The death of John Motson reminds us of the artistry of football commentary
The passing of John Motson is a reminder of how much football commentary has changed and continues to change, and of what a unique skillset it requires.
The passing of John Motson is an opportunity for those of us of a certain age to get maudlin about the inevitable passage of time again. “Hang on a minute,” you find youself thinking, “Didn’t I see a picture of him looking well in a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and a Lacoste polo shirt quite recently?” And then you remember that said photo was from about 1984, and that 1984 was almost 40 years ago, and you take a moment to stare off into the middle distance.
As a commentator, Motson’s voice was the sound of British sports broadcasting’s modernisation; an entire world that had barely even existed when he was born in 1945 was already starting to sound a little dated. Over the intervening 26 years to when he took his first television commentary position for the BBC it had changed a lot, and it has changed a whole lot more in the half-century since.
The BBC had experimented with televising football before the outbreak of Second World War, with two live matches shown in 1938, the first being the Home International between England and Scotland. There were only a few thousand television sets in the whole country at the time and commentary was a feed from the radio, which failed during the first half.
READ MORE: John Motson: You took us from childhood to adulthood as the voice of football
The following year, Arsenal manager George Allison – never a man to shy away from an opportunity to put his club in the limelight – was in the seat for the match. It was intended that Allison would be the permanent commentator for the BBC following this, but the BBC television service closed down on September 2, 1939, and would not reopen again until June 1946.
It didn’t take football long to follow, but again the technological restrictions were severe. Only matches played within a 20-mile radius of the Alexandra Palace transmitter in north London could be broadcast live, while light levels in the pre-floodlight era meant matches couldn’t be shown in full during winter months. The first club match to be shown, an amateur Athenian League match between Barnet and Wealdstone played in October 1946, had to end 20 minutes early because light levels had dropped too low to continue.
But over the next 30 years, and as television would become a central part of the experience of the game, the voices of the commentators would become central to its narrative. And when you pause to think about it, it is a peculiar position. The ranks of pundits and summarisers are largely dominated by ex-pros, but the job of the actual commentator remains that of a journalist. It is possible for a former player to become a commentator – Ian St John nearly did so before becoming a host and summariser instead, while Martin Tyler was an amateur player and remains a qualified coach – but nobody expects a commentator to be one.
In the 1950s the BBC settled on Kenneth Wolstenholme, whose received pronunciation accent rather belied his Manchester upbringing. There was little for this first generation of commentators to go on over how to do the job, and a certain lack of detail – indeed, the quietness – on early television commentaries is noticeable to modern ears.
But that accent dated very rapidly throughout the 1960s, and by the start of the 1970s a new style of commentator had come along. There were still traces of it in Barry Davies and Brian Moore, though either were also capable of shrieking with the best of them, but Motson – who was born in Salford, brought up in Lincolnshire, and educated in a private school in Bury St Edmunds – sounded different. He came armed with facts and figures. He was an enthusiast, an accomplished young journalist, and he had a considerably younger sounding voice.
The art of the commentator has changed over the years, and although it remains a possibility that this is effectively just me saying a football equivalent to “all pop music sounds the same now” or “aren’t police officers getting younger?”, it remains a fact that most of them sound the same to me these days. I still enjoy those who I’ve grown up and grown middle-aged with. Clive Tyldesley and Jon Champion, primarily, and I also seem to have a slightly higher tolerance level for Tyler than many others. The others, I find somewhat more of a challenge.
Perhaps these are just the sharp edges continuing to smooth out. The commentator for that Barnet vs Wealdstone game in 1946 was Edgar Kail, the former amateur international and last man to be capped by the full England team without ever playing for a Football League club. We can only guess at what he might have sounded like.
Throughout the years from the 1960s to the 1990s commentators refined the way in which the job was done, though they also seemed to have a greater variety about them. From the vaguely sergeant major-like Gerry Harrison to the rich, mellifluous Welsh accent of Hugh Johns or the nasal bark of David Coleman, this was a period during which – although those involved were almost exclusively white, British and male – a considerable stylistic diversity was allowed to flourish.
At the BBC, for example, the two main commentators from the mid-to-late 1970s until into this century were Motson and Davies. Stylistically, they were like chalk and cheese. Motson was the excitable bloke in the seat next to you in the stand, Davies the more schoolmasterly presence, certainly more likely to admonish. Motson was the voice of the FA Cup final, Davies – until the rights went elsewhere – of the European Cup final. But as a combination they played perfectly off each other. Elsewhere, commercial television brought a combination of brashness and innovation which challenged the BBC and pushed it towards renewal of its own.
Of course, the nature of the role has changed over time. Co-commentators or summarisers have always been there, it’s just that we never heard them in the clips so frequently repeated because they only interjected every few minutes or so. The BBC had a co-commentator, the former Arsenal player and Wales international Walley Barnes, alongside Wolstenholme, but in comparison with the flowing, conversational nature of commentary these days he said very little.
But the art of the football commentator is an exceptional combination of different skillsets. They have to get every player identifcation right every time, they have to understand the context of the game and what happened to get to this place, and be able to put this context into words that are easy for the watching audience to understand. They have to understand the rhythm of speech, the value of space and silence. And they have to bring all of this together live; leading us through the game, most likely with a director yelling sweet nothings in their ear and all the while knowing in the back of their minds that any slip will be leapt upon by detractors without mercy.
Viewers on the whole do not appreciate how extremely difficult a job this is precisely because they make it sound so easy and straightforward. Consider, for example, the career trajectory of Jacqui Oatley, who started out seriously injuring herself playing football, so returned to university to study, and then worked her way up through local radio, national radio, the BBC, and is now a regular with Sky Sports and elsewhere, consistently having to be the best to move up every level in order to proceed.
And the current generation of commentators coming through do have that one significant way in which they don’t all sound the same. A lot of them are women now, and though there are still men who are resistent to this, what has been almost a little surprising has been how little I think about that, already. I don’t think I ever notice if the commentator is a woman, any more. I certainly couldn’t tell you the last game I saw which had won, and I do watch a lot of football every week. So yes, the times are continuing to change, and men of my age and older will continue to shout at clouds.
That commentary sounds so easy is down to the talents of whose who practice it, and that they can do so is close to an act of illusion. Just as John Motson revitalised the soundtrack to televised football in the 1970s, so did Jacqui Oatley in the first years of this century. John Motson was popular because he was so clearly an enthusiast, but he has successors in that respect in people like Ally McCoist or Peter Drury. Fans will continue to howl them because that’s what we’ve always done, but underneath that bluster there does still seem to be a broad respect for what the commentators have to do, and the strangee artistry it involves.
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