The journalist and broadcaster Danny Baker once noted that the primary role of a football commentator is to make the exasperated television viewer shout “WE KNOW!” at the television screen during matches, to the extent that it famously used to drive his father to his distraction. Sadly, Mr Baker Senior passed away earlier this year – not quite long enough to be able to raise a toast to the retirement of John Motson, the veteran BBC commentator, who has announced his retirement from live commentary from the BBC following their failure to secure major television rights ahead of the new season. He will continue to turn up on “Match Of The Day”, but it is the beginning of the end of an era for someone that has (rather too much, some might add) become an iconic figure within the modern game. For those of us that are British and are in our mid-30s, the majority of the faces and voices that we grew up with have either died or retired. The likes of Jimmy Hill, Ian St John, Barry Davies and Brian Moore will (for better or for worse) not be heard in our living rooms again, but Motson’s departure from the scene is arguably the highest profile retirement from football broadcasting since Barry Davies retired in 2004.
John Motson’s reputation was built in the space of one match – the FA Cup Third Round Replay between Hereford United and Newcastle United in 1972. The match had been postponed three times because of the weather, and its eventual Saturday afternoon scheduling meant that Motson was packed off to Hereford to cover what had been scheduled as a filler match between more important business from the Football League. As it turned out, however, Hereford (then of the Southern League) came from a goal behind to beat First Division Newcastle by two goals to one, and the match, complete with Motson’s breathless commentary, was propelled up the food chain to be that evening’s featured match. The BBC had taken drastic action to overhaul the image of its football coverage in the early 1970s, replacing Kenneth Wolstenholme with David Coleman in 1971, and Motson was the final piece in their new, revamped jigsaw, alongside Barry Davies, who had joined the corporation in 1969. Coleman would remain the BBC comentator for FA Cup finals until 1976, however, and Motson didn’t cover a World Cup final for them until 1982. By then, however, Coleman had been shunted sideways wo concentrate on athletics, and Motson and Davies would go on to rule the roost for over twenty years.
Motson’s reputation was built upon the near obsessive manner of his pre-match preparation. In an era in which a wealth of information was not at the fingertips of the watching audience, this was a critical part of his appeal. In recent years, however, this has become less important and, of anything, we have begun to notice his mistakes more and more, especially since the rise to prominence of the internet, which gives the viewer fingertip access to a range of information that Motson would have found bewildering when he was in his statistical prime. In terms of his actual commentary style, he has become a parody of himself in some respects. During the 2002 World Cup he became strangely obsessed with the fact that many of the matches were kicking off at very early times at home, and took to throwing in many references to breakfast into his commentaries. To say that it was a stylistic disaster would be something of an understatement. Matches were peppered with references to sausages and tea, culminating in him imploring the watching television audience to start smashing cups when David Beckham’s penalty beat Argentina in England’s second group match.
It’s true to say that the current generation of football commentators that are coming through are much of a muchness and that a commentator with such personality will be missed, but it is difficult to arrive at any conclusion other than that John Motson had gone past his sell-by date to the point of being something of an anachronism. It says something that, in some respects, he is still the best of the lot, and the BBC have a responsibility to ensure that they do what they can in order to maintain the tradition of high quality journalism and idiosyncratic commentary styles that used to make watching the football there such a pleasure. With the likes of Jonathan Pearce now being likely to be the corporation’s voice of live football, the long term prognosis isn’t good, and you might just be pining for the likes of John Motson sooner than you might have expected.