a vivid insight into the heart and soul of the North East. It is in many ways a stark reminder of what football used to be; a game rooted in the working-classes.
Pearson spoke to Palatinate earlier this term and admitted to being a football romantic, something that seeps out of the pages of The Far Corner. It is a paean to all that was good about football before all of the money.
That is not to suggest that Pearson gives a completely rose-tinted depiction; there is a brutal realism to the book too. Towns robbed of their former glory, the decline of industry in the North East, and the odd choice, if not inaccurate, word for Durham students all appear.
It will make you want to get out and attend a football match, or at the very least explore and indulge in the culture and history of the North East, something easily bypassed in the Durham bubble.
The Far Corner is the perfect guide to both football and culture in the North East.
Football Hackers by Christopher Biermann – Tim Sigsworth, Editor-in-Chief
Soccernomics is often spoken of as if it were the Bible of football analysis. Sadly, I struggled to enjoy the clash between its definitive tone and its often incomprehensive approach, finding that the authors’ valuable points were frequently lost in a bog of professed infallibility which the passing of time has disproven.
Biermann’s Football Hackers, on the other hand, offers a different approach: “Data tells a story of the game – not the story, but often a new and better one than the one we have all become used to.”
By depicting the individuals involved in their origin and application, Biermann seeks to offer a clear insight into the terms and trends which have become so fashionable in football of late – expected goals, goals against and assists – and those which haven’t, like PPDA, packing and controlling space.
Yet more importantly, Biermann is not a zealot. Numbers cannot tell, let alone predict, the full story of football’s wonderful madness, and he makes clear that the value of data lies as much in accepting its weaknesses as in its level of depth, breadth or sophistication.
In this sense, the book makes clear that there is always a role for the qualitative to play in the quantitative, and the most captivating and unique example of this provided by Biermann is on the how biases – confirmation, narrative, hindsight and memory – repeatedly lead to varying interpretations of otherwise identical data.
Football Hackers is a valuable yet humble exploration of how data provides previously inaccessible insights into the beautiful game, and one which reads and teaches very well indeed.
This Sporting Life by David Storey – Matt Styles, Sport Editor
For whatever reason, sport fiction has failed to establish itself as a coherent genre in the literary canon. Yet David Storey’s tour de force is a triumph for its unique ability to take the reader inside the gaffer’s office, the stifling saunas and the oppressive operation tables.
Focalised through the snarling, tragically flawed gladiator Arthur Machin – desperate to make his name at Wakefield by any means necessary – the brutal and disquieting world of rugby league in the ‘late-fifties-early-sixties’ becomes a fitting backdrop for this anti-hero’s feelings of alienation and world-fatigue.
Storey, a former Leeds half-back, emphatically tears down the glamour of being a professional rugby league player. He creates a sobering existential atmosphere through his employment of grotesque realism, portraying this world of broken teeth, exploitation and corporate hypocrisy as an unenviable and disorientating existence.
Crucially, the post-war working-class experience is not sentimentalised or romanticised, but sensitively portrayed in the richest vein of verisimilitude as Storey successfully plugs into a Weltanschauung directed towards self-destruction; capturing a post-war crisis of masculinity with aplomb.
In its visceral power, This Sporting Life is a striking and moving tale that unsettles and excites: deserving of a place at the very top of any sports fans’ reading lists.
Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson – Luke Power, Sport Editor
Forgive the obvious answer. Type ‘football books’ into Google and this is the first that appears, and there’s reason behind Google’s algorithmic madness.
Wilson’s book is a bazaar of knowledge and fascinating details, tracing the game’s tactical development from Victorian schools to a World War One camp, from Dutch totaalvoetbal to Guardiola’s Barcelona revolution.
At times, the revolving door of names and notions can be tricky to get your head around, so it might not be the easiest book to snuggle into and escape your uncle’s incessant jabber about the Brussels sprouts, but it is truly worth your time and attention.
Wilson, who spoke to Palatinate at the start of the year, is a doyen of football writing and Inverting the Pyramid is one of the true genre-defining works that has elicited a deluge of other football histories, including others from the man himself on topics as varied as Hungary to Argentina.
Wilson’s level of research is astounding and unfolds in a flow of amusing stories, breathing life back into the bygone eras he visits. I cannot recommend this book highly enough if you want to further your understanding of football.
Image: Joyce McCown via Unsplash