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Does hockey have the books it deserves?

A seriously minded approachFootball, Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch, does not have the literature it deserves, writes Richard Smyth.

I’m not sure if the pre-Christmas truckloads of footy books currently being shovelled on to the Waterstones shelves – everything from My Struggle: A Striker’s Story by Wayne Bratt (ghost-written by Barry McHack) to Inverting The Inside-out False Nine by Darren Pointyhead and Marcelo Tactico (fold-out technical diagrams included) – count as ‘literature’, but there sure are a lot of them. And the hockey books?

Nowhere to be found: this, Nick, is a game that doesn’t have the literature it deserves.

The dearth of good writing on hockey (this esteemed organ excepted, of course) is a real pity, particularly considering the strong presence hockey has always had in the universities. & U wd think gradutes cd rite good bux, yeah? But it’s not entirely a lost cause; there are good hockey books out there – they just take a bit of tracking down, which is why we’ve put together this selection of titles for the bookish hockey-lover to order off of Amazon ask for in your local independent bookshop.

CLASSICS OF THE GAME

Two of the genre’s indisputable classics – one oldish, one newish – are the work of two of the game’s indisputable greats. That’s quite a rarity: legendary players don’t necessarily make compelling writers (ice-hockey goalie and The Game author Ken Dryden is one of the few exceptions who springs readily to mind).

The first of these is The Science Of Hockey by Horst Wein, the West Germany star of the 60s and 70s who went on to run the hockey tournament at the ’72 Munich Olympics. Wein is also a world-renowned football coach, a PE lecturer, an expert in youth development, and all-in-all a frighteningly competent man.

The Science Of Hockey, first published in English in 1973, is his most important book on hockey. It is, in every sense of the word, a serious piece of work. We don’t want to start throwing hackneyed national stereotypes around here, but The Science Of Hockey is a dense and unleavened tranche of analysis, covering everything from ‘psychological preparation’ to ‘the tactics of passing’ to ‘the player’s style of running’ (each of these has its own chapter). The key word here is methodical: Wein advocates a no-stone-unturned approach to training and playing (the two being, for him, inseparably linked: “between the two exists a constant interaction,” he writes).

This is a book for players and coaches who take their hockey very seriously indeed (no bad thing, of course) – players and coaches like Ric Charlesworth, for example, whose The Coach: Managing For Success establishes the double-gold-medal-winning Hockeyroos coach as an analyst in the Wein tradition.

Charlesworth was no slouch as a player, either, representing the Kookaburras at four Olympics, winning 227 caps and earning a place on many people’s all-time Aussie hockey XI (not least his own: see p223 of The Coach). What’s more, he’s been a cricketer, a politician, and a medical doctor. He’s a man with a hinterland – always a good thing in a sportswriter – and The Coach, a hybrid of biography, coaching manual and management bible, benefits hugely as a result. It’s a very readable book, strong on opinion and dripping with authority; Charlesworth ranges widely through the world of hockey and beyond, touching illuminatingly on such issues as Dutch hockey teams’ attitudes to homosexuality (he thinks they’re “conservative”) and Greg Norman’s super-yacht (he doesn’t approve).

It’s good to see that Charlesworth also understands the value of reading. “I’ve always believed,” he writes, “you can do anything and know anything if you can read”.

Those who have a high tolerance of motivational spiel and management jargon will find much of interest in the chapters that deal with preparation, training and playing, too – but, as with Wein’s book, those who like to approach hockey with a degree of levity might find themselves feeling somewhat shouldered aside by Charlesworth’s serious-mindedness. A chapter entitled ‘Flair: An Overrated Commodity’ tells us a great deal about the modern game Charlesworth and Wein have helped to build.

I was very much hoping that taking a trip down to hockey’s less-exalted levels, in the form of John Pennington’s 1,309 Days Later, would provide some amateurish light relief from Charlesworth’s unrelenting professionalism. I was disappointed.

1,309 Days Later tells the story of Grantham HC’s notorious 63-match winless run between 2006 and 2009. There’s a good story to be told here; perhaps a lower-league-hockey version of Joe McGinniss’s The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, or something in the vein of Nick Hornby’s account of Cambridge City’s similar losing streak. At the least, I expected to meet some interesting characters, or to nod along with some insights into hockey at basement-level. 1,309 Days Later offers none of these things. Rather, it reads like a succession of cuttings from a local paper’s match reports. We don’t get to know the players. The story peters out. I don’t want to be too harsh on what appears to be a self-published book by a young writer – so I’ll stop there.

Finally, and more positively, comes Ed Smith’s What Sport Tells Us About Life. One of numerous parallel-thinking, cross-fertilised, multi-disciplinary sports books that came out in the wake of Moneyball (and, beyond sport, Freakonomics), Smith’s book offers a valuable lesson for all sportspeople in stepping back and having a good long think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Caveat: there is no hockey in this book. But its insights span all sports. Former Test cricketer Smith picks apart statistics, mourns the passing of amateurism, explores ‘the curse of talent’, dismisses national stereotypes, and talks up the importance of history in sport (not surprising from a man who read history at Peterhouse College, Cambridge).

You don’t have to agree with everything Smith says to find this a fascinating book. He’s a clear thinker and an excellent writer. Every hockey player can benefit from taking on board what What Sport Tells Us About Life, tells us about life.

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