Words: Philip Cummins
We're all feeling it right now: the withdrawal symptoms from the lack of Premier League action have started to kick in, over the last number of days.
While the All-Ireland Senior Football and Hurling Championships are sure to promise much excitement and fever throughout the summer, it's those odd- numbered years that remind us that summer leaves us with a severe drought of soccer action: no Premiership, no UEFA European Championship, no FIFA World Cup. All we're left with is youtube clips of the season gone by and reminders of when our chosen club was actually any good, back in the day.
With that in mind, it's as good a time as any to tuck into some summer sports reading. The bookshelves of any surviving bookshops are stocked full of sports books- some are brilliant overviews of great decades in sport, while others tend to be unremarkable autobiographies that have little public interest- even the water boy of the great Tyrone team of recent years probably has an autobiography due to be published.
So below is a list of the Top 5 sports books you should be reading this summer. If you've read 'em already, dig 'em out again; if you haven't read 'em at all, bury your head back in the sand, though this time bury it in shame. Similarly, if we've left out any stone cold classics, do let us know. And then we'll bury our heads in the sand.
5. Keys to the Kingdom by Jack O'Connor
Penned by former All- Ireland winning Kerry manager Jack O'Connor, Keys To The Kingdom is as warts- and- all as any GAA autobiography in recent years. Throughout, O'Connor plays the card of the self- styled outsider: a man who operates outside of the Kerry football mafia, which is made up exclusively of former players from that seminal team from the 70's/80's, including Pat Spillane and the late, great Páidí O'Sé, all of whom seem to wear their many All- Ireland medals around their necks like Mr. T. Occasionally, O'Connor takes the opportunity to get in some cheap shots against those in Kerry who have crossed him, though overall, Keys to the Kingdom opens up a view for GAA fans of the personal and professional sacrifices that managers make to make a team work and the occasional cute hoorism that is endemic within the sport and, in broader sense, within small- town Ireland.
4. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner
Criticized by some as over- intellectualizing a great footballing tradition, Brilliant Orange is a thinking man's sportsbook; a broad, wide ranging account of one of the most fertile and consistent of footballing countries. There has always been a Dutch star that has come through on the world stage, the latest being Man Utd's Robin Van Persie. Through clear, precise prose, Winner examines why such a small country has produced such some of the most technically skilled, intelligent players in the history of football and makes all sorts of links to the country; from the flat geographical landscape of the country, to it's rich artistic tradition that includes Vincent Van Gough and, of course, footballing genius Johan Cruyff. As original, stimulating and quirky a football book as you're likely to read.
3. Red Mist: Roy Keane And The Football Civil War by Conor O'Callaghan
Eleven years on from Saipan, Conor O'Callaghan's Red Mist is a welcome reminder of the utterly over- the- top and bizarre nature of the media coverage and ensuing public outrage surrounding Roy Keane's exit from the 2002 World Cup. Rows at Christenings. Tables in pubs divided between Keane supporters and McCarthy supporters, like pro- Treaty and anti- Treaty supporters.
Dundalk man O'Callghan, who has also published four collections of poetry with The Gallery Press, lends the narrative a companionable tone, peppering uniquely Irish turns of phrase throughout the book. A must read, if only for a hilarious scene involving an intense discussion on the Keane – McCarthy rift between the author, a Garda and a pissed- up boy racer at the scene of a car crash.
2. Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream by H.G. Bissinger
Even if the t.v. series wasn't for you and the 2005 film adaptation starring Billy Bob Thornton didn't do much for you, Buzz Bissinger's brilliant account of Permian High School's Panthers football team from Odessa, Texas, is one of the finest written sports books currently in print. Friday Night Lights is a wonderful evocation of life in small- town Texas where the locals eat, sleep and drink football; where violent, abusive fathers- themselves former Texas state championship winners- rule their football playing sons with "do or die" encouragement.
Vilified after the book's publication in 1990 for its perceived negative reflection on the locals of Odessa, sportswriter Buzz Bissinger's classic account of how football fanaticism can put a town into overdrive and how would- be stars fall into gutter is as vital today as it ever was.
1. Back From The Brink by Paul McGrath
In a market that is saturated with autobiographies by players that are about as interesting as the autobiography of a golf caddy, Paul McGrath's Back From The Brink is that rarest of sports books: an autobiography that transcends the parameters of its own genre and a life story that would genuinely appeal even to those who have about as much interest in watching soccer as they do in watching paint dry.
We always thought that we knew The Black Pearl- or "God" as Aston Villa fans would refer to him - though the portrait of the world's greatest defender of the 80's and 90's in Back From The Brink is one full of paradoxes: a courageous and confident defender who struggled with crippling shyness off the pitch; an inspirational leader on the pitch who struggled to keep two marriages together due to his much - publicized battles with alcohol. A great autobiography by a true Irish sporting icon.