On Thursday, February 24, the death of football commentator John Motson was announced. Generations of supporters grew up listening to him, some of them hearing from him more often than from some of his own family members.
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He was there during our most memorable moments in soccer. League games, cup finals, world cups, Motty did it all. His distinctive voice added substance and detail to the images being transmitted to our front rooms.
He captured the essence of the commentary, which should be about adding to the images that we can see ourselves in, not competing with them. He learned 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, who weren’t there in the 1970s and 1980s. They wanted more passion and more volume and people like Motty had to adapt. . 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, commenting on more than 2,000 matches on television and radio.
29 FA Cup finals, 10 World Cups and 10 European Championships in a brilliant career behind the microphone.
John Walker Motson was born in Salford, Lancashire, in July 1945. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in Chipping Barnet in 1963, first covering football while working for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph in the late 1960s.
He joined the BBC in 1968 as a sports presenter on Radio 2. In December 1969 he commented for the first time when Everton faced Derby County at Goodison Park. The first goal he described was from Alan Ball as Everton won 1-0.
In 1971 he switched to the Match of the Day program. On October 9, 1971 he saw him commentate on his first television game when Liverpool and Chelsea drew 0-0 at Anfield.
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February 5, 1972 was when he got what he described as “his breakthrough.” He, a producer and a cameraman were sent to cover the FA Cup replay between Hereford United and Newcastle United. The game was initially going to be shown right at the end of that night’s show. But the result was so shocking that he gained maximum audience.
In 2007, Motson told The Guardian;
“He was on trial at the BBC, having only been there three months. I was worried about my ability to make the game: if I could identify the players, see the crowd, all that kind of nervous stuff. I have thought many times since then that no goal is shown on the BBC as often as Radford’s and that was 35 years ago. I often shudder when I think if I had the wrong scorer, you wouldn’t notice, but when I say: ‘What a goal!’ there is a pause between the ‘a’ and the ‘goal’ to be able to say ‘shot’
He was only 26 years old but his life would never be the same again.
The FA Cup final was reserved for David Coleman. He replaced Kenneth Wolstenholme in 1972. In 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, he was able to leave a bookmark that day. When United captain Martin Buchan walked up the steps of old Wembley to collect the trophy, Motson came out with a classic;
“It is fitting that a man named 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.
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Coleman returned for the 1978 final as Ipswich defeated favorites Arsenal, but from 1979 Motson took over the position managing 27 of the next 29 finals. The 1995 and 1996 finals were the only ones in which he was absent.
1988 presented him with another line that stayed. When Wimbledon beat Liverpool, which they were trailing twice, he colored the trophy presentation with;
“The crazy gang has defeated the culture club.”
The 1980s saw him go toe to toe with the BBC’s other main commentator, Barry Davies. It was a rivalry fought more in the media than between the two. Notably, Davies never felt that they were rivals as such. But where Davies always seemed to enjoy amateur matches, Motson was the master of statistics. Throughout his career, he was recognized for his professionalism and dedication to his craft.
A documentary of his life gave us insight into his preparation for each performance, while we discovered his secret weapon, his wife Anne. The couple were married for 45 years and she worked tirelessly to help him with stats, match facts and anything else to punctuate his commentary. Before the internet, the pair had to make full use of reference books, Motty’s encyclopedic brain, and their own statistics collected along the way.
I have sat on grounds where one of the biggest cheers of the day was when he appeared, in his famous shearling coat, walking up the steps of a booth and up a stairway onto the portico to begin his shift.
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In 2001, a speech therapist conducted an analysis of the speech patterns of eight leading television and radio commentators. Taking things like pitch, rhythm, and tone into account, Motson was found to have the best results. In a poll, 32% of fans voted him Britain’s favorite commentator.
It hardly goes that far. In the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, he found himself commenting on a tragedy in which 97 were killed and many injured. He considered giving it all up after that.
He commented on his first World Cup in Argentina in 1978. His 10th and last tournament was in South Africa in 2010 when Spain won the first.
He also covered 10 European Championships between his 200 England games. It was one of those England games that he counted as his favorite.
September 2001 in Munich for a World Cup qualifier, England came in needing to get something out of the game. The Germans had only lost one World Cup qualifier in their history, and never when they had yet to confirm qualification.
It had been 36 years since England had won in Germany, but this was about as emphatic as it gets. 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.”
I was ecstatic when Heskey made five.
At the start of the 2017-18 campaign he announced that he would retire at the end of the season. After he retired from television, Motty continued to comment on BBC Radio 5 Live. His last stint behind the microphone was in 2018 when Crystal Palace beat West Brom 2-0.
He received an OBE and was also honored at the British Academy Television Awards for his outstanding contribution to sports broadcasting.
As I said at the beginning of this, generations of soccer fans grew up listening to it and for many, it feels like another part of their childhood has just died.
He may not have had as much understanding of the English language, or been as poetic as Davies, but his longevity and dedication is what made him one of the most beloved. All fans have memories of his voice drifting in and out of his favorite moments related to his club.
Ricky Villa’s goal against Manchester City in the FA Cup Final replay, 1981
“…and still Ricky Villa. What a fantastic race. Has scored!! Impressive goal by Ricky Villa”
Paul Gascoigne’s great goal against Scotland in Euro ’96
Here is Gascoigne. Oh brilliant Oh yes. Oh yeah”
Motson’s family issued a statement;
“It is with great sadness that 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 station;
“John Motson was the voice of a footballing generation – he led us through the twists and turns of FA Cup races, the ups and downs of World Cups and, of course, Saturday night Match of the Day. ”
“Like all the greats behind the microphone, John had the right words, at the right time, for all the great moments”
It inspired so many commentators. Who can honestly say that when they were children they did not comment on a game either in their bedroom or in the garden or on the street? The BBC’s John Murray certainly owes a lot to pioneers like Motty.
Desperately sad news. It’s a shock to all of us who knew him. If you talk to a wide range of commentators from my generation and younger, he was certainly someone who everyone who came after him looked up to and really aspired to be.
“It was 24-karat gold broadcasting royalty. It was synonymous with soccer for generations of soccer fans.”
Fellow commentator Clive Tyldesley was particularly affected by the news;
“I lost a friend, first of all, but such was the reach of John Motson, such was the distinctive nature of his voice and commentary style, that I think many thousands of people who never got to know 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”
Many in soccer have been quick to add their own tributes and memorabilia. The fact is that you cannot write about the history of television coverage in this country and not mention it.
The last word should probably go to BBC Sports Director Barbara Slater, as she made a good comment about his voice;
“John Motson was a broadcasting giant with a career spanning over 50 years and his distinctive voice has gone hand-in-hand with so many great football moments.
“For many of us, John’s voice will have provided a special memory and commentary line that still resonates strongly”
The digital age has meant that your voice will live on forever.