10 books every sports fan should have on their reading list

11 min read

2021 promises to be a truly vintage year for international sport. Not only will appreciative fans be admitted back into stadiums to cheer on their favourites, but some of the biggest sporting events are returning to our screens after nearly two years away. 

July 2021 sees the return of sport’s jewel in the crown, The Olympics.  The dramatic city of Tokyo will play  host to over 400 events in 28 sports, followed in August by The Paralympic Games. The list of sporting events goes on - Football’s Euro 2020 (with a Wembley final), Cycling’s Tour de France, Wimbledon, Golf’s Open at Royal St George’s, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, Rugby Union’s Lion’s tour of South Africa, the London Marathon and The Ashes cricket in Australia, to name but a few. Has there ever been such a glorious prospect for sports fans? 

To celebrate this amazing sporting year, Country House Library has selected an ‘A’ team of vintage sporting books to while away the half-time breaks, and to stand as rare trophies on your bookshelves.

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1) Pelé: My life and the Beautiful Game by Pelé (1977) & 2) The Stanley Matthews Story by Stanley Matthews (1960)

The Stanley Matthews Story Football remains the world’s favourite sport, and with the Euros in June/July and crucial World Cup qualifying matches later in 2021, all eyes will be drawn to the ‘beautiful game’. We’re kicking off with two vintage footballing books, both autobiographies from two of the all-time greats of the game, Pelé and Sir Stanley Matthews. Both men started from humble beginnings; Pelé raised in dire poverty in a small Brazilian town, Matthews, son of the ‘boxing barber’ one of four boys raised in a terraced house in Stoke-on-Trent. To this day, both are still recognised as two of the most talented players ever to represent their countries at the highest level, but also as two of the game’s finest ambassadors. 


These books describe not only the history of the game from the inter-war years to the late 1970’s but also chart the lives of two remarkable men – Matthews the only player to have been                                                                          knighted while still an active player and Pelé – the Guinness Book of Records’ top goal-scorer                                                                            with 1363 goals to his name. Country House Library holds an impressive array of other vintage                                                                              footballing books in its locker.                                                                         

                                                                       Explore vintage football books


3) This Sporting Life by David Storey (1960)

This Sporting Life

From a round to an oval ball with this grim, gritty, and realistic fictional portrait of a Rugby League Footballer. The novel follows the life and loves of player Arthur Machin in the north of England in the 1950’s. Often classed alongside the ‘Angry Young Men’ novels of Alan Sillitoe and John Braine, this harsh and hapless vision of a ‘sporting life’ is a foretaste of Storey’s more extreme depictions of isolated male protagonists inRadcliffe(1963) and Pasmore(1972). The book was made into a ‘kitchen sink drama’ film in 1963 starring Richard Harris in the leading role. 

With the Rugby League World Cups (men, women and wheelchair) starting in October 2021,This Sporting Lifeis the ideal choice to set the scene of the game’s working-class roots.

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4) The Chess Mind by Gerald Abrahams (1964)

The Chess Mind

No doubt some will argue that chess isn’t a sport, but the World Championship due to be played in Dubai later in 2021 - between reigning champion Magnus Carlson, a 30 year old Norwegian, and Ian Nepomniachtchi, a 30 year old Russian - will be closely followed by millions of fans from all over the world. With a prize pot of $2million split 60:40, this tournament is up there with the high earners from the world of golf, tennis and motor-racing.

Now sadly out of print, this seminal book on chess by barrister, chess-player, author and unsuccessful Liberal party parliamentary candidate (1945), Gerald Abrahams, focuses on the intellectual processes of a player during a game. With over forty annotated examples of game plays, Abrahams analyses the personalities of the players covering their vision, intuition, reasoning and memory. This psychological approach to chess would be useful for any fan of the game, whether an eager to learn beginner or a well-seasoned player hoping to improve                                                                                         further. Make your next move and look over the other vintage books on the most cerebral of                                                                                sports.

                                                                        Discover books about chess


5) The Clicking of Cuthbert by P. G. Wodehouse (1962 – Penguin)

The Clicking of Cuthbert

“Few things draw two men together more surely than a mutual inability to master golf”(A Woman is only a Woman, The Clicking of Cuthbert). 

For a light-hearted look at the world of sport, who better than P. G. Wodehouse? Beginning in 1902, this bank clerk turned prolific writer, published well over 100 books set within the leisured upper-class society between the two wars.The Clicking of Cuthbertconsists of ten short stories with the backdrop of greens, fairways, 19th holes, niblicks, mashies and double bogeys. Every story narrated by ‘the club’s oldest member’, they include a golf game played for the right to ask for a lady’s hand in marriage inA Woman is only a Womanand in A Mixed Threesome,a golfer at the club is annoyed by children playing on the course and says golf should only be played by adults. The Oldest Member disagrees and argues that golf, like measles, should be caught young!

                                                                        With The Open teeing off in July 21 at Royal St George’s in Kent, these little chip shots of comedy                                                                          from one of England’s most enduring writers will be the reading equivalent of a hole in one! 

                                                                        Choose from Country House Library’s golf-bag of goodies or                                                                                                                                          for a selection of Wodehouse’s vintage Bertie Wooster novels (where there’s usually sport to be                                                                            had of some description!) pick up a ticket here. 

6) English Cricket by Neville Cardus (1945)

English Cricket

This treasure of English cricket history was written by one of the founding fathers of sports journalism, Sir John Frederick Neville Cardus CBE. As the Manchester Guardian’s cricket correspondent (and chief music critic) Cardus’s approach was ground-breaking in its day, turning a largely factual account of little more than the score, into colourful description, anecdote and critique. His personal charm and gregarious nature endeared him to cricketing and music greats such as Donald Bradman and Sir Thomas Beecham. Legendary cricket commentators such as John Arlott, Henry Blofeld and Brian Johnson have all paid tribute to Cardus as their template and inspiration. 

For lovers of cricket’s fascinating past, or of sports writing generally, this book, with black and white and colour plates, would grace any collection. Bowl over the cricket fan in your life with this gem of English cricket books.

                                                                      Browse vintage cricket books 

7) Death In the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway (1966)

Death in the Afternoon

It would be impossible to compile a list of great sporting writers without mentioning one of America’s finest authors Ernest Miller Hemingway. Perhaps more than any other writer in the English language, Hemingway developed the sparse, economical, realist style of prose that defined his novels and short stories, and went on to influence generations of other minimalist novelists from Raymond Carver to George Saunders. Not only did Hemingway break into a new style of writing, but he dominated fiction centred around the male dominated, blood sports of his time, namely bullfighting, big game hunting and deep-sea game fishing. 

Death in the Afternoonis a non-fiction study of the ceremony and traditions of Spanish bullfighting but on a deeper level unpicks the nature of fear and courage. He considered the ritualised, quasi-religious nature of the ring analogous to a writer’s search for truth. Other classic Hemingway sporting novels include‘The Old Man and the Sea’ (1952)a parable of inner strength                                                                             about a fisherman’s struggle to bring home a great marlin he’s caught, andThe Green Hills of                                                                                    Africa (1935)set among the lives of big game hunters.

                                                                      Shop vintage Ernest Hemingway books

8) The Compleat Angler by Izaac Walton (1939)

The Compleat Angler

It may come as a surprise to some that angling is in the top 20 of participation sports in the UK with over 3m of us regularly casting a line into Britain’s  rivers, canals, lakes and seas. (Running is the number one participation sport).

This vintage, out of print, first edition Penguin,The Compleat Angler is a gem among our sporting books. Written by Izaak Walton in 1653 it’s been described as a celebration of the art and spirit of fishing in prose and verse. Walton did not profess to be an expert with the fishing fly but in the use of the live worm, grasshopper or frog (!) he self-proclaimed himself as a master and famously wrote of the frog "use him as though you loved him, that is, harm him as little as you may possibly, that he may live the longer".

If you appreciate a rare, vintage book, the history of our inland fisheries, the art of fishing                                                                                         combined with cheerful verse and prose, this collector’s edition will hook you in.

                                                                        Find vintage fishing books

9) Sailing by Francis B. Cooke (1951 – A Foyles Handbook)

Sailing by Francis B Cooke

This vintage edition from the Foyles series of sporting handbooks is a must for keen sailors interested in the history of the sport. Written by the doyen of sailing authors, Cooke was writing about the art of sailing from the 1890’s to the 1960’s – an astonishingly long career aboard affordable day-boats. He was still sailing his own boatIolantheon the River Crouch in Essex well into his nineties and had an article published inYachting Monthlywhen he was over 100 years old!

W & G Foyle Ltd, primarily known for its bookshops in London, started publishing their handbooks in 1948 with a book on beekeeping, and kept going through to 1986 with the final title on keeping the Yorkshire Terrier.

For lovers of the wind in their sails, whether that’s at the tiller or in the armchair, this illustrated vintage copy must be on course for your bookshelves.

                                                                       Explore vintage sailing books

10) The Picture of Cricket by John Arlott (1955 – A King Penguin Book)

The Picture Book of Cricket

2021 promises to be a classic year for cricket lovers with one-day internationals in June and July, a five test series against India starting in August and the Ashes in Australia towards the end of the year. One of the games finest television and radio commentators, John Arlott (1914 – 1991) was renowned for his deep love of the game and his poetic style of delivery. He oncedescribed a shot by the great West Indian batsman Clive Lloyd as "the stroke of a man knocking a thistle top off with a walking stick."

This vintage sports book, a monograph by John Arlott, includes 16 colour plates and 5 black and white illustrations in the text. King Penguins were first published in 1939 and sold for one shilling each. The series ended in 1959 after 76 volumes had been produced. This is the perfect gift for the cricket fan and lover of old books.

                                                                        View the King Penguin collection

In Summary

Whether it's from the armchair in front of the television, from the stands in a sporting stadium, or from physically taking part, all of us have taken part in sport. Sport makes us human and brings us together in a spirit of friendship and mutual respect.

For 2021, after many months of life without normal access to our favourite pursuits, the staff at Country House Library have picked a team of books to adorn your vintage collection - to be read and enjoyed during this momentous year of sport.

Browse our collection of vintage sport books

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