The passing of John Motson is a reminder of how much football commentary has changed, and continues to change, and the unique skills it requires.
The passing of John Motson it’s a chance for those of us of a certain age to get maudlin about the inevitable passage of time again. “Wait a minute,” you find yourself thinking, “Didn’t I see a picture of him looking good in a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and a Lacoste polo shirt recently?” And then you remember that said photo was from around 1984, and that 1984 was almost 40 years ago, and you take a moment to look into the middle distance.
As a commentator, Motson’s voice was the sound of modernizing British sports broadcasting; a whole world that barely existed when he was born in 1945 was already starting to sound a bit old-fashioned. In the 26 years until he took his first job as a television commentator for the BBC, he had changed a lot, and he has changed a lot more in the half century since.
The BBC had experimented with football television before the outbreak of World War II, with two live matches broadcast in 1938, the first being the Home International between England and Scotland. There were only a few thousand televisions in the entire country at the time and the commentary was a broadcast from the radio, which failed for the first half.
READ MORE: John Motson: You took us from childhood to adulthood as the voice of football
The following year, Arsenal manager George Allison, who never shied away from the chance to put his club in the spotlight, was in the seat for the match. Allison was intended to be the BBC’s permanent commentator after this, but the BBC television service closed on 2 September 1939 and would not reopen until June 1946.
Soccer didn’t take long to follow, but again the technological restrictions were severe. Only matches played within a 20-mile radius of the Alexandra Palace transmitter in north London could be broadcast live, while light levels in the pre-floodlight era meant matches could not be broadcast in full during the winter months. winter. The first club match to be shown, an amateur Athenian league match between Barnet and Wealdstone played in October 1946, had to end 20 minutes early because light levels had dipped too low to continue.
But for the next 30 years, as television would become a central part of the gaming experience, the voices of the commentators would become central to its narrative. And when you stop to think about it, it’s a peculiar position. The ranks of pundits and roundups are largely dominated by ex-professionals, but the job of the actual commentator remains that of a journalist. It’s possible for a former player to become a commentator – Ian St John almost did before he became a host and summariser, while Martin Tyler was an amateur player and remains a qualified manager – but no one wait a commentator to be one.
In the 1950s, the BBC settled on Kenneth Wolstenholme, whose received pronunciation accent was in stark contrast to his Manchester upbringing. There was little for this first generation of commentators about how to get the job done, and a certain lack of detail—indeed, reassurance—in early television commentary is perceptible to modern ears.
But that accent dates very quickly through the 1960s, and in the early 1970s a new style of commentator appeared. There were still traces of him on barry davies and brian moore, although either one was capable of squealing with the best as well, but Motson, who was born in Salford, raised in Lincolnshire and educated at a private school in Bury St Edmunds, sounded different. He came armed with facts and figures. He was an enthusiastic, accomplished young journalist, and had a considerably younger voice.
The art of the commentator has changed over the years, and while the possibility remains that it’s just me saying a football equivalent to “all pop music sounds the same now” or “aren’t cops getting younger?” ?”, it remains a fact that most of them sound the same to me these days. I still enjoy those I grew up with and grew up in middle age. Clive Tyldesley and Jon Champion, mainly, and I also seem to have a slightly higher tolerance level for Tyler than many others. The others, I find a little more challenging.
Perhaps these are just the sharp edges that continue to smooth out. The commentator for that Barnet vs Wealdstone match in 1946 was Edgar Kail, the former amateur international and the last man to cap the full England squad without ever playing for a Football League club. We can only guess what it might have sounded like.
Over the years, from the 1960s to the 1990s, commentators refined the way work was done, though they also seemed to have more variety about them. From the vaguely sergeant major Gerry Harrison to Hugh Johns’ rich, mellifluous Welsh accent or David Coleman’s nasal bark, this was a period during which, though almost exclusively white, British and male, involved considerable stylistic diversity. it was allowed to flourish.
On the BBC, for example, the two main commentators from the mid to late 1970s to the beginning of this century were Motson and Davies. Stylistically, they were like chalk and cheese. Motson was the excitable fellow in the next seat on the dais, Davies the more masterful presence, certainly more likely than ever. admonish. Motson was the voice of the FA Cup final, Davies – until the rights went elsewhere – of the European Cup final. But as a combination they played perfectly with each other. Elsewhere, commercial television brought a combination of brashness and innovation that challenged the BBC and pushed it towards a renewal of its own.
Of course, the nature of paper has changed over time. Co-commentators or recaps have always been there, it’s just that we never hear them on repeat clips that often because they only chime in every few minutes or so. The BBC had a co-commentator, former Arsenal player and Wales international Walley Barnes, along with Wolstenholme, but compared to the free-flowing, conversational nature of commentary these days, he said very little.
But the art of the football commentator is an exceptional combination of different skill sets. They must correctly identify each player at all times, they must understand the context of the game and what happened to get to this place, and be able to put this context into words that are easy for the viewing public to understand. They have to understand the rhythm of speech, the value of space and silence. And they have to bring all this together live; guiding us through the game, most likely with a director yelling sweet things in their ear and knowing all the while in the back of their minds that naysayers will pounce on any lapses without mercy.
Viewers generally don’t appreciate how extremely difficult this job is precisely because they make it seem so easy and straightforward. Consider, for example, Jacqui Oatley’s career pathwho started by getting badly injured playing football, so he went back to university to study and then worked his way up through local radio, national radio, the BBC, and is now a regular on Sky Sports and elsewhere, constantly You have to be the best to climb all the levels to continue.
And the current generation of commentators that’s coming up has that meaningful way where they don’t all sound the same. A lot of them are women now, and while there are still men who resist this, what’s been almost a bit surprising is how little I think about it anymore. I don’t think I can tell anymore if the commentator is a woman. I certainly couldn’t tell you what was the last game I saw that he had won, and I do see a batch soccer every week. So yeah, times keep changing, and men my age and older will keep shouting to the clouds.
That the commentary sounds so easy is due to the talent of those who practice it, and that they can do it is close to an act of illusion. Just as John Motson reinvigorated the televised football soundtrack in the 1970s, so too did Jacqui Oatley in the early years of this century. John Motson was popular because he was clearly a foodie, but he has successors in that regard in people like Ally McCoist or Peter Drury. The fans will continue to howl because that’s what we’ve always done, but underneath that bravado there still seems to be widespread respect for what commentators have to do and the weird art that goes into it.