Observer Sport writers recommend their favourite books of 2016 – The Guardian

VIC MARKS

The ghosted autobiography seldom excites much attention or enthusiasm in these sorts of columns but there have been two published this year that are much better than most. Absolutely Foxed (Simon & Schuster) tells us of Graeme Fowler’s cricketing life, which encompasses growing up in Accrington, playing cricket for Lancashire then England, mixing with knights – Sir Ian and Sir Elton – coaching a succession of cricketers from Andrew Strauss downwards at Durham University and a moving, candid account of his own mental health issues.

Fowler, once a highly entertaining room-mate of mine on tour, has always been an independent, lateral thinker about the game. He still is. For Fowler, scoring runs for England could be a complicated process and the same seems to apply to Jonathan Trott, judging by his autobiography, Unguarded (Sphere). For those who like to avoid ghosts, try Emma John’s Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket (Wisden) and Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius (Simon & Schuster) a book about a famous photograph – of Victor Trumper jumping out to drive.

KEVIN MITCHELL

The Real Rockys: A History of the Golden Age of Italian Americans in boxing 1900-1955 (RV Publishing) is a cumbersome title, but its pages deliver a convincing, exhaustively researched socio-economic, cultural and fistic trawl through the first half of the 20th century in boxing’s land of dreams. We are familiar with the usual heroes, from Carnera to Marciano, but one of the many delights is the way the author of this self-published labour of glove love, Rolando Vitale, identifies the practice of ethnic switching among lesser lights – and there were hundreds of Depression-era boxers with marketable Irish names and Italian parents. Dago Mike (Michael Mongone) didn’t hide a lot and Bad News Murphy started life as Mimmy Buzzello. There was also Marty O’Brien: Frank Sinatra’s dad, Anthony. (Less verifiable is the welterweight career of Dino Paul Crocetti, who allegedly fought as Kid Crochet – and sang as Dean Martin.)

Bottom line, there were thousands of willing Italians who graced, and occasionally disgraced, thousands of rings. As the author concludes, “The defining feature of the Italian American boxing experience is that this cohort produced more professional world boxing champions and title claimants than any other nationality in the first half of the twentieth century.”

PAUL REES

Paul O’Connell’s autobiography The Battle (Penguin), may not be stuffed full of dressing room secrets – he retired this year – but it reflects the character of one of Ireland’s foremost rugby internationals: honest, fair and devoid of self-pity. There is a touch of Tony Adams’s Addicted about it, not in the admission of a drink problem, but in the way he reflects on his life without a shred of hypocrisy or recrimination.

Irish rugby is on a high after last month’s long-waited victory over the All Blacks and another former Lion, Donal Lenihan – the midweek captain on the 1989 Lions tour to New Zealand who was credited with helping salvage the trip after defeat in the first Test by keeping up the morale of the dirt-trackers known as “Donal’s Doughnuts” – has brought out My Life In Rugby (Transworld Ireland), reflecting entertainingly on his life as a player, administrator and pundit.

Not many players in Europe can say they scored the winning try against the All Blacks, but Brian Stevens managed it for England in Auckland in 1973. His biography, Stack, has been written by Steve Tomlin (Amberley) and recounts how the Penzance prop, who eventually joined Harlequins, used to hitch a lift to England training sessions in London on the back of a broccoli lorry and also make the return trip on it, playing international rugby (he went on the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand) while at the same time working on the family farm.

Terry Davies also toured New Zealand with the Lions, back in 1959. Regarded as one of the first stars of the game, the former Wales full-back recalls in his autobiography (Y Lolfa) an era long gone. Among his tales is the truth behind the front-page story of the stolen Twickenham crossbar after the 3-3 draw with Wales in 1958 and a cross Rugby Football Union. The contrast with O’Connell’s world could not be greater.

EWAN MURRAY

In this of all years, as Europe tumbled to defeat at Hazeltine, the publication of The Captain Myth; The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion (Bloomsbury) was timely. Richard Gillis delves deep into the fascinating subject of what makes a strong sporting leader, what doesn’t and, perhaps most intriguingly, why some are heralded when all cold evidence paints an altogether different picture.

Ryder Cup captains are feted or trashed because of victory or defeat, which, as Gillis points out, isn’t representative of reality. This book exposes blueprints and stereotype, it highlights smart captaincy ploys that were ultimately unsuccessful; and why that was the case.

With the emphasis on golf, Gillis meticulously analyses Ryder Cup captains and their methods. He produces statistics alongside simple commentary, meaning this book is valuable for potential leaders – or those seeking to assess them – in any sport. Put simply, so much of The Captain Myth rings true.

OWEN GIBSON

Adrian Tempany’s And the Sun Shines Now is not your average football book. Part memoir, part social history, part survivor’s tale, it dissects the culture that led English football in the 1980s to almost unimaginable horrors and the changes in the game and the country unleashed thereafter. Grand in scope and passionate in its arguments, Tempany unravels the strands that have repackaged football into a consumer product in the Premier League age. The chapters on Hillsborough are gut-wrenching, but there is plenty of warmth too. Not least in the indefatigable spirit of the families and survivors who eventually found long-delayed justice.

Another book with a warm heart but framed by tragedy is Oliver Kay’s Forever Young, the story of Manchester United’s forgotten genius Adrian Doherty. Once spoken of as being as good as Ryan Giggs, Kay movingly builds up a picture of a prodigiously gifted player who stood apart from the crowd, preferring busking and poetry to the material obsessions of his fellow apprentices. Doherty suffered a serious knee injury at 17 and died tragically young at just 26. His story touches on wider issues – including the way today’s mega-clubs treat those that don’t make it for whatever reason – but at its heart is an affectionate and fitting tribute to a singular and intriguing  talent.

GILES RICHARDS

On the 40th anniversary of James Hunt winning the Formula One world championship, the biography by the esteemed motor racing writer Maurice Hamilton, James Hunt (Blink), is timely and could not have been in better hands. Hamilton had followed the driver as a fan and one of his first jobs was writing for Hunt magazine in 1977, giving him a personal and professional relationship that would continue for many years. It shines through in this beautiful tome – and it is beautiful – a weighty, coffee-table work, the words punctuated with sumptuous pictures that illustrate just what a singular and exciting personality Hunt possessed, a life and character Hamilton more than does justice to in a terrific read.

From the past to the future of the sport with Ross Brawn’s Total Competition (Simon & Schuster) which, while the Q&A style and clunky comparisons to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War are awkward, remains a fascinating insight from the former, hugely successful, team principal into F1 and also where it might go, especially relevant given that a role for Brawn with the new owners, Liberty Media, has been widely discussed. Finally, no fan should be without F1: All the Races (Evro), the third edition of which came out this year. Roger Smith’s work is a wonderful combination of fact, description and illustration. This iteration includes an internet download that updates it to the end of 2016.

GREG WOOD

A grand ambition is brilliantly realised in Mr Darley’s Arabian (John Murray, £25), as Chris McGrath uses 25 horses, in a direct line of descent from a foundation stallion in the early 18th century, to offer the story of the thoroughbred and a social history of Britain and Ireland through the extraordinary cast of characters who owned them. The depth of the research McGrath has undertaken is evident on every page but the difficult balance between being definitive and keeping the reader entertained is cleverly maintained.

The racehorse and its possibilities have always cast a spell on all levels of society, from kings and lords to hustlers and con artists and everyone in between. From the Darley Arabian – the “daddy of them all” of the title – to the brilliant, unbeaten Frankel, McGrath memorably turns the turf into a rare, constant thread as a country undergoes three centuries of upheaval. There could be no better way for a newcomer to racing to absorb its rich history or a devotee to discover fresh depths.

ANDY BULL

You don’t need a recommendation to know that Gideon Haigh’s new book is going to be good, but his latest, Stroke of Genius, is one of his best yet. Close your eyes and picture George Beldam’s famous photo of Victor Trumper striding out to play a drive. Haigh uses the image to thread together an essay on everything from the beginnings of action photography to the myths around Australia’s Baggy Green cap, but it is ultimately about iconography and idolatry.

Emma John also wrote about her cricketing heroes, in Following On. They’re an unusual lot, including Jack Russell, Phil Tufnell, Alec Stewart and eight others from England’s inglorious 90s. It’s a warm and witty book, partly a series of perceptive sketches of those players, partly a memoir of her own odd obsession with them.

Rick Broadbent picked a more conspicuously heroic lead for his book, Endurance, a brilliantly absorbing account of the life of the great 1948 and 1952 Olympic champion Emil Zatopek and his fall from grace during the Prague Spring.

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