Frank Keating: Doyen of sportswriters whose work was suffused with wit and and joy

 

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England