It has been a difficult year for many on a personal and professional level. With lockdowns imposed across the globe, many people have turned backed to the age-old hobby of reading books.
In the United Kingdom, for example, a survey conducted by Nielsen Book found that 41 per cent of people were reading more often than before the pandemic, with just 10 per cent reading less.
While some have turned to classics and others have finally got around to dusting off the tomes at the back of their bookshelf, there have been some excellent new releases too. Many of those have come in the sports category – we’ve picked out 12 standout sports books released in 2020 so far.
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Even a casual viewer of rugby union knows that it is among the toughest sports in the world. Yet while the physical demands are clear for all to see, the mental strain it places on its participants often goes unnoticed.
Dylan Hartley, a New Zealand-born hooker who played almost 100 times for the England national team, provides a warts-and-all insight into the world of rugby union. While Hartley does touch on elements of his own career, including the pain of missing the 2019 World Cup through injury, this terrific book is predominantly a general account of the stresses and strains of professional rugby.
The north-east of England has long been known as a footballing hotbed, having produced talented players and passionate fans for decades. Harry Pearson’s latest offering is a follow-up to The Far Corner, released in the mid-1990s, as the Middlesbrough-born writer revisits the towns and cities of his home region.
Pearson explores the story of football and society in the north-east over the last 25 years, taking in Newcastle United’s title challenges and subsequent decline, Sunderland’s slide into the third tier and Middlesbrough’s run to the UEFA Cup final. The book is based on Pearson’s travels to and from games in the 2018/19 season, and is a timely reminder of how important fans are to the game.
In Boxing circles, it is well known that ‘float like a butterfly sting like a bee’ was not in fact coined by Muhammad Ali, the man who made it famous, but by his faithful cornerman Drew 'Bundini' Brown. What isn’t so well known is that Bundini was much more than just a wordsmith with a set of punch pads.
In this long overdue biography of the man some labelled ‘Ali’s Mouthpiece’, writer Todd D Synder offers exceptional insight into the complicated but kind-hearted soul of Bundini Brown, a man Ali himself felt he owed for moulding him into ‘The Greatest’.
Racism, exploitation and personal demons feature prominently as Bundini’s stimulating story is pieced together beautifully by Synder, who leaves no stone unturned in his successful quest to paint his subject as much more than a hype man and motivator. In doing so, he unearths a gem of a character the boxing world can now fully appreciate.
Jeff Benedict charts the remarkable rise of the New England Patriots, who almost went bankrupt as recently as 1994. That was the year the American football team were bought by Robert Kraft, which marked the start of a dramatic ascent that has since seen the Patriots win six Super Bowls and become one of the most profitable sports teams in the world.
Benedict goes behind the scenes to tell the story of the Patriots’ incredible success over the last two decades. On-field tactics, boardroom decision-making and their collective-focused strategy are all explored, with Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and star player Tom Brady proving particularly crucial to the creation of a dynasty in Greater Boston.
Another American dynasty is analysed by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, whose subject have dominated basketball over the last few years. The Golden State Warriors had just three Western Conference titles to their name in the middle of the last decade, and only one since the 1960s. Since then they have been virtually unbeatable, claiming the prize in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Strauss expertly explores the origins of the Warriors’ success, which runs deeper than the undisputable genius of Steph Curry. But this is not a hagiography: time and space is also dedicated to the questionable decisions that led to the Warriors’ failure to make the 2020 play-offs, and which could bring about the long-term decline of the NBA’s dominant force.
Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, a vivid portrait of the legendary manager Brian Clough, is widely regarded as one of the greatest football books ever written. More recently Hamilton has turned his hand to cricket authorship, and his nostalgic One Long and Beautiful Summer is an enjoyable read for fans of the sport.
A companion to Hamilton’s previous work, A Last English Summer, this recent release sees the author follow the County Championship in the summer of 2019, the last edition before the introduction of a 100-ball tournament this year. Travelling to grounds up and down the country, Hamilton captures the essence of red-ball cricket in an era when there is increasing demand for shorter forms of the game.
Shane Benzie is a running technique analyst and his book with Tim Major, The Lost Art of Running, will appeal to pavement-pounders everywhere. While Benzie’s insights serve in part as a practical guide to runners, the most fascinating aspect of this book is the author’s interactions with athletes around the world.
Benzie travels to six continents to analyse the technique and style of runners from very different environments – the Sahara Desert, the Arctic Circle and the Pennine Way are three such examples. The result is a fascinating study that will leave readers itching to dust off their running shoes.
As one half of one of the most celebrated rivalries in sporting history, Arturo Gatti was a much-loved warrior among the boxing fraternity. His ring battles with Micky Ward are the stuff of legend, but in his short life as a retired boxer he spiralled out of control and was dead by the age of 37.
The mystery of how he came to pass has always been a topic of intrigue, not just for boxing fans, but for those with a specific interest in unsolved crime. Was ‘Thunder’ Gatti murdered by his wife? Did he commit suicide or was it an accident? These are the questions author Jimmy Tobin sets out to answer and although conclusive answers still elude us, Tobin’s 2020 release is as close as we’ve come.
At just 71 pages, this book can be read in one sitting and Tobin’s style is to get straight to the point, opening Part 1 of 3 with a detailed outline of what is taken as fact on the night of Gatti’s death. Very much a human-interest read, it draws the reader in and leads them to other, darker possibilities from the night in question.
This superb book about tennis contains little on Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. David Berry is more interested in the hidden history of the game, delving deeper than the tired clichés of strawberries and cream and Henman Hill.
Beginning with the birth of tennis in 1800s England, Berry tells little-known tales around gender, class and race that paint a truer picture of the sport’s diverse history. In some ways, this book is a study of social history viewed through the lens of tennis.
When the Premier League was launched in 1992, its players almost exclusively hailed from the British Isles and Ireland, with a smattering of Europeans providing some continental flair. Since then England’s top flight has become the most international sporting competition on the planet, with almost 50 African footballers plying their trade within it last season.
Journalist Ed Aarons follows the journeys of various African players, from the pioneering Arthur Wharton in the 1800s to the stars of today like Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. In doing so, he uncovers the unwavering dedication and passion of youngsters from up and down the continent, and explains how many of them confronted racism and prejudice to become among the most celebrated sportsmen in England.
Like Duncan Hamilton, Michael Henderson has taken a look at English cricket through the prism of the summer of 2019. Yet That Will Be England Gone is sufficiently different to One Long and Beautiful Summer to make both worth reading.
Henderson also travels throughout England to explore the vast changes cricket has undergone since he first began following the game in the mid-1960s. He visits the biggest grounds in the country, from Lord’s to Trent Bridge to Old Trafford, to celebrate the long-standing union between cricket, summer and England.
The nature of fandom has changed dramatically in recent decades. Sport has always been political, but the marriage between the two has accelerated as the world has become more globalised, leaving ordinary supporters to confront issues that were previously the reserve of elected (or unelected) officials. “Sticking to sports”, as Jessica Luther, Kavitha Davidson and thousands of others journalists are routinely told, is no longer possible.
Primarily focused on the United States, Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back tackles the tough questions that sports fans increasingly have to ask themselves, be they about racism, sexism, club ownership or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.