How John Motson became the voice of football after a muddy afternoon at Hereford changed his life forever
BRITISH football lost its voice yesterday when legendary commentator John Motson died aged 77.
For half a century, “Motty” and his sheepskin coat brought the beautiful game to life with his infectious enthusiasm, unmatchable statistics and iconic tones.
The former BBC broadcaster was behind the microphone for more than 2,000 games, including 29 FA Cup Finals, and covering ten World Cups and ten Euros.
Last night tributes poured in from across the world to the commentator Piers Morgan hailed as the G.O.A.T — greatest of all time.
Match of the Day host Gary Lineker called him “brilliant” and “the voice of football in this country for generations”. Ex-England star Alan Shearer wrote: “RIP Motty. An incredible career. The voice.”
Prince William added: “Very sad to hear about the passing of John Motson — a legend whose voice was football. My thoughts are with his family and friends.”
Motson’s success was down to preparation as much as perspiration in that heavy jacket, with wife Anne helping him collate information on players and games.
They did not use a computer — preferring instead to draw on their own archive of press clippings, and Motson’s laser focus for detail produced many memorable moments.
Before his first FA Cup Final in 1977, he walked up the Wembley steps to where the trophy would be collected and counted 39.
Then, when Man United’s winning captain Martin Buchan strode up, Motson delivered a killer reference to John Buchan’s classic novel. He said to the millions at home: “How appropriate that a man called Buchan should be the first to climb the 39 steps to the Royal Box.”
However he may never have been there at all if not for a muddy FA Cup Third Round replay at non-league Hereford United against mighty Newcastle in 1972.
When Ronnie Radford hit a late 30-yard screamer to equalise, an excitable Motson screamed into the mic: “Oh, what a goal! What a goal! Radford the scorer, Ronnie Radford, and the crowd, the crowd are invading the pitch and it will take some time to clear the field.”
Having captured the moment so perfectly, Motson would no longer be a junior commentator.
He later said: “I was on trial at Match of the Day for a year and I got given this game, and then Ronnie changed everything.
“He changed his life, my life, the history of the FA Cup with a goal that came out of nowhere.”
Born in Salford, Motson moved around the country as his Methodist minister dad William went from post to post.
His first taste of football came in London aged seven when he watched Chelsea play at Charlton Athletic, near where he then lived.
He was instantly hooked and became a Chelsea fan, although he later pretended to support Barnet to avoid accusations of bias.
Motson’s first job was on a local paper in Barnet, North London, in 1963, before moving to the Sheffield Morning Telegraph four years later.
On reading his work, one cruel editor suggested he try broadcasting instead. He joined the BBC in 1968 — but it was not until Radford’s rocket that his own career took off. It landed him a three-year contract, covering a range of sports.
In 1974 he co-commentated with heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali on a Joe Bugner fight in London. He tried to hand the mic to Ali only to discover he had vanished.
Motson recalled: “He was in the ring trying to box Bugner.”
Reporting on Wimbledon tennis in 1981 he landed an impromptu interview with actor Jack Nicholson. When Motson got a message in his ear from the studio demanding the tennis latest, Jack said in his scary Shining voice: “Just give ’em the score, Johnnnyy.”
But it is football for which Motson will be forever remembered.
A huge factor in his success was Anne, who he married in 1976. She kept a log detailing all his games.
Motson said: “My research is based mainly on my wife’s wonderful record book which she keeps dutifully and diligently every day of the season with all the teams, matches, appearances, goalscorers, newspaper cuttings, you name it.”
However Motson was not immune to the odd blunder. He once said: “Brazil — they’re so good it’s like they’re running round the pitch playing with themselves.”
In the 1990s his rival Barry Davies got two FA Cup Finals so the perfectionist felt he had to raise his game. Motson, awarded an OBE in 2001, said: “You felt that if you dropped a clanger you might be out of work. I would have sleepless nights sweating on getting it right.
“There were recriminations if something went wrong, naked fury.”
The affable Motson also had to face occasional bouts of rage from angry managers. Then-Man United boss Alex Ferguson, who had been a good pal, snarled at him in 1995: “You’ve no right to ask me that question, John. You’re out of order.”
All he did was ask if Roy Keane would be punished for being sent off for the third time in 14 games.
His toughest career moment was in 1989 commenting at the FA Cup semi between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool at Hillsborough. His son Fred said the disaster, where 96 fans were killed, “was really something that weighed on him”.
Motson’s last day at the BBC came at Crystal Palace’s 2-0 home win against West Brom in 2018. Palace’s then-boss Roy Hodgson presented him with a framed copy of the programmes from his first and last matches.
He then joined TalkSport radio soon after and was awarded a Bafta that year to mark his contribution to broadcasting.
He and his wife, who lived in a village near Milton Keynes, both had major health scares.
First Anne beat breast cancer and then ten years later in 2014 her husband was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Motson said: “I knew what courage she showed in the operation. I thought to myself, ‘Come on, keep yourself together and don’t make too much fuss.’
“I was trying to be nearly as brave as she was.”
His family said yesterday: “It is with great sadness that we announce that John Motson OBE died peacefully in his sleep today.”
Huge rounds of applause are sure to ring out at grounds around the country tomorrow. As the BBC’s director-general Tim Davie said: “John had the right words, at the right time, for all the big moments.”
‘HE SET STANDARD’
By NICK PARKER
FELLOW commentators and pundits paid tribute to Motty yesterday.
Sky’s Martin Tyler said: “John was the standard-setter for us all.
“We basically all looked up to him — his diligence, his dedication, his knowledge. He was a very serious broadcaster but he was a real fun guy to be around.”
Clive Tyldesley said: “As a teenager I just wanted to be John Motson. Nobody else.” BT Sport’s Darren Fletcher posted: “An iconic commentator with his own distinctive and brilliant style.
“The soundtrack to my youth watching football #RIPMotty.”
BT Sport and ESPN commentator Ian Darke said: “Probably the most famous football commentator of them all. Meticulously researched and retaining boyish enthusiasm and love of the game over half a century of the biggest games — he set the gold standard.”
Ex-Blackburn forward and pundit Chris Sutton said: “He was a legendary figure in the commentary box and will be sorely missed.
“Thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Classic lines of icon
ONE of Motty’s most famous quotes was a joke, not a gaffe.
Commentating on a Tottenham game he said: “For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are in the all-yellow strip”.
It was a nod to Ted Lowe’s snooker line: “For those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”
Some of his other lines include:
“Villa . . . and still Ricky Villa! What a fantastic run! He’s scored!” — on the Argentine’s mazy winner for Spurs in the 1981 FA Cup Final replay.
“And there it is, the Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club!” — when no-hopers Wimbledon beat the stars of Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final.
“It’s there by David Platt. England have done it in the last minute of extra-time. England are through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup and Bobby Robson is ecstatic!” — late drama at the Italia 90 World Cup.
“Oh dear, oh dear me . . . here is a moment that almost brings tears to his eyes” — on Paul Gascoigne after his booking against West Germany would rule him out of the final at Italia 90.
“Here’s Gascoigne . . oh brilliant, oh yes!” — Gazza’s famous volley against Scotland in Euro 96.
“Ohhh, this is getting better and better and better. One, two, three for Michael Owen!” — Owen gets his hat-trick in England’s 5-1 win over Germany in Munich 2001.
“Beckham . . . Yes! He’s done it!” — David Beckham’s brilliant last-gasp free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford in 2001 sends England to the 2002 World Cup.
“Hold the cups and glasses at home . . . you can smash them now!” Beckham’s penalty beats Argentina at the 2002 World Cup in Japan, broadcast at breakfast time in the UK.
“Gerrard! He’s done it! Oh Steven Gerrard!” — injury-time thunderbolt for Liverpool against West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup Final.
“And the referee has gone across now with his hand in his pocket. He’s been told about it. He’s off, it’s red, it’s Zidane! You can’t excuse that — Zidane’s career ends in disgrace!” — Zinedine Zidane’s sending-off for France after a headbutt in the 2006 World Cup Final against Italy.
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