SINCE 2015, I HAVE published an annual list of what I consider to be the best Australian sports books of the year. I did so originally because, after the Australian version of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year was abandoned after just one year, there was nowhere else where the finest Australian sports titles were recognised. Nothing has changed since 2015. And yet, in my view, the depth and quality of Australian sports writing is outstanding.
These are my best five Australian sports books of 2021:
Of this top five, my favourite is Michael Warner’s The Boys’ Club: Power, Politics and the AFL, a searing study of the administration of top-level Australian football in the 21st century. Warner’s ambition, he explains in the introduction, is ‘to shine a light on almost two decades of questionable conduct; a system in need of reform … I want to tell it as it is’. The storms he recalls include ‘tanking’ (a team deliberately losing to maximise draft picks), the Essendon drugs scandal, the workings of player managers and the AFL’s tepid response when one of its greatest stars, Adam Goodes, was booed incessantly by patrons who saw themselves as fans. Conflicts of interest seem rife, not everyone is treated the same, and the game goes on. ‘The Boys’ Club is an important book,’ wrote the esteemed Braham Dabscheck in his review for the Newtown Review of Books. ‘The workings of Australia’s leading professional team sport should be of interest not only to followers of the AFL, but other codes and those with an interest in the governance of sporting bodies.’
Equally important, though the subject matter is from a different time, is Xavier Fowler’s Not Playing the Game: Sport and Australia’s Great War, an in-depth analysis of organised sport in Australia from 1914 to 1918. In recent years, some very high-profile sporting figures have tied themselves to Anzac mythology without knowing what really happened at the time on the battlefields and back home. If they read this superbly researched book, they will surely hold a much altered, more rounded view.
Unquestionably the best ghosted sporting autobiography of the year is Sharni Layton’s No Apologies: Star Netballer, Champion Footballer, Only Human. Having worked with a few high-profile sporting identities myself, I know that a ghosted book is only as good as its subject wants it to be, so Layton must enjoy a lot of the credit for the quality of her book. But I can also recognise what a mighty job her ghost Fiona Harris has done to nail Layton’s unique style and character. It’s an amazing story — of an athlete so naturally gifted she can star at two different ball sports and also dream with some conviction of going to the Olympics in a third (equestrian), but who also needed substantial inner strength to survive spending seasons on the bench, unable to break into the top side. And all this while battling physical and mental hardships that might have stopped a lesser person. Layton is not perfect, I sometimes cringed at her behaviour, but she is still very likeable and a fabulous role model. I love her book.
James Curran’s affectionate tribute, Campese: The Last of the Dream Sellers, forced me to rethink the role played by David Campese during Australian rugby’s ‘golden age’, which by my measure runs from the Bledisloe Cup win at the SCG in 1979 to the 2003 World Cup. As a rugby league fan quick to see rugby’s foibles, I always focused on the great winger’s defensive shortcomings, which meant — as this book cleverly emphasises for me — I missed appreciating his genius. Rugby diehards will enjoy Curran’s work, and feel more than a little sentimental as they do.
A memoir of a very different kind, though many of its pivotal episodes are also from the early 1990s, is Paul Kennedy’s Funkytown: A Year on the Brink of Manhood. During a recent interview, the ABC’s Ian McNamara described my recently published history of the St George rugby league club, Spirit of the Red V: Volume 1: 1921–1967, as ‘unputdownable’. This is now my favourite adjective, and it’s the one I keep coming back to as a way to describe Kennedy’s tale of growing up in the bayside suburbs of south-east Melbourne. His teenage years, as he dreams of a professional football career and wonders what to make of school, relationships, sex and alcohol, were in some ways a world apart from my experiences as a kid in Sydney’s northern suburbs. But as I kept turning the pages I often found myself thinking back to my early life. I suspect this might be true for many of Kennedy's readers.
The other book I wanted to sneak into this short list was the best horse racing book of the year — Andrew Rule’s Chance: Of Grit and Gamblers and the Romance of the Racing Life (Pan Macmillan). Rule is a fine writer and his stories are remarkable and occasionally even scary. One of my favourites concerns the tale of Perth trainer Lindsey Smith and his Victoria Derby winner Plastered, how after nearly thirty years, Smith became an overnight success. I also want to give a plug to David Middleton’s Official Rugby League Annual, now in its 35th year, which he has managed to keep alive through the pandemic. The game is lucky to have him. The most important book written by a cricketer in 2021 was Michael Holding’s Why We Kneel, How We Rise (published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, but widely available in Australia). The cricket books I’m hoping to get for Christmas are recently published biographies of Warren Bardsley and Victor Richardson, by Peter Lloyd and John Lysikato respectively.
My great hope is that you will find any or all of the good books mentioned here under the Christmas tree this year. You won’t be disappointed.