A review of a collection of over 50 years of great sports writing from Frank Keating, the Guardian Journalist who died in January 2013.
Compiled and edited by Frank Keating’s former Guardian colleague and sub-editor Matthew Engel, this wide-ranging collection of pieces from the late sports journalist who died in 2013 is a window into both the world of sport in the twentieth century and also Keating’s own art, his writing. There is very rarely a sentence not packed full of punch, sentences which are woven together to make articles that transcend match reports, interviews, profiles, obituaries, previews and reviews into a sum greater than their parts.
Keating’s skill is clear in this highlights package from work that spanned over five decades: he could take a one answer interview and turn it into a polemic, a history lesson or a reportage, while painting several pictures at the same time. Engles notes in his introduction that Keating sometimes took artistic license to the words of his interviewees to add a flourish in-keeping with the flair he himself consistently produced in his work, never misrepresenting them, Engles argues, rather delivering a more genuine portrayal of his subjects that the anodyne responses controlled by a PR spokesman who only allows clichés, platitudes and statements of the bleeding obvious.
The book contains Keating’s filed articles on genuine sporting heroes including Muhammad Ali, Ian Botham, Bill Nicolson, Basil D’Oliveria and Harold Larwood; there are the stories about unsung heroes from loyal servants at Fulham and Port Vale via golfing academies; and there are the brief encounters with the famous from other arenas such as Trevor Howard, Mother Theresa and John Betjeman.
Keating reports on some of the most memorable sporting moments of the eighties in particular; he captures how sport can bring together a community through television when he writes about the epic 1985 snooker World Championship Final, he celebrates the Coe-Cram 1-2 at the blue riband event of the LA Olympics in 1984 and he dissects the bombshell of Ben Johnson’s world record in Seoul being taken away shortly after seeing it with his own eyes.
The pieces give an insight to the interested reader in various sports, from Larwood’s throwaway comments about life on the Bodyline tour to a cracking yarn where Keating is the patsy in a 180mph ride of revenge from Nigel Mansell, previously scorned by the writer’s words.
And the book is punctuated with articles where Keating’s own reflections dominate, with observations on shabby cricket administration, his reformation from a Horse and Hound subscriber to a recogniser of animal cruelty, the reoccurring reports of boxers who have stayed on too long and in particular a brilliant piece from 1989 on the shoddy way genuine tennis fans are treated at Wimbledon in order to accentuate the experience of the freeloading corporate customer who has no love for the game but wants to feel the benefit of being given executive privileges the masses aren’t.
Keating started off as a frustrated theatre critic, as the archives in the book show us, before making his first foray into sports journalism with a report on a hockey match (always interesting from a non-hockey expert as this website has previously shown) but his art on that occasion was neutered by an over-zealous sub-editor who was more concerned by the functional happenings of the match rather than his adjectives filled paragraphs which ended on the cutting room floor.
Someone who liked his jollies while enriching his life both in sport and the people he would meet along the way, Keating is the type of bloke many of us know or can relate to. Despite the false starts his writing in all its glory couldn’t be curtailed and this collection covers pieces on horse racing, football, cricket, tennis, boxing, rugby and Olympic Games.
In years to come some of these nuggets will continue to fascinate, from the mention of the young Charlie Brooks, then more famous as a horse trainer rather than the accused, to a dour Brian Clough who didn’t even have a party when winning the European Cup, in contrast to Bob Paisley’s Liverpool. It is a legacy Keating would no doubt have realised the value of; in one of the reproduced pieces he quotes the excellent DJ Taylor’s remark that any historian worth his salt who is interested in English life between the World Cup of 1966 to Thatcher would be advised to look through football programmes of the time. Keating’s columns shed a light not just of the period when he wrote, but a history beyond, through his own memories and research.
Frank Keating: The Highlights is a great tribute and a rich legacy.
Mel Gomes is the author of the e-book Glory Nights from Wankdorf to Wembley which documents Tottenham’s return to the European Cup. It is available to preview for free and download in full from Amazon and Smashwords. More details, including photos and links to reviews, here.
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