Frank Keating, who has died at the age of 75, was a giant of sports journalism, although as a columnist and feature writer whose work habitually brought out the humanity and humour in a subject, he would have chortled self-mockingly at such a grandiose epitaph.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Keating’s arrival at The Guardian, which he served initially as a sub-editor earning £5 a week. After leaving to spend seven years in television, he returned in 1970 having impressed with freelance reports for The Times from the Mexico World Cup. He continued to pen wonderfully evocative pieces infused with wit, joy, melancholy, mischief, romanticism, drama, well-channelled vitriol and a welcome sense of proportion for The Guardian and The Observer until he fell ill with pneumonia in December.
Keating’s passion for cricket was reflected in books about Ian Botham, Geoffrey Boycott and Graham Gooch, although Another Bloody Day in Paradise, about England’s tour of the West Indies in 1980-81, arguably found him at the peak of his literary powers. He collaborated with Barry John, the former Wales rugby union player, and produced various anthologies of his articles. Half-Time Whistle, an autobiography, was published in 1992 and shortlisted for the Sports Book of the Year award.
There were countless pithy columns, too, for Punch, The Spectator, New Statesman and The Oldie, yet in press terms The Guardian was his spiritual home. The latter description also fitted the counties of Herefordshire – where he was born and went back to live in a rural idyll with his second wife, Jane, and their son and daughter – and neighbouring Gloucestershire (or “Glos”, as he affectionately referred to his cricketing favourites).
Born into a Catholic family, Keating was educated by Benedictine monks at Belmont Abbey, near Hereford, and Douai, a public school in Berkshire. He entered journalism at basement level, honing his craft on papers in Stroud, Hereford, Guildford, Bristol, Southern Rhodesia, Gloucester and Slough before graduating to The Guardian in 1963. He then landed a job as Editor of Outside Broadcasts with Rediffusion TV, remaining for four years. Moving to Thames Television in 1967 he was Head of Special Projects before rejoining The Guardian.
Back in Fleet Street, or rather Grays Inn Road, and later Farringdon Road, where the paper had its London offices, he was given free rein by a sports editor, John Samuel, who was not tied to the stiff, pompous style of broadsheet prose. On Keating’s retirement in 2002 (a technicality which did not prevent his gracing its pages for a further decade) his friend and colleague Matthew Engel encapsulated his journalism as “at once evocative, nostalgic and very, very fresh”.
When I pitched up as a sub-editor on The Guardian sports desk in 1981, it was quickly apparent that Keating’s occasional forays into the office were to be treasured. All but a skeleton staff would soon be in a nearby pub listening to his indiscreet tales from the press box or an overseas tour. Every summer, filing from Wimbledon, he called the ladies’ trophy “The Golden Biscuit”, and we would groan, as is the wont of would-be scribes who fancy, in the time-honoured way of subs, that they can do better.
However, he not only retained his colleagues’ respect but built a community of readers who regarded him as a friend. He excelled in evoking the atmosphere of a bygone age – he was the eternal schoolboy in his enthusiasm for the heroes of his youth – though a derisive column about the “rebel” English cricketers who toured South Africa during the apartheid era showed there was more to him than wistful reverie and maverick word play.
After I departed for The Independent, I returned from the Potteries confident I had the definitive feature about Port Vale’s FA Cup tussle with Tottenham. With a mixture of admiration and dismay I discovered Keating had secured a moving interview with Roy Sproson, who had been sacked as manager after 30 years and 842 games for Vale. Like a broken-hearted lover, he revealed that he would be in his newsagent’s shop while his nephew faced Spurs. That year, 1988, Keating was named Sports Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards.
Roger Alton, the former editor of The Independent, became close to the endlessly affable wordsmith while working as Samuel’s deputy. He spoke of Keating’s love of the West Country and happy marriage to Jane (he had once been engaged to Anne Robinson), also recalling “his kindness to younger, junior and far less talented journalists”, which I can vouch for, and an “extraordinary capacity for good living, which never interfered with his work”.
A vivid picture emerged of Keating’s life in Notting Hill before he retreated to the country. “You’d have a long night talking about all sorts of things, not just his beloved Glos,” Alton said. “I’d pass out, sleep at his flat, then stagger into work barely able to speak. Frank would have already filed 1,000 words of immaculate prose on Dennis Lillee, the Worcester county ground, football programmes, whatever. He was a true wonder.”
Francis Vincent Keating, sports journalist and author: born Herefordshire 4 October 1937; married firstly Sally Head (marriage dissolved), secondly Jane Sinclair (one son, one daughter); died Hereford 25 January 2013.