We’re kicking off another new series on Twohundredpercent this evening, on the subject of the commentators that have brought the game to life. This evening, as an opener, here’s a look at a many that celebrates the fortieth anniversary of his television debut this weekend, and a man who went on to become a voice of football in a way that perhaps no-one else in Britain did: John Motson.
Forty years ago tomorrow, a twenty-six year old radio commentator made the step up from BBC Radio Two to the televisions screens. The match, between Liverpool and Chelsea, turned out to be something of a damp squib – a goalless draw, it took second billing to that evening’s main event on Match Of The Day, a 2-2 draw between Derby County and Tottenham Hotspur – but it proved to be the beginning of an era. John Motson, one of the most instantly recognisable voices in the history of sports broadcasting, had arrived, and forty years on, his place in the landscape of English football is unquestionable.
Motson’s promotion was, in itself, a sign of the times within the corporation. A year earlier, Match Of The Day had been revamped with the previous title music, “Drum Majorette”, being replaced by the eponymous piece, written by Barry Stoller, which still exists to this day and has become one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of music of any description. Similarly, Motson’s arrival on Match Of The Day was a changing of the guard. Kenneth Wolstenholme, the BBC’s previous voice of football, had left the corporation in May of that year, and over the first few weeks of the 1971/72 season the show’s producer, Alec Weeks, had been commentating alongside Barry Davies. The programme was being updated for the new decade to reflect changed expectations brought about by the challenge of revitalised coverage from their commercial rivals at ITV.
His ascent into the top job at the BBC was also, some might argue, slightly fortuitous. During the early to mid 1970s, David Coleman was the BBC’s main man, but a legal dispute meant that Motson got his first FA Cup final in 1977, a couple of months shy of his thirty-first birthday, and by the end of the decade his position at the summit was confirmed with Coleman’s last live football commentary for the BBC, for the England vs Scotland Home International match. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1990s that he would come to be challenged by Barry Davies, and even then Davies was unlucky with the matches that he was given – The 1994 World Cup Final and 1995 FA Cup Cup final were both given to Davies and were both lacklustre matches – and Motson would go on to keep the top spot until his retirement from live football after the 2008 European Championship final, although he still appears on the highlights edition of Match Of The Day.
What, though, of his style? It could be argued that Motson became a “character” in a way that no other football commentator quite has in this country. The BBC has certainly been keen to push “Motty” over the years as being something quite other in comparison with John Motson the man (in the same way, perhaps, as we can distinguish between Paul Gascoigne the footballer and “Gazza”, the cartoon character), with the sheepskin coat and the “obsession” with facts and figures, but there was more to his style than the mere repetition of facts and – a trademark of his later years – what often felt like an over-reliance on pre-prepared one-liners. The breakfast obsession of the 2002 World Cup is probably one of the best remembered of this genre (if not for the reasons that he might wish them to be), but, while his later years have become more inclined towards this sort of thing, there can be no doubting his talent during his prime.
His most golden of years were in the early to mid-1980s. “Socrates scores the goal that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football” was his reflection upon the Brazilian’s goal during the de facto quarter-final match against Italy in 1982 (although we could, perhaps, reflect upon the failure of this philosophy – Brazil, needing just a draw to beat Italy to a place in the semi-finals of the competition, were beaten by three goals to two and within a decade this romantic vision of the game had been replaced by something altogether more muscular), while his frankly coital reaction to Michel Platini’s last minute winner for France – “I’ve not seen a match like this for years!” – could not have been more perfect in summing up the feelings of an audience which, by the time of that late, late goal, may well have been almost as exhausted as the players were themselves.
It is this conundrum which perhaps best summarises John Motson at the BBC. The temptation to prickle at the pre-prepared lines and unnecessary statistics is obvious, but, as with so many of the great commentators, his best moments came with spontaneity – those moments which cannot be scripted and which set sport apart from so many other areas of our cultural life. For four decades, John Motson was the public voice of BBC football in a way that his colleagues at the corporation – not only Barry Davies, but also the likes of Alan Parry, Tony Gubba, Clive Tyldesley and others – could never quite manage. He became the voice – if never quite the face – of the BBC’s football output during a lengthy golden period.
It is perhaps worth finishing by noting that the issue of Motson’s successor hasn’t been successfully resolved by a company whose sports coverage seems to be on the wane. When he arrived on Match Of The Day forty years ago, the voices of televised football barely ran to double figures, and even the BBC only sent cameras to a tiny proportion of matches each weekend. Our modern, pluralistic media landscape means that even the more distinctive voices of the modern era tend to get swallowed up by the sheer white noise of it all. There seems little likelihood of this process of unwinding the BBC’s sports coverage being arrested by the corporation as financial realities continue to bite and the power and reach of pay TV continue to grow. As such, we should enjoy the likes of John Motson while they continue to grace the microphones. It seems unlikely that they will be replaced by such iconic figures in the future. The art of commentary could well become a lost one in the next few years.
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