I've been talking in recent blogs about the rise of good sports writing over the last 20 years and suggesting it might be good to compile a list. So, time I made some suggestions. But I'm open to others too.
I'm going to do it sport by sport starting with football. I've chosen the books that made the biggest impression on me, with the caveat that there will be many good books sitting on my shelf to be read. I also wanted to suggest one or two that you might not have come across so there might be the odd left-field choice. So what follows is part obvious, part willful. You're all invited to offer me suggestions in the same vein.
1: Brilliant Orange, David Winner (2001)
The success of Winner's book led to the publication of a raft of books looking at footballing national histories (Tor!, for example, covered German football and Calcio the game in Italy), but Winner's remains the most intellectually ambitious. It also has a great story to tell - the story of football's nearly men, the Dutch. That Winner is able to marshal Dutch geography, the paintings of Mondrian and Johan Cryuff into a coherent and convincing narrative is a mark of its power.
2: Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby (1992)
Someone was always going to write Fever Pitch or something like it. The fanzine culture of the 1980s had seeded the ground and it was just a matter of which fan was going to be quickest through the gate. Certainly many followed in its wake. But football was lucky that Hornby got there first. It's a fine book, probably a better read then because it felt like something that hadn't been said before. What's striking now is how much of its time it is. Hooliganism is a real concern of the book and that's partly because Hornby is attempting a refutation of a particular football cliche. It's important to remember in the era of Heysel and Hillsborough football fans were often conflated with hooligans - as if there was no difference between them. Hornby's book was proof that this was not the case. It probably also helped that Hornby's hangdog miserabilism was matched by the Arsenal team he is writing about. The George Graham era was successful enough eventually but unlike the later Wenger model neutrals were never in danger of actually liking them. Remember it's Willie Young's cynical foul on West Ham's Paul Allen that Hornby dubs "Arsenalesque" in the book.
3: All Played Out, Pete Davies (1990)
Another book about a team I enjoy hating. Davies's account of England's 1990 World Cup campaign was the book that alerted British publishers to the idea that there was a market for well written, intelligent football books. And what's striking about it now is the amazing access Davies got to the England camp - access that would be impossible now. The 1990 World Cup is seen as one of the poorer finals (though I still remember it as hugely more enjoyable than what would follow four years later), culminating in a repeat of the 1986 final between Argentina and West Germany but without the thrills and without Maradona's genius (he played but he was a shadow of the man who had won the cup almost on his own for years before in Mexico). It was a tournament scarred by hooliganism (at the time it was par for the course when England were involved) and England fluked their way to the semi-final where they were the better team against the eventual winners but still lost in penalty shoot-out - possibly the only time I felt sorry for England because for once they were the better team. Gazza cried and football was about to be transformed into the juggernaut that it is today.
Davies's book captured all of this with flair and insight.
4: Full Time - The Secret Life Of Tony Cascarino, Paul Kimmage (2005); More Than A Match, Lee Chapman (1992)
A couple of football biographies. Cascarino's stands for all those biographies (Tony Adams, Paul Merson etc) that offer a vision of heavily flawed men whom football gave a licence for excess. Cascarino's ghost writer Kimmage makes the most of Cascarino's story. But Full Time has had plenty of coverage. Lee Chapman's autobiography, by contrast, is one I've not heard many talking about. Chapman's flaws were revealed after his book appeared and if memory serves the book gets off to the worst possible beginning with a dreary account of Leeds United's league title winning season. But the rest of the book is full of great stories about Clough and Robert Maxell among others. What I remember about it most is the way it illustrates how in the pre-Premier League era football managers and clubs actually encouraged footballers to be juvenile because it made them much easier to control.
5: The Last Game, Jason Cowley, 2009
Bloody hell, Arsenal again. I've chosen this ahead of books by Simon Kuper, David Goldblatt, Gordon Burn, Stuart Cosgrove's hugely entertaining Hampden Babylon and even Hunter Davies's The Glory Game - the great Tottenham Hotspur book - because I think it catches a moment in the game's history that was pivotal. Cowley's account of the 1988-1989 season which saw Arsenal win the league title with the last kick of the game at Anfield now seems like ancient history. A time when football was despised by the powers that be culminating in the horror of Hillsborough. It's a lovely memoir about family and football and how they are so much part of each other. It's also in passing a reminder of how central Liverpool was to Britain's cultural life in the eighties - and not just on the football pitch.