Sport isn’t about putting a ball into a net or over a bar or into a hole. It’s about the people who are trying to do those things. Frank Keating, late of this and several other parishes and now just late, understood that truth, which is what made him such a great sports writer. Matthew Engel explains in the introduction to this anthology that his old colleague ‘liked sportsmen and made lasting friendships with them. This would be impossible nowadays.’ Most of the pieces report on those friendships rather than on matches: by portraying sportsmen as they were off the pitch Keating revealed what made them succeed on it.
So we get to see Bob Taylor rising early to visit Mother Teresa in Calcutta — the only member of the England cricket team to do so — and Geoff Boycott’s stint as a DJ in a Sydney nightclub (yes, you read that correctly). We see Pelé refusing to stretch for something that has landed fractionally out of his reach, meaning the person throwing it to him has to walk 50 yards to deliver it right to the palm, and George Best morose at the Savoy after winning the European Cup. Tony Jacklin tries Scientology to cure the yips, and Nigel Mansell takes Keating for a spin round Silverstone in a Ferrari F40: ‘They crammed me, quivering, into the terrifying tube of a coffin.’ Even when Keating does relate on-the-field activity it’s the entertaining stuff. Rodney Marsh, for instance, donning the gloves when Fulham’s goalie gets injured., tries to tip the first corner over the bar with a bicycle kick. Own goal.
The writing itself is sublime. A Sobers square cut is ‘late and cleanly murderous’. George Cohen is ‘a tubby antelope’, while Port Vale contend with ‘the muddy slop and slap and siege of the penalty area’. The Open’s silver claret jug is presented ‘with all the garden-party formality and mayoral pomp of a church fete in a snooty parish,’ and Richard Dunn, floored six times by Muhammad Ali, looks like ‘a drunken matelot trying to take off his waders underwater’. Keating, who could remember the time ‘when LSD was a couple of Friday fivers’, leaves one hospitality box ‘as sponsored as a newt’.
Keating was a true fan: he watched TV coverage with the sound turned down so that he could listen to the radio commentary. But he appears to condone (or certainly fails to question) a friend who, unable to bear the final-frame tension of the 1985 World Snooker final, locks himself in another room. Why do fans react like this? John Peel was often to be found walking the streets during important Liverpool matches. Surely ‘can’t take the heat’ applies to supporters as well as players?
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.19. Tel: 08430 600033.