This article titled “Royalty has finally become wedded to the national sporting obsession” was written by Frank Keating, for The Guardian on Tuesday 26th April 2011 23.07 UTC
Football’s David Beckham, rugby’s Gareth Thomas and swimming’s Ian Thorpe are among Friday’s guest list in Westminster Abbey. Such a mix-match genuflection by royalty to sport is, for sure, a significant historical novelty. Thirty years ago when the first-up heir to the throne, Prince Charles, married Prince William’s mother, Diana, there was no remote whisper of a debate about whether invitations should go to sporting figures of the times, say cricket’s Geoffrey Boycott or football’s Kevin Keegan. The very idea!
Solemn, sober-sided, dutiful George V – Prince William’s great-great grandfather who reigned from 1910 to 1936 – was the first monarch to acknowledge his peoples’ passionate relish for their sports and pastimes. His own father, blithe gadabout Edward VII (1901-1910) was solely a horse racing buff who was oblivious to his subjects becoming, in his lifetime, suddenly and overwhelmingly enamoured with ball games. Perhaps “good ‘ol Teddy” never forgot or forgave the Saturday in 1890 when, as Prince of Wales, he’d gone to Sunderland to launch a ship at Seaham Harbour and 2,000 subjects had turned up to cheer him – only to learn that just a couple of miles up the coast that same afternoon more than 21,000 were watching Sunderland play Blackburn Rovers. Only one winner there.
On succeeding his father in 1910, George V’s first public act was to attend the brand new Twickenham’s very first rugby international. But it was still four years before he was persuaded to go to an FA Cup final – then only when urged by the War Office and Lord Kitchener as part of the desperate 1914 recruitment drive. That seminal outing was the last Cup final at Crystal Palace, but the historic wheeze was obviously considered wholly worthwhile for once the war was over the King was again in the Royal box at Stamford Bridge for the 1921 final, a visit so touching that the Daily Telegraph’s veteran sports reporter B Bennison almost tearfully reported: “When 70,000 took to their feet to sing the National Anthem, never in my long experience of sport can I recall a scene so profoundly impressive: the King was with his people, and there was only joy.”
George V, “the Sailor King”, personally preferred life on the ocean wave or killing birds to ball games – “Prince of Sportsmen, brilliant shot / But happiest aboard his yacht” went the verse. But, conscientiously, in that same year of 1921 the King began the tradition of a visit to Lord’s for one afternoon every summer when he would sit at the MCC committee room’s open window intently and inscrutably watching the play for precisely an hour before being introduced to the teams during the tea interval. (His granddaughter continues the habit to this day.)
The picture remains of George V engrossed at that Lord’s window, Germanically bearded, wearing brown leather, back-ribbed gloves and smoking cigarettes from a long holder. Once MCC’s Gubby Allen said to the King “I didn’t realise you had a genuine interest in cricket, sir?” – to which came the reply in that slightly guttural voice: “I take great interest in all my subjects, whatever they do.”
Of course, George V also shot tigers in India, elephants in Africa and just about any bird and animal that moved around Sandringham and Balmoral. So did most of those royals who followed him. Even Prince William’s grandmother, Her Majesty, shot her first Scottish stag aged 16, and in 1958 she famously stalked and killed an 11-pointer, the prize Highland head of that year.
Is Prince William the first royal to announce undying support for a football side – Aston Villa? He enjoys his rugby, too, being a regular at Twickenham’s international matches. Well, didn’t Will Carling give the youthful Prince his first signed England rugby shirt, delivered in the early 1990s to his mother at Kensington Palace by hand at dead of night, if the tabloids were to be believed? William’s father, of course, has been a genuine all-round sport – the tops at hunting and shooting, a “compleat” angler and a very good polo player. But Prince Charles loathed the usual team games; and when (obviously) captain of his prep-school football side at Cheam in his final year, their season’s record was P10, W0, L10, For 4, Against 82, and the school magazine, the Cheam Chronicle, chided: “At centre-half and captain Prince Charles seldom drove himself as hard as his ability or position obviously demanded.”
Oh dear … Watch out for our boy Becks buttonholing the bridegroom’s father some time on Friday and asking what that was all about, Charlie boy?
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