He never tried to crack a joke. He never strived for the poetic. You didn’t get the sense that midnight oil had been burned in pursuit of a phrase which would ring down the years, become a calling card, then the title of his memoirs and ultimately the inscription on his gravestone.
And that really was quite remarkable.
Maybe “quite remarkable” was as close as John Motson got to a catchphrase but you didn’t get the sense he was up all night honing and finessing it. He was probably up all night with his stats but that was another matter. And now he’s going – not yet ready for the cemetery but hanging up his mic. Just 17 more games for Match of the Day and he’ll be done. All hail, Motty!
Except he’s never been Motty to me. When was the moment he became living history but with a slightly groovier haircut and a jokey persona, venerable but cuddly and happy to send himself up? That was unfortunate. And maybe afterwards you did suspect that the sheepskin-clad BBC institution might be attempting to set down the odd remark for posterity. That wasn’t the commentator I’ll remember.
He began in an era when commentators didn’t seem like they would be remembered, and rather like the referees of the same era being inconspicuous, this was a good thing. The odd phrase of Kenneth Wolstenholme’s had gained currency – something to do with premature pitch-invaders, I think – and in the playground we were fond of impersonating David Coleman’s “ONE-NIL!” but generally commentators were not seen and hardly heard. Less was more. Brevity was the rule. Verbosity was downright rude.
The game which made Motson is a case in point. Imagine the 1972 FA Cup replay between Hereford United and Newcastle United being played now. The man describing the action would be all over it, never shutting up about the history of Hereford, the town, and how some ancient custom or gruesome medieval murder might be a pointer to the outcome of the match. He would rhapsodise about the fans watching from high up in the trees. And he would strive urgently for words to chime with the pop-culture event of virtually every single one of the boys from the crowd charging towards the goal hero being clad in an Army & Navy Stores parka.
Motson, though, did none of this. Watch the highlights back and you will marvel at the grim, grass-less pitch –how Malcolm McDonald’s sideboards were more verdant, positively seeming to sprout before your eyes, and how the players managed even a semblance of skill on the mud-caked surface – but you won’t hear Motson over-embellish, over-egg or over-commentate.
He gets over-excited but how could you not, witnessing Ronnie Radford’s thundercrack 30-yarder. The strike, though, seems to stun Motson because after “What a goal” with his schoolboy’s yelp, he says: “And the crowd! The crowd are invading the field and it will take some time to clear it!” He goes from schoolboy to schoolmaster in a nanosecond and I suppose that’s what made him that afternoon: three cheers then decorum, wobbly chin then composure, classic English behaviour.
In Motson’s memoirs – not to be confused with any of the books destined for the loo penned by Motty – there’s a blown-up quote from a BBC exec: “Barry commentates from the grandstand, John is talking from the terraces.” Next to his contemporary Davies, pictured, who could indeed look down his nose on proceedings and get quite moralistic, Motson was the bouncy, squawky, punter-ish counterblast who engaged viewers in conversation as if he was standing alongside them in the Stoat & Goat and they were all supping pints in sheepskins. “Well, you saw what happened,” he says, passing no comment on Not-So-Supermac, weighed down by his festooning sideys and muffing a chance. Then later Motson shrieks: “What can you say?”
You can see how this blokey approach would have appealed to the Beeb, mindful of the need to change with the times yet at that moment clawing in the dark for how best to achieve this – unlike now when the corporation is determined that inclusivity is the way to go. Motty must have seemed punk-rock next to Davies, hence the reason he always got to work the FA Cup final when it was the jewel in the football crown.
I always thought that was a bit unfair on Davies who, yes, could be sniffy and disappointed compared with Motson’s relentless enthusiasm – but sometimes that suited the mood, at least viewed from up here. He tried to intellectualise sport and invariably failed, but you couldn’t blame him for attempting to raise the discussion.
Davies could do enthusiastic. “Look at his face! Just look at his face!” was his reaction to a Franny Lee goal. Immediately preceding it he’d provided himself with the title of his own autobiography: “Interesting … very interesting!” And it should be said of Motson that while he was enthusiastic, we with finely-tuned antennae for such things would not call him the most out-and-out jingoistic commentator England has ever produced. The dreadful Clive Tyldesley has that dubious claim to fame and only he, watching the sometimes donkey defending of Gareth Southgate’s men in last week’s qualifier against Slovakia, would still have felt compelled to quote the betting odds for them winning next summer’s World Cup.
Motson vs Davies was built up to be a fierce rivalry but for me it wasn’t Beatles v Stones or Sex Pistols v the Clash and it certainly didn’t come close to the greatest mano v mano, mic-o v mic-o contest of them all between Arthur Montford and Archie Macpherson. Still, happy retirement, John.