Graham Sharpe reflects on Judging the William Hill Sports Book of The Year Award
It creeps up on you, does the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
One morning you’re congratulating yourself on having come through it all again, so that you won’t have to worry about it for best part of another year – then all of a sudden the more savvy publishers start sending through books for early consideration for the coming year and you realise that it is actually a never-ending process.
It did stop for a while this year, though, when we received the dreadful news that my co-founder John Gaustad, without whom there would never have been a William Hill Sports Book of the Year, had tragically died just weeks after retiring, not only from the Award, but also from work. He was planning a lengthy trip home to the land of his birth, New Zealand, but he never got to make the journey: on the very day we had organised a farewell dinner for him, to be attended by his fellow judges, he was taken ill, never to recover.
John and I were very different people – well, he was a Gooner and I’m a Hatter – but we put all that aside when it came to the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
For virtually 30 years we worked together, initially agreeing that there was a glaring gap in the world of book awards, then coming up with a way of filling it, then of making it happen – he supplying the venue via his much missed Sportspages book shop, me managing to con, sorry persuade, my CEO into handing over a very modest budget with which to launch the award – and both of us somehow persuading the cream of broadcasters and sports journalists to join our judging panel – even though they knew we couldn’t pay them to do so.
Our joint project (with help from our original, terrific PR man, Tim Fordham-Moss) slowly but surely carved a niche for itself in the world of sporting books, and nowadays it punches well above its weight, rivalling, some say surpassing, most other literary awards in terms of the quality of its prize winning works.
Taking over as Chairman from John has confirmed for me what a thankless task he had keeping in check the star-studded judging panel and its dedicated members, all of whom really care about which books make the final cut and which one goes on to take the major honour.
They don’t all care about all of the books entered but come judging night they’ll employ every means available to them short of physical violence (well, usually) to persuade the other judges over to their point of view.
We all understand that it is all about opinions, and that there is no infallible system for judging the merits of one book against another when it comes down to six or seven terrific reads, invariably very different in subject matter and writing style.
I now have the responsibility for overseeing the judging process and ensuring that ‘new boy’ Mark Lawson gets the same voting rights as ‘there from day one’ legend, Hugh McIlvanney; that former top level footballer Clarke Carlisle doesn’t pull rank on Esher 3rd team rugby union veteran John Inverdale, and that The Times writer, Alyson ‘Astroturf Blonde’ Rudd, qualified football ref, doesn’t blow the whistle on Danny ‘TalkSport’ Kelly, Spurs’ fan and fellow vinyl enthusiast.
They have another vintage line-up to deliberate over this time around – as fit to be dubbed a magnificent seven as were the same number of four-footed stars ridden to victory by jockey Frankie Dettori twenty years ago on the same day at Ascot racecourse, and, indeed, as the original movie of that name starring Yul Brynner and his half a dozen sidekicks.
There are only two things my company cannot bet on – one is the National Lottery, from doing which we are prohibited by law – the other is the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, on the laughable premise that if we did so we’d know in advance which book was going to win.
27 times before I’ve sat down with the judges convinced that I knew which of the books they were about to consider would win: maybe just half a dozen times I’ve been right.
I am always staggered by the perception, analysis and considered judgement they bring to the table. Every book on the shortlist is, by definition, well worth reading, but the one which makes it through to be announced as the winner will have come through the toughest, most rigorous of examination and consideration.
Not everyone will love it, but no-one will be able to deny its right to become the 28th winner of, not only the world’s richest award for sporting literature, but also the most thoroughly and vigorously judged.
And for that we can all thank John Gaustad.