Sports Book Of The Year By Graham Sharpe

Sharpe Angle Reflects On 25 Years Of The William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

BACK in the day-1989, to be precise - when the word kindle only had its dictionary meaning of 'to set alight or start to burn', the winner of the first William Hill Sports Book of the Year was announced.

And when it was revealed to be a book about rowing I feared it might well be the last time such a winner might ever be rewarded.

I was relieved to be permitted to run the Award again the next year. This time, a book about cycling got the nod.

'Rowing! Cycling! What's the matter with you? Can't you let a book about horse racing or football, the things we take most money on, win the Award' demanded the irate keeper of the budget.

Fortunately, he wasn't serious. Not that serious, anyway.

So in late November the Award will celebrate its silver anniversary when we honour the 25th book to receive the accolade, acclaim, glory, increased sales and rewards which come with the honour.

That first winner was 'True Blue', the story of the University Boat Race mutiny, which was subsequently made into a very watchable movie and whose co-author Daniel Topolski confessed recently that he was still sitting on the free bet he collected as part of his prize, wondering what he should back with it.

Which was not a problem the second winner, Paul Kimmage, had. He remembered when interviewed along with many of our other 20-plus winning authors that he did something 'shameful' with his winning bet for the book which exposed and shamed so many of his counterparts on the Tour de France, 'Rough Ride'.

To be precise, the Irishman, who was at Lansdowne Road covering the 5 Nations (as the competition was then) clash between Ireland and England, had put his bet on an England victory, but with time rapidly running out, they were failing to justify favouritism - to the unbridled joy of every Irishman in the place - except for one.

'I was the only Irishman in Lansdowne Road who was hoping England would get over the try line for victory'.

Kimmage says, 'I cannot emphasise enough what it meant to me at the time to win the William Hill', showing that even this early in its history the Prize was becoming very influential.

One of the prime reasons for that was the absolute top quality judges we had persuaded to sit on our panel from day one - the legendary Hugh McIlvanney is still there, along with Alyson Rudd of The Times; John Inverdale, Danny Kelly, and the founder of Sports Pages bookshop, John Gaustad.

Paul Kimmage went on to be short listed twice more as the importance to authors, publishers and readers, of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year has continued to increase year on year: 'The difference between being short-listed and winning is huge - and not winning is so devastating that to this day I cannot bring myself to read the book that beat me last time - pathetic, really.'

But ironically enough, given that Paul's winning book was an expose of the doping culture in cycling,when Lance Armstrong's book, 'It's Not About The Bike' won, he promptly stuck his free bet on himself to win the next year's Tour de France which, of course, he did.

Cycling's relationship with doping has been a thread running through the Award over the years, and the most recent winner, last year's 'Secret Race' by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle was something of a mea culpa on the subject.

I genuinely had no expectation that the Award would grow up to become what it has, but I am delighted that it did. It has, for example, enabled local paper journalist Duncan Hamilton to become a full time writer after he won twice, with very different but equally fascinating books about Brian Clough, and Harold Larwood - a feat equalled only by Donald McRae whose study of boxing, Dark Trade, and 'In Black and White:The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens' were both victorious.

As I write this piece I have just discovered which books are on this year's Short list and I know that whoever comes out on top will have thoroughly deserved to do so. Already the judges have surprised me - there were ten (auto)biographies on the Long List, many of them by big name sportspeople - from Seb Coe toJimmy Connors; from Katherine Grainger to Denis Bergkamp. Yet only one made it on to the Short list, mind you, it is quite something - the never less than newsworthy and outspoken Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he of the four goals against England quite recently.

He is joined on the list by, for the first time, two betting-related titles. One, 'Doped' by Jamie Reid, looks back at a remarkable turf scandal of the 1960s in the days before the Beatles had coloured that decade, the other, 'Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy' by Ed Hawkins, who delves into the world of India's illegal bookmaking business to discover for himself how it works and whether there really is the level of corruption in the game some fear.

Then there is Sports Illustrated writer, David Epstein's 'The Sports Gene' which investigates why and how top athletes really excel, and tackles the nature versus nature debate.

This 25th list does have echoes back to the first two years of the Award when, as I mentioned earlier, books about Rowing and Cycling triumphed.

Well, it would bring the Award full circle if either The Boys In The Boat by Daniel James Brown, the story of how a rowing team of eight working class kids aimed for Olympic Gold in Hitler's 1930's Berlin; or David Walsh's 'Seven Deadly Sins' the story of his pursuit of Lance Armstrong should win.

I have no idea which of these books I'd even make favourite - I know only too well that the dynamics of a judging panel can often surprise and confound one's preconceptions. It is relatively rare that I have gone into that arena confident that I can predict who will emerge as the winner. This year I genuinely do not have the slightest idea who will win.

I have been on the judging panel three times, filling in for judges absent for whatever reason and although I have yet to get my original number one pick over the line in front I feel I can let you in on a small secret - which is that my absolute favourite sports book of all failed to win the William Hill, although it was short-listed. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you if you are unfortunate (or fortunate, in that you still have the pleasure to come) enough not to have read it - it is Joe McGinness's literally incredible 'Story of Castel di Sangro.'

It is my Book of Any Year.