John Motson will deliver his final live BBC commentary this weekend when Arsenal face Watford in the lunchtime kick-off on Sunday. Adam Hurrey pays tribute to the greatest of all time
“I used to get nervous before games and have sleepless nights. Then Rod Stewart invited me to his football pitch in Essex and I asked him if he felt the same before going on stage. Rod said, ‘Why should I be nervous, singing is what I do.’ And I thought, commentating is what I do.”
If you call John Motson “Motty”, you also call football “footy”, in which case close this tab and go away.
After five decades of commentary, spanning more than 2,000 games of football, 10 World Cups, 10 European Championships and 29 FA Cup finals – most at a time when people actually cared about the FA Cup – John ‘Don’t Call Him Motty’ Motson has called time on his career.
To get to the core of what John Motson is requires you to wade through a veritable swamp of caricature. He loves a stat, doesn’t he! (Sky Sports News now use data from a computer game to compare players in real life.) He’s lost it a bit, though, hasn’t he? (He’s 72 years old. He’s still better doing what he does at 72 than you will be.)
As for the sheepskin coats, there’s more detail underneath the parody. “I was invited to a party in West London in 1975,” Motson once recalled (would John Motson be good value at a party? One to ponder), “where the hostess asked me to join her in the garage. I was single and a few things went through my mind, but I wasn't prepared for a rack of full-length sheepskin coats. I was hooked. I've got through 10 to 20 of them in my career.”
But, once you set aside the homework, the coats and (if we must) his entire post-2006 output where he’d fully embraced being ‘Motty’, you’re still left with that voice. A voice partly inherited from his father, “a very powerful Methodist preacher, who could project it right across the congregation...a great gift”. A voice permanently stuck on its last-moments-of-a cup-semi-final setting.
A voice that, for a good couple of decades, carried total authority, even if it eventually started to sound a bit like Zippy from Rainbow. The greatest voice football has ever heard.
That sounds like a vague claim, but the specifics back it up. Have you ever met anyone with a voice anything like that? A 2001 study by some voice analysts concluded that it had “the perfect pitch, volume and rhythm”, thanks to the way he swirled each word around the bottom of his mouth, nearly swallowed it, and then squawked it out into the microphone. No syllable has ever been neglected by Motson, which has made words like “extraordinary” [ekhs-strrrrraaaaawwww-dnry] sound exactly that, at highly appropriate moments.
Motson’s commentary voice, at the peak of its powers (somewhere between 1985-1995), could do it all. Other commentators might have been better at certain elements of calling a goal - the eagerly anticipatory build-up (Barry Davies), the match-defining climax (Martin Tyler), and the immediate post-mortem (still Motson, actually) - but nobody has ever brought them together better than he.
Motson’s unique delivery of vowels and consonants meant some goalscoring surnames sounded even more triumphant: Beardsleyyyyyy, VIALLIIIIIIII or HYYUUUUGGHHES
“Gary Lineker” is a great name, for example, but sounds even greater when Motson said it, which he happened to do for about 30 of his 48 England goals (yes, I’ve checked.)
Beyond domestic football, Motson shares, with his old rival Barry Davies, the burden of being inextricably linked with when England were either good, almost good or at least offering the slight hope of possibly being good. He clearly, absolutely loved watching England (or “IGLUD”, as he correctly pronounced it in the throes of rare glory) either when it was acceptable to enjoy watching them...
...or when it started to become a bit sad to enjoy watching them. For some reason - even after Italia ‘90, Euro ‘96, France ‘98 and beating Germany 5-1 - Motson chose a meaningless 2005 friendly against Argentina in Geneva to roll out one more delivery of tightly-wound footballing joy:
“OH! Nnh..WE'VE GOT IT!...What an amaaaazing finish in Geneva! Argentina are standing around looking at each other and they don't know where the lead has gone, and THEY DON'T KNOW WHERE THE MATCH HAS GONE!”
After wearing twenty versions of the same coat and being told he’s a legend for the best part of half a century, perhaps we shouldn’t blame him for eventually embracing his hyperreal character of “Motty.” We’d all succumb to it. Not that Motson’s self-awareness was entirely buried by his caricature:
“I always try to reply to people who write to me, however barbed their comments. If they attach a phone number I sometimes surprise them by ringing and talking over points they've raised.”
Please ring me, John Motson, with your voice, and talk about the points I have raised.