John Motson: You took us from childhood to adulthood as the voice of football

John Motson Credit: Alamy
John Motson Credit: Alamy

When we listen to a commentary of a football match in 2023, either on the radio, or on the TV, its DNA can be traced back to John Motson.

This is no small achievement, because back in 1971, when Motty got his break commentating on the famous cup replay between Hereford and Newcastle United, the football broadcasting industry was small and relatively new. Match Of The Day was just seven years old and being a match commentator a rather peripheral role in football’s firmament.

And although Motty has died, he leaves behind a legacy that is little short of revolutionary. He didn’t just change how commentating was done, he invented how to do it and became the definitive practitioner of the artform; a standard against which all others would be judged.

I’m not sure an eccentric voice like Motty’s would be employed now. The trend towards anonymous, rather bland voices on the TV (though not on the radio) is perhaps inevitable. In an era when so many football fans are permanently outraged about everything that doesn’t align with their own taste, producers probably want people who don’t frighten the social media horses.

Yet it was Motty’s quirkiness that made him so popular and kept him at the top of the game for so long.

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The whole of the stats industry owes him a debt of gratitude because it was Motty’s inclination to do research and discover if a player was Burnley’s tallest ever, or who was the highest scorer in the 1926/27 FA Cup, or what the wife of groundsman at Adams Park was called, that established there was a desire to hear the deeper cuts from football’s database.

Before Motty, this sort of attention to detail really didn’t exist. He popularised it. Was celebrated for it. Was even gently mocked for it. He was the slightly over-focused nerdy boy in class who took pleasure in facts, in knowledge. The counter-balance to all of those who thought you understood football more with your gut than with actual facts.

Ironically, towards the end, he seemed to grow a little cynical of the new stats industry, openly pondering who was checking on the veracity and accuracy of some of the more obscure metrics. I remember him on the Monday Night Club asking rhetorically when did a sprint become a sprint and when was it just running.

But all of the endearing idiosyncrasies were still present. When talking about football, he had a strange habit of beginning sentences, then going off on a long, rambling aside, which may or may not even be relevant and will contain a caveat such as “I know we’ll be discussing this later on” and then he’ll stumble over his words, before returning to his original point, if he and we can even remember it, which we probably can’t, every distracted thought punctuated with a chuntered ‘heh heh’ delivered with a hiccup of treble in his tone; less a laugh and more a tick. All very Motty.

He was the first commentator to be known by nickname. No-one called Kenneth Wolstenhome ‘Homey’ or David Coleman ‘Coley’. He was a household name even in households that didn’t care about football. Everyone knew Motty and everyone associated him with the sheepskin coats which became very much Brand Motty, and over the years seemed to get longer, thicker and heavier and worn no matter how warm the weather.

John Motson during commentary Credit: Alamy
John Motson during commentary Credit: Alamy

He benefited from the fact football was only on ITV and BBC for the first 20 years of his commentating career. The multi-platform broadcast world was a long way off when he was riding high in the charts. Live football was pulling many millions because it was free-to-air and the FA Cup final would be seen by 20 million viewers and Motty did 29 of them. Hard to really express how big he was in that narrow media world.

When he did his last MOTD commentary, a 2-0 win for Crystal Palace over WBA in May 2018, he sounded just the same as he had done on the January afternoon back in ‘71. He was remarkably consistent.

While Barry Davies, supreme master of the mic that he was, came across as a firm but fair headmaster of a minor public school, Motty retained a chuckling boyish, blushed cheeks aspect to his work, perhaps instinctively knowing that to take something really seriously you have to be able to laugh at and with it. But that’s not to say he wasn’t 100% professional. He was certainly seen as an authority. He’d been to 10 World Cups, 10 Euros, over 200 England games and commentated on 2,500 games, after all. That is some body of work.

All contemporary commentators were born from a tradition Motty created. He developed football commentary into a recognisable artform and laid the road which so many subsequently walked. And if I asked you to close your eyes now, you and me and everyone else, can conjure his voice in an instant, so deep into our synapses has it been burnt.

And while he’s passed on to the great commentary box in the sky, in many ways he will always be with us. A disembodied voice from the past, once again replaying and reliving some of the game’s greatest, most dramatic moments. Inseparable from the game he loved so much.

Oh Motty. You took so many of us from childhood to adulthood. Always there, when so much else wasn’t.

Was he the best there’s ever been? Maybe. As John himself might have said “there’s nothing wrong with a healthy debate, by the way. Heh, heh.”

Travel well, old pal, travel well.

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