The death of football commentator, John Motson, was announced on Thursday the 24th of February. Generations of supporters grew up listening to him, some of them hearing from him more often than they did from some of their own families.
He was there during our most memorable moments in football. League games, cup finals, World Cups, Motty did them all. His distinctive voice added substance and detail to the pictures being beamed into our front rooms.
He captured the essence of commentary which should be to add to the pictures we can see ourselves, not compete with them. He learned how to go up and down with the ebb and flow of a game. He also had to adapt as the Premier League era brought demands on commentators from producers and fans, which weren’t there in the 70s and 80s. They wanted more passion and more volume and people like Motty had to adjust. What he maintained throughout his 50 year career was the ability to deliver a stat at the right time. And boy could he ‘stat’.
He was part of the Match of the Day furniture for 46 years, commentating on over 2,000 matches on tv and radio.
29 FA Cup Finals, 10 World Cups and 10 European Championships in a glittering career behind the mic.
John Walker Motson was born in Salford, Lancashire in July 1945. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in Chipping Barnet in 1963, and first covered football when he worked for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph at the end of the 60s.
He joined the BBC in 1968 as a sports presenter on Radio 2. In December 1969 he commentated for the first time when Everton took on Derby County at Goodison Park. The first goal he described was from Alan Ball as Everton won 1-0.
By 1971 he’d moved to the Match of the Day programme. 9 October 1971 saw him commentate on his first tv match when Liverpool and Chelsea played out a goalless draw at Anfield.
The 5th of February 1972 was when he got what he described as “his big breakthrough”. He, a producer and a cameraman were sent to cover the FA Cup replay between Hereford United and Newcastle United. Initially, the game was going to be shown right at the end of the programme that evening. But the result was such a shock it gained top billing.
In 2007, Motson told The Guardian;
“I was on trial at the BBC, as I’d only been there three months. I was concerned with my capacity to do the match – if I could identify the players, see over the crowd, all those kind of nervous things. I’ve thought many times since that no goal is shown on the BBC as often as Radford’s and it was 35 years ago. I often shudder when thinking about if I’d got the scorer wrong – you wouldn’t spot it, but when I say, ‘What a goal!’ there’s a pause between the ‘a’ and ‘goal’ so that I could say ‘shot”
He was only 26 but his life would never be the same again.
The FA Cup Final was the preserve of David Coleman. He’d taken over from Kenneth Wolstenholme in 1972. By 1977 he was in a contract dispute with the BBC, so Motson was brought in as a late replacement for the Silver Jubilee Final between Liverpool and Manchester United.
Not as well-known for his one-liners as others, that day he was able to put down a marker. When United skipper, Martin Buchan, climbed the steps at the old Wembley to collect the trophy Motson came out with a classic;
“fitting that a man called Buchan should be the first to climb the 39 steps”.
This was a reference to the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps” written by John Buchan.
Coleman was back for the 1978 Final as Ipswich upset favourites Arsenal, but from 1979 Motson made the position his own handling 27 of the next 29 Finals. The 1995 and 1996 Finals were the only ones he was absent for.
1988 presented him with another line which stuck. When Wimbledon beat double-chasing Liverpool he coloured the trophy presentation with;
“The crazy gang has beaten the culture club.”
The 1980s saw him go head-to-head with the BBC’s other top commentator, Barry Davies. It was a rivalry fought more in the media than between the two. Davies particularly didn’t ever feel they were rivals as such. But where Davies always seemed to enjoy matches as a fan, Motson was the master of the stat. Throughout his career, he was renowned for his professionalism and dedication to his craft.
A documentary of his life gave us an insight into his preparation for each performance, as we discovered his secret weapon, his wife Anne. The pair were married for 45 years and she worked tirelessly to help him with stats, match facts and anything with which to punctuate his commentary. Before the internet, the pair had to make full use of reference books, Motty’s encyclopaedic brain and his own stats collected along with the way.
I’ve sat in grounds where one of the biggest cheers of the day was when he appeared, in his famous sheepskin coat, climbing the steps of a stand and up a ladder onto the gantry to begin his shift.
In 2001 a speech therapist conducted an analysis of the speech patterns of eight of the top tv and radio commentators. Considering things such as pitch, rhythm and tone, Motson was found to have the best results. In a survey, 32% of fans voted him Britain’s favourite commentator.
He almost didn’t make it that far. At the FA Cup Semi-Final in 1989 at Hillsborough between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, he found himself commentating on a tragedy as 97 died and many were injured. He considered giving it all up after that.
He commentated on his first World Cup in Argentina in 1978. His tenth and last tournament was in South Africa in 2010 as Spain won their first.
He also covered 10 European Championships among his 200 England games. It was one of these England games which he counted as his favourite.
September 2001 in Munich for a World Cup qualifier, England arrived needing something out of the game. The Germans had only ever lost one World Cup qualifying match in their history, and never when they were yet to confirm qualification.
It had been 36 years since England won in Germany, but this was as emphatic as they come. They won 5-1 with Motty declaring after Owen completed his hat trick;
“Oh this is getting better and better and better. One, two, three for Michael Owen”
He was in raptures when Heskey made it five.
At the start of the 2017-18 campaign, he announced he would retire at the end of the season. Once he retired from TV, Motty continued to commentate on BBC Radio 5 Live. His final stint behind the mic was in 2018 when Crystal Palace beat West Brom 2-0.
He was awarded an OBE and also honoured at the British Academy Television Awards for his outstanding contribution to sports broadcasting.
As I said at the beginning of this, generations of football fans grew up listening to him and for many, it feels another part of their childhood has just died.
He may not have had such a grasp of the English language, or been as poetic as Davies, but his longevity and dedication is what made him one of the most loved. Every fan has memories of his voice weaving in and out of their favourite moments involving their club.
Ricky Villa’s goal against Manchester City in the FA Cup Final replay, 1981
“…and still Ricky Villa. What a fantastic run. He’s scored!! Amazing goal by Ricky Villa”
Paul Gascoigne’s wonderful goal against Scotland in Euro ‘96
“Here’s Gascoigne. Oh brilliant. Oh yes. Oh yes”
Motson’s family released a statement;
“It is with great sadness we announce that John Motson OBE died peacefully in his sleep today”
BBC director-general Tim Davie made his own tribute on behalf of the broadcaster;
“John Motson was the voice of a footballing generation – steering us through the twists and turns of FA Cup runs, the highs and lows of World Cups and, of course, Saturday nights on Match of the Day”
“Like all the greats behind the mic, John had the right words, at the right time, for all the big moments”
He inspired so many commentators. Who can honestly say, when they were kids, they didn’t commentate on a match either in their bedroom or in the garden or street? BBC’s John Murray was certainly one who owes a lot to pioneers like Motty
“Desperately sad news. It’s quite a shock for all of us who knew him. If you speak to a whole range of commentators of my generation and younger, he was certainly someone who everyone that came after him looked up to and, really, aspired to be him.
“He was 24-carat gold broadcasting royalty. He was synonymous with football for generations of football followers.”
Fellow commentator, Clive Tyldesley was particularly hit by the news;
“I’ve lost a friend, first and foremost, but such was the reach of John Motson, such was the distinctive nature of his voice and his commentary style, that I think many thousands of people who never got to meet him will feel as if they have lost a friend too.
“What I can tell people is, if they felt that way about John, that was the real John. There was no front”
So many in football have been quick to add their own tributes and memories. The fact is you cannot write about the history of television coverage in this country and not mention him.
The final word should probably go to the Director of BBC Sport Barbara Slater, as she made a good point about his voice;
“John Motson was a giant of broadcasting with a career spanning over 50 years and his distinctive voice has gone hand in glove with so many great footballing moments.
“For so many of us, John’s voice will have provided a special memory and commentary line that still strongly resonates”
The digital age has meant his voice will live on forever.