Prince Philip: 'The Matthews final? All the games merge into one after a while'

The Brian Viner Interview: Patron of the Lord's Taverners and witness to many of Britain's great sporting occasions, the Duke of Edinburgh shares his unique insights – and reveals whether the Palace tunes in to Sky Sports
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The Independent Online

His Royal Highness Prince Philip The Duke of Edinburgh is not a regular in the sports pages of national newspapers, and yet there is nobody in the sporting arena with a remotely comparable CV: he has twice served as president of Marylebone Cricket Club; he has been president of the Football Association; for 22 years he was president of the International Equestrian Federation; he has been patron of the Playing Fields Association since 1949; oh, and in 1971 and 2006 he even saw his daughter and then his granddaughter crowned – which admittedly might not be the verb they use at the palace – BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Of course, there are those who will assert that all of the above, up to and including the honours bestowed on those doughty horsewomen Princess Anne and Zara Phillips, are consequences of the privileges that come with being born, or marrying, into the royal family. But that is to overlook the indubitable fact that Prince Philip has been uniquely involved with the sporting life of the nation since the 1940s. Moreover, he tends not to be a "letterhead" president, treating these offices as purely ceremonial. He likes to get stuck in.

The idea of interviewing him came to mind when I sat next to the chief executive of the Lord's Taverners, Matthew Patten, at a dinner last year. The Duke has been "patron and 12th man" of the estimable youth and disability sports charity since it was established in 1950, and with this month being the month of its diamond jubilee, I wondered whether the 12th man might grant me an hour or so of his time. Matthew said he'd look into it, and after a flurry of emails and security checks, it being very nearly as hard to get to interview the Duke of Edinburgh as it is to interview a leading Premier League footballer, here I am walking across the Buckingham Palace forecourt with the eyes of a thousand tourists on me.

I am taken up a grand flight of stairs to the Principal Corridor and shown into the Sunshine Room, which, ill-befitting its charming name, is heated by a two-bar electric fire, only one bar of which is switched on. It's good to see the celebrated Windsor frugality in action.

Prince Philip arrives, wearing a suit and his Taverners tie. For a man who turns 89 next week he seems in remarkably fine fettle, though he warns me not to expect him to remember names. Yes, he recalls being asked, though not who asked him, to be patron of the Taverners all those years ago. "But I suggested 12th man. I said, 'patron' is a bit boring, and this is meant to be a light-hearted thing'. They agreed to that, but people simply couldn't get their heads round the idea that 12th man was enough. They had to call me patron and 12th man, which seemed a bit pointless."

Whatever, he impressed upon them the need to simplify the new club's aim of supporting youth cricket. "I said, 'Look, rather than set up a complicated grants committee, give the money to the Playing Fields Association and tell them what you want it to do, because they already know what's going on with the provision of facilities.' That lasted 10 or 15 years until the Taverners became big enough to have their own director."

How important, I ask, was cricket to him in those days? "Oh, I'd played at school, and a little bit in the Navy, although I ended up in places where playing cricket wasn't easy. I once played in Aden and nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. I was never all that brilliant at it. I played at prep school in Cheam, and at Gordonstoun, but there they didn't have any playing fields at all. We had to play in a public park in Elgin, which was quite a business. We travelled in on the back of an open lorry."

A chuckle. "Much later, after the Queen had acceded, I rather reluctantly agreed to play in some charity matches. I was used to playing on fields only just grazed by sheep, but these were on beautiful grounds. One was on the county ground at Bournemouth, another was at Carnarvon's place – what's it called? ... Highclere – and another at Badminton. They were quite a decent standard, with some internationals playing. I managed to get two or three wickets. I got Tom Graveney caught at short leg, and every time I saw him after that he said 'I'm your rabbit', so I was rather forced to remember it."

Was he also a keen watcher of cricket? "I've never been a dedicated watcher of anything. I'd much rather be taking part. I also played soccer and rugby football, hockey, did some sailing. But I went to Lord's as a schoolboy to watch Bradman, and met him subsequently. I met quite a lot of them, and got to know Colin Cowdrey quite well, because he was very keen on promoting cricket in schools. And Keith Miller and that team of Australians. They were a very interesting lot."

Not only did the Duke get to meet these global sporting heroes, he also had access to the best seats in the house whenever they performed. But from 1947, when he married the then Princess Elizabeth, he was aware that royal patronage was not to be taken lightly. "In the King's day we used to go every year to the [FA] Cup final, but I thought soccer was rather hogging it, so I tried to suggest we went alternately to the soccer Cup final, the rugby union final and the rugby league final." Was his suggestion rejected? "No, but the collective memory in a place like this is very short. They didn't reject it, they just didn't remember it."

Was he, then, at the famous 1953 FA Cup final, the so-called "Matthews final", exactly a month before the Coronation? "I think we must have been." I know he was at the 1955 final between Manchester City and Newcastle United, because the recently published biography of the German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann describes how the Duke, being introduced to the players before the game, said "Sehr gut" to Trautmann, whereupon Trautmann instinctively bowed in the Germanic style, much to the amusement of his team-mates. But presumably the matches all merge into one after a while? "They do, rather."

This seems a shame, to have been at some of the greatest sporting events of the last century without quite remembering them. But then, as he says, sport for the Duke has always been a matter more of participation and administration than spectacle, especially once his beloved uncle, Earl Mountbatten, recommended polo. From then on he tended to miss British sport's grand occasions, at least when they coincided with polo matches. Yet he wasn't always able to indulge his passion for polo as some of his team-mates could.

"I remember going out to the Argentine to play," he says. "Wilson was Prime Minister at the time and people were only allowed £10 to take abroad, I suppose to prevent currency being taken out of the country. I was staying with the ambassador so I didn't think I was costing very much, but I was told no, I had to go back. So I never finished that tour."

Clearly, he is a great horse enthusiast, but does he share the Queen's love of horse racing? "No," he says bluntly. "The secret of a happy marriage is not to have the same interests. It's one thing not to argue about." What of the other great royal enthusiasms? His second son, the Duke of York, for example, is a golf nut. "Golf? I learnt to play golf at Gordonstoun. We were right next to a splendid course at Lossiemouth, and I remember the professional there. His name was Smith and he was stone deaf. But I went into the Navy and that was the end of that. Later, I did my wrist in playing polo, so I couldn't cock it properly."

Let us extend our conversation beyond his own sporting life to that of the nation. How important does he consider sport to be? "How long is a piece of string? Clearly as you grow up you need some sort of exercise, but team games also teach a lot of social lessons. They make you understand why there are rules, and that, no matter how good you are, you have to play as part of a team, sublimating yourself to the community of which you are a part. That's a useful lesson. But individual games are splendid too, because they put you on the spot. And the curious thing about cricket is that it combines the two, the team element and the individual element."

Has he therefore, as such a longstanding supporter of the Playing Fields Association, lamented the metamorphosis of so many of the country's playing fields into supermarkets and housing estates? "Well, yes. After the war local authorities became greedy, and saw that land was more valuable when it was developed. The Playing Fields Association tried very hard to prevent this leakage, but you can't always stand in the face of economic pressures, and the ghastly bureaucracy concerning this business of what was a charity. If a village field had a pavilion on it which sold drinks, it was taxed."

A royal wince leaves me in no doubt as to what he thinks about that, but I mustn't steer him into political minefields, so instead I ask him what, even bearing in mind his preference for taking part, have been the sporting events during his lifetime that have most thrilled him.

"You're absolutely obsessed with observing, aren't you? I have friends who are the same. They've got to watch the golf, the cricket, the soccer. They become obsessed. I quite enjoy the occasional match, but that's all." Do they have Sky Sports in the palace? "Yes, I think so."

Since he gave up polo in the early 1970s, Prince Philip's passion has been carriage-driving, for which he wrote the international rulebook. "When I first looked at it, every separate carriage-driving event had its own rules. But you have to have common rules in sport, which, of course, is the reason why all the different sporting federations were formed, once the Olympic Games came along. The FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) was formed in 1921, and I went there in 1960-something. In those days the Olympic Games wanted participants to be amateur, so we had to devise a system that only put amateurs in. But that's difficult. After all, what constitutes a professional in show jumping? Is it prize-money, or what he gets from training horses and selling them? The formula we developed said that it couldn't be the primary source of subsistence, but that was impossible to legislate, and of course they all gave up in the end."

He leans forward; the gradual transformation of top-level sport from being largely amateur to almost wholly professional evidently fascinates him, and not many people watched it happen as closely as he did.

"Show jumping became professional while I was at the FEI, and they did away with gentlemen and players while I was president of the MCC. Professionalism doesn't take social background into account, so in that sense it's a great leveller, but on the other hand it's much tougher to administer, because amateurs tend to take part with the best interests of the sport in mind, whereas professionals say, 'Why can't I do this? There's nothing that says I can't.' That forced the regulators to regulate, and rule-writing became enormously complicated. I know, because I wrote the rules for carriage-driving from cover to cover. You can never put more than one thing in a paragraph, because once you put 'and/or' it confuses things terribly. I do sympathise with people who write rules, just as I sympathise with people who try to write legislation." I can feel a royal "but" coming. "But I get frightfully fed up with people who don't do it terribly well."

And what, now that professionalism is rampant, does he think of Premier League footballers earning £150,000 a week?

"It's an open market, there's nothing we can do about it. The market system will sort itself out. People overreach themselves and then they go bust; we've just done it as a country. Everybody says capitalism is dreadful, but it works until you do it wrong, and then you go bust. I must say I think it rather spoils soccer that there are half a dozen heavily financed clubs that hog everything. And this business of allowing clubs to recruit everywhere they like might have seemed enlightened, but if you were a follower of Blackburn or something, your players were mostly from that area, and that's no longer the case. You can follow Arsenal and there's not an English player in the side. But that's part of the market system. I don't see the point of being jealous of people getting a lot of money. Good for them. I wish I was getting it."

And with that HRH shakes my hand, and strides out of the Sunshine Room and up or possibly down the Principal Corridor. Off to watch the cricket on Sky? I doubt it.

HRH the Duke of Edinburgh is the Royal Patron and 12th Man of The Lord's Taverners, the UK's leading youth cricket and disability sports charity, this year celebrating 60 years of giving young people a sporting chance