John Motson: The First Modern Commentator

by | May 13, 2018

It’s been a long time. Fifty years since he was first hired by BBC Radio and more than forty-six since he made his television debut for the corporation. This afternoon at Selhurst Park, though, John Motson will hang his microphone and sail off into retirement, after having lingered as though a memory from a different era for at least the last decades. Motson is the last of his generation still standing. Hugh Johns, David Coleman and Brian Moore are dead. Barry Davies is in semi-retirement, occasionally tempted out to cover other sports, but his last football commentary for the BBC came four years ago, as a one-off for Match of the Day – ironically enough, also at Selhurst Park.

For many, though not all, John Motson is the voice of football on the BBC. At the peak of his powers, the way in which matches were divided up with Barry Davies were presented as some form of tussle for power. And it was a tussle that Motson won for many years. When David Coleman got into a contractual dispute in 1977, he covered the first of twenty-nine FA Cup finals, even though many had expected it to be given to the more experienced Davies. Barry Davies would not commentate on an FA Cup for the BBC until 1995. Despite this perception of rivalry, however, both have stated mutual respect for each other – a mark, perhaps, of the values with which they were raised.

John Motson first came to national prominence in February 1972, when he was dispatched to cover a much-delayed FA Cup Third Round replay between Hereford United and Newcastle United. Hereford were in the Southern League and were pushing for a place in the Football League. Newcastle were a solid, mid-table First Division. The two sides had played out a two-all draw in the first match, a considerable achievement from Hereford in itself, but the replay filled the tiny Edgar Street ground beyond its 14,000 capacity, with every vantage point overlooking the ground also taken advantage of.

On a chocolate pudding of a pitch, Malcolm McDonald scored first for Newcastle, a goal that temporarily silenced an excitable home crowd and had the feel of sealing the deal about it. But Hereford came back, and with five minutes to play Ronnie Radford, who lashed the ball into the top corner of the Newcastle goal to bring extra-time and one of the most iconic images of 1970s football, a pitch invasion of parka-clad teenagers, who, Motson warns, “will take some time to clear.” When substitute Ricky George scrambled Hereford’s winning goal over the line, thirteen minutes into extra-time, there was a repeat of this. But Motson’s commentary on all of it sealed him a regular place on Match of the Day and a subsequent rapid ascent up the pecking order.

People often talk of the statistics-nerdery (he might be argued to be a trailblazer for the various analytics people who hang around the game these days, picking apart its statistics), of his mistakes and occasional Malapropisms, or of his occasionally peculiar turns of phrase, but when given a great game under the right circumstances, he could soar. It’s a match so dramatic that I rate it as my favourite of all-time – I’ve even written about it before – and Motson’s breathless commentary on the 1984 European Championship between France and Portugal remains the best I’ve ever heard, with his orgasmic – and post-orgasmic – reaction to Michel Platini’s winning goal for France the being perhaps the greatest single expression of joy that I’ve ever heard from an individual in football.

Yet one suspects that Motson isn’t quite as universally loved as Barry Davies. Perhaps it was because Davies was more florid in his language, and more enjoyably school-masterly when outraged by something distasteful happening on the pitch. Perhaps, with his multi-sport background, Davies simply came across as that bit more urbane. There’s also the possibility, however, that he got out at the right time. Although Motson is eight years younger than Davies, both sounded dated by the turn of the century. Barry Davies stopped regulalrly working on football for the BBC in 2004, but Motson hung on for another fourteen years. He remains a much-loved institution, but there have been few saying recently that it’s not probably the right time for Motson to be hanging up his microphone

Perhaps Motson’s golden years were the the early 1980s. Here he is, timing it perfectly for Marco Tardelli’s game-sealing goal for Italy in the 1982 World Cup final. Here he is, present and correct at Goodison Park for one of the definitive team and individual performances of the great Liverpool team of that era, a five-nil win against Everton in November 1982. Here he is again, at the 1988 FA Cup final as the Crazy Gang beats the Culture Club, and Wimbledon whisk the trophy off to Plough Lane. He was omnipresent at that time, at every major tournament, at every big match. This started to change during the 1990s, as the BBC sought to give more high profile matches to Davies, but Motson arguably remained the BBC’s main commentator until into this century.

It is possible to argue that John Motson is the first truly “modern” football commentator. He was born in 1945, meaning that he turned eighteen in 1963, the year in which National Service ended in the UK. This is significant. Many other commentators came from military backgrounds of some form or another – even Barry Davies did National Service – and this, it might be argued, informed their personalities, in some ways. Motson was not of that generation. His voice was something different. And although he is by birth one of the world’s least likely Mancunians, his might be considered the voice of a new, middle-class surburbia ringing loud and clear on the television. Other accents were treated considerably worse than this, of course, but it’s worth considering how much of a sign of the times this was. Consider this news broadcast from 1957, for example – just fifteen years before Motson’s voice was first heard on BBC Television. Set against the clipped received  pronounciation of the time, in 1972 his was a voice of modernity.

But time goes marching on. The twenty-six year old turns seventy-three in a couple of months, and a new generation have come along now. Sometimes they yell. Sometimes they bellow. Sometimes they have pre-prepared zingers for those dramatic moments. Sometimes they bombard you with statistics of varying degrees of relevance to anything whatsoever. Sometimes they try a joke, and usually it falls flat. Mostly, though, they all sound the same, and I’m plenty aware of how old that makes me sound. John Motson is the godfather of the current generation of football broadcasters. Indeed, the biggest difference between Motson and the rest is that he never sounded the same as everybody or anybody else. As football continues to homogenise wherever in the world it’s played, perhaps it’s appropriate that all commentators should start to sound the same. With the retirement of John Motson today, another of football’s little idiosyncracies stands down. We won’t see his like again.