**Shortlisted for the 2018 General Outstanding Sports Book of the Year**
One of the founder members in 1895 of what became the Rugby League, Batley was once a thriving centre of commerce, one of the bustling mill towns in the Heavy Woollen District of West Yorkshire. More than 120 years on, times have changed, even if the town's Victorian buildings remain, but one constant is the importance of the club as the centre of the community. And in 2016, the Batley Bulldogs brought more than their fair share of pride to the town. They were Underdogs, but gave their professional Super League rivals a run for their money in a season that surpassed all expectations.
Given unprecedented access to the team - players, staff and fans - Tony Hannan charts a fascinating year in the life of a lower-league club, of labourers spilling blood and guts on to Batley's notorious sloping pitch before getting bruised bodies up for work on a Monday morning, of hand-to-mouth existence at the unglamorous and gritty end of British sport. And at their centre is the Bulldogs captain Keegan Hirst, the first rugby league player to come out as gay, and inspirational coach John Kear, just two men in the most colourful cast of characters. It was also a year when the town was plunged into tragedy by the brutal murder of local MP Jo Cox, a great supporter of the club.
Underdogs is more than just a book about Batley though. It is the story of northern working-class culture, past and present, and a report from the front-line of a society struggling to find its identity in a changing world.
Recounting a year with Batley, Hannan's aim was to evoke a venerable, small-scale sporting institution in relation to the town around it... but its appeal should extend well beyond league fans. Groundbreaking.
A compelling story... Underdogs is a fascinating account of life outside of the rugby league spotlight and gets beneath the skin of the club, town and sport in a way that's not been done before. Readers won't need to be a fan of Batley or even rugby league to enjoy this. It is a must-read.
Tremendous. I felt I was there, battling with the underdogs against the Championship's big-hitters. It's like Friday Night Lights in West Riding rather than west Texas. Underdogs is a social study of a town as much as a sports book, George Orwell meets George Williams.
A brilliant and fascinating insight into sport at a part-time level: it offers an angle rare in sports books - that of an outsider given an access-all-areas pass to the inner workings of a sporting team over the course of 12 months. And Hannan uses it superbly, providing a detailed look into the life of a modern Championship club not seen before. It's difficult to see any rugby league supporter not turning the pages as quickly as I was - and this is a book that should be enjoyed by others beyond the boundaries of the sport as well.
For a story about a small-town rugby league team, Underdogs contains multitudes. More than a great sports book, it is a gripping and witty insight into a neglected, working-class community struggling to find its place in a changing world. One of the many delights of Underdogs are the colourful characters that populate its pages... The beating heart of the story, though, is the wonderful and ridiculously under-appreciated sport of rugby league. Hannan does a magnificent job of illustrating just how much more intricate this phenomenally tough game is than initially meets the casual observer’s eye. Life-affirming... ultimately Underdogs is about the human spirit at its finest. A richly rewarding read for anyone with even a passing interest in rugby league or sport in general. It is a must-read too for anyone interested in 21st century life in a northern town.