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Five of the best sport books of 2023

<span>Composite: Guardian</span>
Composite: Guardian

Watford Forever
John Preston and Elton John, Viking
The year is 1977. Elton John is one of the most flamboyant and wealthy pop stars in the world. Graham Taylor is a disciplinarian football manager who would, later in life, be immortalised by the Sun as a turnip. They are perhaps the least likely sporting duo of all time. Yet, under their stewardship, Watford Football Club climbed from the bottom of the fourth division to become the second-best club in the country. John Preston – author of The Dig, Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell and A Very English Scandal – weaves a warm account of a beautiful friendship. Candid contributions from Elton himself reveal that Taylor didn’t just turn around a team, but a lonely and dangerously addicted musician too. Expect a big screen treatment soon.

Althea: The Life of Tennis Champion Althea Gibson
Sally H Jacobs, St Martin’s
Althea Gibson’s life never conformed to the narrative some wanted it to. The teenager who learned tennis on the streets of Harlem, her hitting powered by an aggression born of brutal parenting, was considered too rough and ill-mannered to represent Black athletes. Her unapologetic sexuality was as suspect as her “unfeminine” physicality. And when she finally achieved what no one else had – breaking the colour bar at the US Championships in 1950, becoming the first Black woman to win Wimbledon seven years later – she was criticised for failing to advocate for civil rights. This comprehensive biography places her life and career amid the racist context of her times, and offers a tender celebration of a misfit heroine whose contribution to sport and politics has long been overlooked.

Kick the Latch
Kathryn Scanlan, Daunt
The dark reality of a life in horse racing is movingly – and brutally – captured in the terse prose of Kathryn Scanlan, who has transformed interviews with a midwestern trainer into this compelling read, part oral history, part novella. Too tall to be a jockey, Sonia from Iowa sacrifices comfort and safety in pursuit of her passion: the narrative reveals a seedy, peripatetic existence, which unfolds as flickeringly as a zoetrope projection. While violence, alcohol and gruelling poverty press in, they never dim the book’s sharp, bright gleam – rarely has the racetrack seemed less glamorous, or more vital.

Unbreakable
Ronnie O’Sullivan, Seven Dials
Does the world really need a third Ronnie O’Sullivan memoir? No. Is a snooker player known for his chaotic career the obvious person to offer life advice? Probably not. Yet there’s something in Tom Fordyce’s ghostwriting that transcends the slightly cynical self-help format. Like other authors who have projected themselves into the head of sporting figures – Jon Hotten channelling Geoffrey Boycott, David Peace with Brian Clough – Fordyce elevates this book with his forensic re-creation of some of O’Sullivan’s best and worst performances. Ignore the cod philosophy and enjoy the electric details of his epic battles with John Higgins and Stephen Hendry.

Bazball: The Inside Story of a Test Cricket Revolution
Lawrence Booth and Nick Hoult, Bloomsbury
Few sporting revolutions have been as swift as the one that has overtaken England’s Test team in the past 18 months. With the term “Bazball” now in dictionaries, Booth and Hoult, writers for the Mail and Telegraph respectively, have co-authored the first book-length analysis of a phenomenon that looks set to change cricket for ever. From its origins in the childhood play of former Kiwi slogger (now England coach) Brendon “Baz” McCullum, to the second coming of Ben Stokes, after an infamous court case and the death of his father, this is an enjoyable romp through a purple patch of English cricket that culminates in one of the greatest Ashes series of all time. A winter tonic for the current World Cup blues.

• To browse all the sport books included in the Guardian and Observer’s best books of 2023 visit guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.