(Published in print in the United States – August 2000)
READING, England -- Attired in a sweater tied at the neck and neatly pressed slacks, David Keeling appeared the picture of class and reserve while watching Reading FC entertain Premiership new boys Charlton Athletic on Saturday, Aug. 5
But when the underdog home side substituted striker Keith Scott well into the second half, the supporter in Keeling bubbled noticeably to the surface. "Scott may very well be the worst player Reading's had in 50 years," said the 59-year-old Keeling, who had made the long train trek from his home in Sharnbrook to watch his beloved Royals hone their form in this preseason friendly.
Fifteen minutes later, a ball well within Scott's reach ambled by while he stayed firmly planted on the flank, looking quite comfortable, thank you.
That complacency was too much for Keeling to take.
"Come on, Scott, run!" he bellowed, half standing and clutching his game program tightly.
Slightly more composed, he then said, "We've been trying to get rid of him, but no one will take him, not even on a free transfer." Any club would be glad to count the knowledgeable and dedicated Keeling as a fan, but it's Reading -- currently in the Nationwide League's second division (two tiers below the Premiership) -- that won his heart fifty years ago. But more on that later.
A recently retired executive with The Bank of Nova Scotia, Keeling spent time in Madrid, Spain as a student. He enjoyed the rare opportunity to watch Real Madrid -- FIFA's choice as club of the 20th century -- in person on 17 occasions split over two seasons.
"I can only say that they were the best team I have ever seen at club or international level," Keeling said. "Crowds were usually about 100,000. The highest I have recorded (from that stretch) is 127,000."
Madrid won two of its record eight European Cups in the springs of 1959 and 1960 under Keeling's watchful eye. The club's lineup included all-time greats Alfredo Di Stefano Laulhe, Francisco Gento Lopez and Ferenc Puskas.
"That forward line was magic, although only Gento was Spanish," Keeling recalled. "Puskas was one of the Hungarians who destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and had escaped during the Soviet invasion of 1956. In fact, he was reported to have been killed and his obituary appeared in the British press.
"I always describe Di Stefano (an Argentine) as being like the conductor of an orchestra who would dictate the pace of the game. His skills were incredible. I still rate him as the greatest of them all, even ahead of Pele, on account of his all-around influence on every game he played.
"Gento was very fast and skillful with a shot like a bullet. I cannot think of anyone in world football today remotely like him and I greatly mourn the demise of the (position of) winger in recent years."
Keeling has no trouble choosing that Real Madrid team's on-field apex.
"I suppose their finest hour was when they beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the European Cup final in Glasgow in 1960," he said. "There was a famous cartoon the next day of two old Scotsmen coming away from Hampden Park, one saying to the other, 'So that's football.'
"I lived again in Madrid from 1984-88 and saw a few games but, although they had some exciting players like Hugo Sanchez, the overall standard was nothing like what it had been 25 years earlier."
Although Real Madrid holds a special place in the Englishman's heart, don't get the idea that they're his club. Reading FC clearly enjoys that distinction.
"From the very first time I went to Elm Park, our old stadium, in 1950 I have had Reading in my blood and have never been remotely interested in supporting another club," said Keeling, a father of two.
"Crowds were huge in the 1950s and as a schoolboy I often stood on the terraces in crowds of over 25,000. That was long before the days of all-seater stadiums and segregation of home and away supporters. There was never a hint of any trouble."
Keeling tips Reading's second division title in 1993-94 as their shining moment (the club came within a few ticks of the clock, literally, of reaching the Premiership in the first division playoffs the following season -- "Minutes away from Manchester United and Arsenal coming to our stadium," Keeling rues).
"That was the best team in our history," he said. "(My wife) Marilyn and I were at Elm Park when we clinched the championship. As I stood there watching the pitch taken over by 12,000 or so people chanting 'Campeones, campeones' there were tears running down my cheeks."
Last Saturday, despite some crisp through balls by a slightly overweight midfielder Darren Caskey and a hustling goal by local lad Nathan Tyson, Charlton Athletic outclassed Reading 3-1 at the glittering three-year-old Madejski Stadium on tallies by Shaun Newton, John Robinson and Andy Hunt -- in front of 4,642 fans. The best player on display was Charlton's new Finnish striker, by way of Rangers, Jonatan Johansson.
Keeling, ever the optimist, sees good fortune ahead for Reading, which the bookies tab for third place in the second division. The Royals did lose their season opener to Millwall 2-0.
"What has changed the face of the club forever is the move to Madejski Stadium in 1998," he said. "Together with (Sunderland's) Stadium of Light it is probably the best. Now we need a team to match."
Keeling isn't bashful regarding his affinity for the club.
"How can I describe what Reading FC means to me?" he asked. "It is an integral part of my life. It really, really matters if they win or lose. During the years we lived abroad (1962-88) I must have spent hundreds of hours with a little short-wave radio against my ear, trying to find out how they had got on.
"When I am actually present at a match (as he is five or six times each season) my heart goes at about twice its normal rate. For better or worse, the team in the blue-and-white hoops is, and always will be, mine."