From Australian football's bible to a tribute to the seamier side of Aussie Rules, our pick of the best reads
Part autobiography, part history of soccer in Australia and part manifesto, upon release Johnny Warren's Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters garnered a lot of attention and debate for more than just its provocative title. His evocations of both the joyous and dark days of the sport's past rang true to many who love the game.
On the topic of the title, Warren remained steadfast that it would water down his intentions if it were it to be called anything else and where other publishes balked, we have Random House's Jeanne Ryckmans to thank that it remained in place upon release. It's actually an appropriately bombastic title for such a forthright communicator.
According to Warren: "'Sheilas', 'wogs' and 'poofters' were considered the second-class citizens of the day and if you played soccer you were considered one of them." With no small amount of passion and faith, Warren dedicated the greater bulk of his life to playing, discussing and promoting the games' virtues. To read this book is to take in the lessons he learned along the way. For Warren, soccer "made me more aware, it has awakened the world citizen inside me … I want the same experience of awakening and awareness for Australia."
He also talks poignantly of the fight soccer has faced in the face of an Australian media often unwilling and unable to accept the global game as being of equal status to local codes. Warren spent hour upon hour hanging on the end of a telephone line to provide updates for radio sports bulletins, only to be shunted to the back of the queue at the last minute and told to "be quick" when he was given a chance to talk about the world game. "There is never any time to talk soccer," he lamented.
Warren's insights were sharp and traverse through every level of the game, from the parents running the canteen at grassroots level all the way up to the administration of the game by Fifa. The book also gives a great glimpse into how hard-won the battles were for the sport in Australia. Despite being beloved throughout the world, the sport needed to find a voice down under and Warren was often that voice. The game was lucky to have him.
Where US sports has David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game and John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink, Aussie Rules has John Powers's classic The Coach, which follows the fortunes of Ron Barassi's 1977 North Melbourne side on their march to the VFL premiership.
Just as Halberstam was the beneficiary of either impeccable foresight (or a healthy dose of luck, depending on your take) in choosing such a momentous season in the history of his subject, Powers could not have picked a better year than 1977 to capture a coach and a club at their zenith.
Benefitting from the kind of access that would make a present-day writer's eyes bulge, Powers gives an unflinching portrait of a time in football history that now seems so distant. Published 35 years ago, there is great contrast between the dying days of amateurism Powers presents and the media-saturated world of millionaire players in 2013. The book digs right under the fingernails of a time and a place; mud-caked training sessions, training room groans and hovering throughout, Barassi and his relentless pursuit of perfection.
There are time-capsule moments aplenty. There's Barassi demonstrating his ideal tackling method to players by throwing his assistant coach Ray 'Slug' Jordan to the ground, fracturing his ribs. There's Barassi ruthlessly warning his players, "Anyone on our transfer list has only himself to blame. Anyone on our transfer list is there because he doesn't deserve to be kept." At one point the coach hires a hypnotist to extract the best from his players and perhaps most famously of all, there's put-downs like, "Nobody's got any right to be proud of natural ability – that came to you through the eye of your father's cock."
Barassi might have been an endlessly quotable character, but more insights still come from Powers's keen observations: "Barassi believes in eye contact. In the few seconds of silence that followed his eyes flick-checked sixty other pairs of eyes, searching for response."
Barassi once said that there was room in football for gentlemen but not gentle men and this is not a gentle book. Powers puts us right in the faces of players dripping with sweat and gasping for air, desperately trying to please a man who keeps driving them harder. In the end it was worth it – after fighting out the second tied grand final in history, Barassi's Roos claimed their second Premiership. We should be thankful that as a result, one of the great Australian sports books was born.
With no disrespect to his masterful biographies of Warwick Armstrong and the Australia "Mystery Spinner" Jack Iverson, The Cricket War, Gideon Haigh's account of the tumultuous incursion of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket remains a seminal piece of Australian sports writing and to my mind the greatest of all his cricket books.
Weaving together an exhaustive pool of first-hand testimony from the major players involved and with the keen eye of a pernickety historian, Haigh draws all of the colour, controversy and characters together in a razor-sharp account of a game in crisis. In this period of uncomfortable transition the game had changed forever and Haigh ushers us through every boardroom, courtroom and dressing room door for a thrilling insight into the inner workings of the cricket world in the late 1970s.
More recent print runs of The Cricket War rightly point to Frank Tyson's observation that Haigh "must have worn out two or three tape recorders" and the sheer weight of quotable moments makes it pleasingly rereadable. Haigh was the first to pen a thorough retrospective account of the World Series era and it rendered all subsequent attempts redundant.
Haigh chronicles the rise of the game as a commercial force and it's enthralling to see it being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. It was an uncertain future that plainly scared the bejesus out of the game's administrators in the traditional powerbases of England and Australia. Kerry Packer, Tony Greig and Ian Chappell loom appropriately large throughout. Haigh did though take great care in not painting administrators merely as penny-pinching slave-masters, giving due perspective that they were mostly unpaid volunteers whose adherence to increasingly outdated ideals were blinding them to the needs of their players and the game at large.
It's probably true to say that it is not as lush or lyrical as much of Haigh's other cricket writing, but there's a lot of action to get through and he imparts on us every thrilling moment of glamour and affords us a front row seat to watch these pajama-clad stars blazing such a fascinating trail.
Books that sharply analyse the board wrangling and administrative cock-ups of Australia's sporting leagues are few and far between these days, but if you have an interest in the way sports operate or even how the AFL came to be the behemoth it is today, Garry Linnell's Football Ltd is required reading. If you haven't read this book yet, consider it your homework for this week. I guarantee it won't disappoint.
When Football Ltd appeared in 1995, the public had never before been given such a close-up view of the way Australian Rules Football operated and not everyone involved came up roses. Linnell takes us into the administrative underbelly of a sporting code in transition as the Victorian Football League morphs from a 12-team suburban league into a national competition and a powerful brand in its own right, the AFL. The author labeled it, "the most turbulent transformation any sporting competition in this country has witnessed." The only shame reading it now is the reminder that no-one else has picked up where Linnell left off and fearlessly tackled the colossal, 18-headed monster that is AFL football in the 21st century.
Perhaps achieving something of the scope Linnell managed here would be near-impossible today. Football Ltd benefits from the insights of a number of deposed insiders with axes to grind and no incentive to "control the message". In the decades Linnell walks us through, hubris, pettiness and jealousy formed a near-lethal cocktail that almost sunk some foundation clubs and threatened even the league itself. Television wars, personality clashes, greed, expansion teams – Linnell gives us a warts-and-all account. It now seems amazing that so much of what he uncovered was previously un-documented and the book remains a vital tool in understanding how AFL football came to be a national sport.
In a similar vein, Mike Colman's Super League: The Inside Story lifted the lid on Australian rugby league's crisis point.
Well-worn cliché has it that captaincy of the Australian Test cricket team is the second most important office in the land and if that is truly the case then Ray Robinson's On Top Down Under must surely be added to the high school syllabus.
At the very least it sits in the pantheon of Australian sports writing and there is definitely something totemic about it in both appearance and content. Every time I reach for it on my book shelf I feel like I'm delving into a sacred and unimpeachable scripture. It remains the definitive account of the first 34 men who led Australia onto the Test arena and has only ever been improved on by Haigh's addition of the five captains who followed Ian Chappell, the last man Robinson chronicled in his original collection.
From his beginnings at the Melbourne Star in 1930, Robinson wrote about the game with passion and flair for more than half a century. Being such a long-standing fixture of the press box and confidante to so many cricket figures, his authoritative account is augmented by priceless contributions from the family and friends of Australia's cricket leaders.
Robinson also traces the mood of the country through the medium of cricket, always glancing sideways at the development of a national character that both shaped and was maybe even sometimes shaped by men with baggy green caps on their heads. Unusually for a sports writer of his vintage, Robinson also had a keen interest in the role of women in the history of cricket, though in this instance it primarily served as a device for understanding the way that their lives and marriages were informed by the game, and vice versa.
His admiration for some of his subjects shines through but never seems cloying. Of Bradman's successor Lindsay Hassett he writes, "In whatever wing of the heavenly studios the scenario was written casting Hassett as Test captain, deep thought must have been given to the part." Monty Noble was "cut out for strokeplay rather than having his bat hanging around eavesdropping on his boots' squeaks." If there's any criticism of Robinson it's that his portraits were almost all complimentary and didn't dig too far into certain uncomfortable truths, but the scope of the book and the sheer dedication involved in piecing together the lineage of such wildly different characters make On Top Down Under a timeless classic.
As Australia's Test team lurches from one crisis to another these days it pays for Aussies to realise that things really have been this bad before and it wasn't the end of the world. Unless you were Kim Hughes obviously, in which case things got pretty nasty for a while there in the 80s.
In Golden Boy, Christian Ryan uses the dynamic, cavalier and ultimately frustrating career of former Australian captain Hughes as the framework to explore an inglorious but thoroughly riveting period of cricket history. Hughes gave Ryan his blessing but not his cooperation in piecing together the tale. Neither did the author receive much help from the other key figures (Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh, Ian and Greg Chappell) in the tale, but his account of the rise and fall of Hughes as Test captain and the shuddering end to the careers of some Australian greats brings an era spectacularly to life.
The team-mates and onlookers who did give Ryan an insight into what transpired between Hughes and his senior colleagues, though peripheral players in the saga, were probably emotionally divested enough to give a more objective view than the protagonists. Thus we hear tales of bullying, white-anting, practice-session bouncer-thons, back-stabbing and outright fist fights. Mike Whitney's first Test wickets go uncelebrated by team-mates more focused on leadership politics and a drunken pairing of Hughes and Lillee let off steam by wrestling each other to the ground in a car park, naked but for their underwear.
It's the kind of book that completely alters your perceptions of some giants of the game and the personality dynamics, entrenched hierarchies and unchecked egos that can tear a team apart. In Ryan, Hughes has a sympathetic biographer but the book never rewrites history or shies away from his short-comings. Even some of those foibles endear Hughes to the reader and we're left with the cautionary tale of a potential superstar who never quite lived up to the expectations of the men around him; hard men who were particularly hard on him. Utterly compelling from start to end.
This list is by no means exhaustive and is not an attempt at a definitive "Top Six". I think it gives a decent representation of some great writers across a few sports. Are there great books I missed here? You bet. I feel almost sick not including any of David Frith's cricket books or Martin Flanagan's wonderful AFL ones (actually, get yourself this, which combines three of Flanagan's best).
The fact is that some Australian sports (cricket in particular) have a vast supply of great books while others are sadly under-represented at this point. I also limited this list to books I've actually read, so don't throw rocks at me if I haven't read your favourite. Throw the book in question at me though, by all means. This isn't a competition but if you really love a book that's not on this list jump in the comments section and tell us about why it's so great.