Many of English football’s biggest moments of the last half century were voiced, impossibly mellifluously, by John Motson. The BBC commentator, who has died aged 77, embodied a peculiarly English kind of fandom. An enthusiast more than an analyst, he took small clubs as seriously as big ones — perhaps even more so, because they could provide him with a giant-killing to serenade.
“Motty”, in his eternal full-length sheepskin coat, became an unchanging fixture of national life. The historical facts and statistical firsts he loved to recite could seem trivial, but they reflected his creed: he saw English football as a living organism born in Victorian times.
Motson himself was born in Salford in 1945, weeks after victory over Hitler. He grew up mostly in London, where his father was a football-mad Methodist minister with a famed voice who preached in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. Aged six, Motson went with his dad to his first match, Charlton vs Chelsea. He claims never to have fallen for a particular club, but loved the game, the colours, names and shirt numbers. Fandom would sustain him through homesickness at boarding school.
After leaving school at 16, he became a local newspaper reporter, then began working in radio in Sheffield. When he first applied to the BBC, his interviewers burst out laughing upon realising his inexperience. But soon afterwards the corporation hired him.
He joined the football highlights programme Match of the Day in 1971, and a year later got his break. Non-league Hereford were hosting Newcastle in an FA Cup replay. A Newcastle win seemed a formality, worth perhaps five minutes on that night’s show, so the match was assigned to the programme’s 26-year-old junior. Motson drove to Hereford with two of their players, his friend Ricky George and Billy Meadows.
Minutes before time, part-time carpenter Ronnie Radford rocketed home Hereford’s equaliser from 35 yards. It’s a scene from bygone provincial football: Radford’s undersized shirt that rides up his belly as he celebrates, while parka-clad supporters storm the muddy pitch. George scored Hereford’s winner, but many of the 10mn watching that night would forever remember Motson’s “Radford the scorer, Ronnie Radford!”
Motson did not do poetry or tactical analysis. “I would have dearly loved to have punctuated my commentaries with better language, nicely rounded phrases, wider vocabulary and memorable lines,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Unfortunately there were twenty-two guys out there playing football at a furious pace.”
His job was to tell a 90-minute story, carried by his childlike exuberance yet free of the slightest factual error. A perfectionist terrified of misidentifying a player, he prepared obsessively for each game. He would drive around England watching teams to memorise faces, collecting phone numbers of football people whom he pumped for news.
Even Manchester United’s manager Alex Ferguson generally confided to him the next day’s line-up, trusting Motson not to blab. Anne, Motson’s wife since 1976 (he is also survived by their son Frederick), helped compile his pre-game stats. Motson wrote colour-coded notes on both teams in felt-tip pen, then stuck them on to two sides of a card.
Comedians mocked his clichés. Steve Coogan’s comedic creation, the idiotic TV journalist Alan Partridge, and the sports reporter on Harry Enfield and Chums both wore Motsonesque sheepskins. But Motson had a superpower: his voice. Speech therapist Jane Comins identified him as possessing twice the average voice range, speaking speed and volume range.
No wonder he usually defeated colleague Barry Davies in their decades-long duel to be assigned the BBC’s biggest games. Motson commentated on 10 World Cups and 29 FA Cup finals. He stayed 50 years at the BBC, outlasting almost everyone else on British television. Working there “kind of gave you a tremendous boost to your ego”, he told the BBC’s own programme, Desert Island Discs.
He regretted modern football’s “greed and gratification”: the Champions League filled with teams that were not champions, spiralling salaries and club debts. But tempering his nostalgia was the memory of the hooligan-ridden 1980s, when, he admitted, “my love for football had slightly deserted me”. At least the modern game was safe.
The globetrotting commentator remained “very much an Englishman”, says George. For their first meal together in Seoul during the World Cup 2002, Motson took him to a McDonald’s, explaining, “I like a cheeseburger.”
Generous to junior colleagues and to ordinary fans who wrote him letters (he did not do email), “Motty” paid for an annual dinner with friends in Fino’s in Mount Street, London. After retiring in 2018, he kept travelling to games, hosted by clubs eager to fete the bard of English football.