Kick-start the fun this festive season …with our top choice of books for the sports


Answered Prayers: England and the 1966 World Cup 

by Duncan Hamilton (Riverrun £24.99, 480pp) 

The finest sports book of the year by one of the country’s most garlanded sports writers. 

Answered Prayers: England and the 1966 World Cup by Duncan Hamilton (Riverrun £24.99, 480pp)

Answered Prayers: England and the 1966 World Cup by Duncan Hamilton (Riverrun £24.99, 480pp)

The death of Sir Bobby Charlton a couple of months ago and the mass outpouring of grief and reminiscence that followed proved again the power of that sunny July day in 1966, when England achieved World Cup glory for the first and last time. Of those Boys of Summer, only Sir Geoff Hurst, at 82, remains. 

Sir Alf Ramsey, the England manager, is at the heart of this thrilling, beautiful, elegiac book: he was aloof, difficult, intransigent, secretive, intolerant of time-wasters, but beloved by his team. 

Hamilton came to realise that the match marked the beginning of the end: the superheroes, golden and glorious, of that Wembley afternoon would yield to the precariousness of life. 

Half the team would never claim another winner’s medal; and six would succumb to dementia, their memories of their greatest day gone for ever. 

Meanwhile, the blazered fools who ran football carried on regardless, prospering mightily. This is about much more than football: it’s about love and friendship, hope and despair, as well as the power and the glory.

England's Jonny Wilkinson is seen playing during the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia

England’s Jonny Wilkinson is seen playing during the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia

Chairman of the Watford Football Club Elton John and manager Graham Taylor are pictured together at a recent reception in London

Chairman of the Watford Football Club Elton John and manager Graham Taylor are pictured together at a recent reception in London

Everything To Play For: The QI Book of Sports 

by James Harkin and Anna Ptaszynski (Faber £14.99, 400pp) 

Everything To Play For: The QI Book of Sports by James Harkin and Anna Ptaszynski (Faber £14.99, 400pp)

Everything To Play For: The QI Book of Sports by James Harkin and Anna Ptaszynski (Faber £14.99, 400pp)

Tiger Woods is the world’s most successful and wealthiest sportsman in history, right? 

He’s worth billions of dollars and spent years at the top of the world rankings, so he must be. 

Well, not so, apparently. The greatest Roman charioteer, ­Diocles, won 1,462 races and racked up a fortune roughly equivalent now to $15billion. 

Mind you, if you’re playing a tricky bunker shot on the 15th at the Masters, you’re unlikely to get mashed to pieces under the wheels of a speeding chariot. So I suppose Diocles deserved his loot. 

Did you know we’ve got David Attenborough to thank for yellow tennis balls? Before chronicling the world’s wildlife, he was controller of BBC2, and he wanted to show sports that worked well in colour — and the white balls didn’t show up. 

Countless other fascinating stories from sports through the ages are all in the latest book from the QI team. The authors are part of the ‘QI Elves’, the resourceful and seemingly indefatigable team of researchers and writers on the extraordinarily popular BBC panel show. Every page of this quirky book has something to thrill and delight.

Watford Forever: How Graham Taylor and Elton John Saved a Football Club, a Town and Each Other 

by John Preston & Elton John (Viking £22, 304pp) 

Watford Forever: How Graham Taylor and Elton John Saved a Football Club, a Town and Each Other by John Preston & Elton John (Viking £22, 304pp)

Watford Forever: How Graham Taylor and Elton John Saved a Football Club, a Town and Each Other by John Preston & Elton John (Viking £22, 304pp)

You don’t have to be a Watford fan to enjoy this terrific book. It is about much more than the unlikely friendship between one of the most famous stars on the planet, who as a boy had loved being taken to Watford matches by his distant father, and the fiercely ambitious son of a sports editor who wanted, in his managerial achievements, to make up for an undistinguished playing career. 

Elton John, then in the throes of dependency on drink and drugs, openly credits Taylor with saving his life. 

As respectively owner and manager, the pair took a ram-shackle, undistinguished side from the bottom of the football league to the top, as well as making their way to the FA Cup final. 

They turned a stadium described by Preston as a crumbling ruin into one of the best, cleanest and friendliest grounds in the country. Under Taylor and John, Watford was a genuine family club. 

Deservedly both have stands named after them. What they did at Watford makes you realise that there is more to footballing life than the Gulf State sovereign wealth funds who are trying to take over the sporting world. 

What It Takes: My Playbook on Life and Leadership 

by Sarina Wiegman (Harper Collins £22, 256pp) 

Wiegman is one of the best football coaches around: she led the England women’s team to victory in last year’s European Championship, and to the World Cup final this year. 

She is a tireless campaigner for women’s rights, and has made a massive contribution to the exploding popularity of women’s sport — that losing World Cup final was watched live by 12million. 

She’s an adept performer on TV and is clearly loved by her team. So what she has to say will be worth listening to, and mostly this memoir is — lots of solid stuff about teamwork and determination, and her career as a top international player and coach for the Netherlands, too. 

But, sometimes, you would like her to let herself go a bit more. 

When goalkeeper Mary Earps burst into Wiegman’s post-match winning press conference at the Euros, jumped on the table and started giving it large with her version of Football’s Coming Home, it was one of the moments of 2022. 

You feel it was worthy of slightly more than Wiegman’s ‘Fortunately, Mary got down unscathed and the press conference continued.’ Maybe it’s all that Dutch restraint. Still, if anyone deserves all our cheers, it’s Wiegman.

The Tour: The Story of the England Cricket Team Overseas 1877-2023 

The Tour: The Story of the England Cricket Team Overseas 1877-2023 by Simon Wilde (Simon and Schuster £25, 592pp)

The Tour: The Story of the England Cricket Team Overseas 1877-2023 by Simon Wilde (Simon and Schuster £25, 592pp)

by Simon Wilde (Simon and Schuster £25, 592pp) 

No other sport has tours like cricket tours — long, actionpacked and often full of sex, drink and scandal as well. 

England’s first overseas tour in 1876-77 lasted 254 days; their current, rather pointless, white ball tour of West Indies is lasting just over three weeks. 

No longer grand tours, more like package holidays these days. Full of good anecdotes, too: a well-lubricated Andrew Flintoff having to be rescued by St Lucia police after taking to the Caribbean Sea in a late-night pedalo; David Gower buzzing his team-mates in Australia in a Tiger Moth; the campaign to bring apartheid to an end and, of course, the Bodyline tour. 

And pity poor Denis Compton — famous, skilled and handsome — being pursued on the liner carrying England to Australia by a bevy of beautiful women. Highly entertaining.

The Boys of Winter 

by Lawrence Dallaglio and Owen Slot (Bonnier Books £22, 352pp) 

The Boys of Winter by Lawrence Dallaglio and Owen Slot (Bonnier Books £22, 352pp)

The Boys of Winter by Lawrence Dallaglio and Owen Slot (Bonnier Books £22, 352pp)

Still feeling slightly down in the dumps after England’s less than electrifying performance at the 2023 Rugby World Cup? Well, this is the book you’ll want to find under the tree. 

England have been in four rugby World Cup finals and won just one, in 2003. And the team who pulled off that memorable, epic, though not unexpected, victory are the boys of winter in this compelling first-hand account of what goes into creating a sporting triumph — and what happens after. 

It’s packed full of first-hand interviews with all the key players, from Martin Johnson to Phil Vickery and Will Greenwood, now enjoying a big media career; not forgetting coach Clive Woodward, now an illustrious media commentator with this newspaper. 

And, of course, the legendary Jonny Wilkinson, whose lastminute dropped goal won the Cup, and whose struggles with mental health were barely understood at the time. A gripping book that brings that unforgettable match back to pulsating life.

Who Am I? 

by Danny Cipriani (Harper Collins £22, 336pp) 

Who Am I? by Danny Cipriani (Harper Collins £22, 336pp)

Who Am I? by Danny Cipriani (Harper Collins £22, 336pp)

Highly talented, dazzlingly gifted, but clearly deeply troubled, fly-half Cipriani was, for some, the ‘future of English rugby’. 

It didn’t turn out that way, partly because he was also blessed with ridiculous good looks and a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for sleeping with women, including, on one occasion, a reality TV star who sold her story to the News of the World and, it turned out, used to be a bloke called Darren. 

This was much to the delight of Cipriani’s rugby teammates, who mocked him remorselessly in the changing room. He made his international debut at 20, but fell out with colleagues and, more important, managers. 

The book has a great picture of Cip shaking hands with then England head coach Eddie Jones: they cannot bear to look at each other. 

Absorbing and painfully honest about his struggles with mental health, this is a vivid insight into what life is like for a top-class but flawed sportsman. 

Poignantly, the first page is a gushing tribute to his wife Victoria, whose love, he says, ‘set me free’. But that marriage, too, like his career, seems to have gone up in smoke.



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