“That amount of money will change my life – I’ll probably pay off some of the mortgage. But I’ll buy a new bike, for sure.”
Christmas came early for Andy McGrath this year when he was announced as the winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year competition.
McGrath, editor of cycling magazine Rouleur, received a £29,000 cheque as well as £1,000 free bet with the competition sponsors after his book Tom Simpson: Bird On The Wire saw off the six other contenders on this year’s shortlist.
Given the current renaissance in quality sports publications, this was no mean feat – especially as the life of Simpson, the fabled British cyclist who died under the influence of drugs during the 1967 Tour de France, has been well documented in several other biographies.
But McGrath’s richly illustrated book captured the imagination of the judging panel, which included the host of the awards ceremony at Bafta’s plush Piccadilly HQ, BBC presenter John Inverdale.
If Inverdale was hoping to keep the author guessing by introducing his tome as a “coffee table book” at the lunchtime event, it clearly it worked.
“I am shocked,” McGrath told me. “This is my first book so just being long-listed was fantastic, shortlisted was a dream and now this…wow!”
Simpson died on the Tour’s notorious Mont Ventoux climb when he suffered a heart attack near the summit. An autopsy revealed the 29 year old had amphetamines and alcohol in his system which, combined with heat exhaustion, dehydration and his physical exertions led to his cardiac arrest.
McGrath said: “I was aware that people’s first thought of Tom Simpson was ‘that guy who died in ’67 Tour de France with drugs coursing through his veins’. I sought to contextualise the doping because it was widespread in the 60s and there’s reason’s for that.”
It was a reference to the the books extensive pictorial content that justified Inverdale’s “coffee table” reference.
“The standout thing about the book is the pictures you’ve managed to access which are amazing. It’s the 1960s, you expect the Beatles to appear in every one. How did you conduct your research?” the judge enquired.
“We managed to get in touch with one of his old club mates as a teenager in the ’50s,” replied McGrath. “And he had about a dozen photos that hadn’t been published of Tom Simpson as a bright-eyed adolescent. They really bring the book to life.”
Perhaps the most leftfield entry in the 2017 William Hill running was Breaking Ground: Art, Archaeology and Mythology, an extraordinary insight into the nostalgia entwined with football clubs and their home grounds.
Through the excavation of the now overgrown former home of Bradford Park Avenue FC, the book retells the tales of the old terraces – and some of them are quite remarkable.
As co-author Neville Gabie recalled chatting with one local lady, Susan Farr, his team of archaeologists proceeded to dig up the ground beneath one of the goalmouths.
“Her dad, Chick Farr (pictured), was probably the most important goalkeeper to play for their club, and apparently quite a character,” explains Gabie.
“One game the elastic in his shorts snapped, falling right to his ankles so the trainer runs on with a safety pin to pin them up. After than fans would bring spare safety pins and throw them onto the pitch.”
“As she was telling me this story, one of the guys from the dig came over and said ‘I dug this up about 15 mins ago right by the goalmouth. We put it in Susan’s hands and she burst into tears.”
Gabie’s passion to find links between places, time and people works superbly when applied to football. “You suddenly realise, just how emotive all these little incidental things are.”
Another entry involved arguably even more emotion to produce.
Centaur, co-written by former jockey Declan Murphy and author Ami Rao, is powerful and poignant in its portrayal of Murphy’s against-all-odds recovery from a fall in 1994 that left his skull fractured in 12 places and two blood clots on his brain.
“I had no interest in telling my story. It was mine. I was challenged by adversity and I overcame it, and I was leaving it there,” Murphy told me candidly.
“I’d been asked to do a book on three different occasions and I turned it down every time.
“That’s why I say only a woman could have written this book.
“There was a patience and a sensitivity needed to see me through those stages. It became therapeutic for me.”
For Rao, the female writer in question who confessed she “knew nothing about horse racing at all”, it was a debut book.
“I was interested in the mindset of sports people,” she said. “That obsessive drive to win at any cost.
“This was my first time dealing with someone that’s been through something to the extent he has. It took a lot out of me.”
“What I love about this book is the universality of it. It just happens to be about a man who rides horses but it’s really about an attitude to life, hope and survival.”
The full shortlist:
- The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory by David Bolchover (Biteback Publishing)
- Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster)
- Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager by Ian Herbert (Bloomsbury Sport, Bloomsbury)
- Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth (Bloomsbury Sport, Bloomsbury)
- Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire by Andy McGrath (Rapha Editions)
- Centaur by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao (Doubleday, Transworld)
- Breaking Ground: Art, Archaeology and Mythology edited by Neville Gabie, Alan Ward and Jason Wood (Axis Projects)