By Frank Malley
When John Motson, after 50 unforgettable years, had commentated on his final match for the BBC, perversely an instantly forgettable and meaningless affair between Crystal Palace and West Brom, he was asked for his thoughts.
If the questioner was searching for nostalgic soppiness he was disappointed.
‘I treated it like any other match,’ said Motson in matter-of-fact fashion.
Which would have meant his notes being copious and the players of both teams being researched just as extensively as they would have been at any other time in a career which took in 10 World Cups, 29 FA Cup finals and more than 2,000 commentaries.
Professional, self-effacing, humble, bumbling perhaps on occasions but always emanating respect and a passion for football which remains undimmed.
That was and is Motson, especially in his heyday of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, decades full of intriguing sporting rivalries.
Coe v Ovett. Ali v Frazier. Borg v McEnroe. Senna v Prost.
And behind the footballing microphone, John Motson v Barry Davies, who vied for the BBC’s main commentary spot for a quarter of a century, although Motson invariably got the nod for the big match after being chosen to take the helm at the 1977 FA Cup final when David Coleman was in contract dispute with the Beeb.
There was a strictness, a discipline, a considered tone to Motson’s commentaries which was in stark contrast to the more colourful, prosaic offerings of Davies.
If Davies’s commentaries were distinctive for their warmth and poetic wit, then Motson’s were often overflowing with information. Facts were Motson’s ammunition and he unloaded them with machine-gun precision. He does the same over dinner – invariably prefacing them with ‘By the way’ – when relating a favourite footballing memory.
His team notes written in ballpoint – Motson doesn’t do digital – in the smallest, neatest prose, have been regularly auctioned to raise thousands for charitable causes.
But if facts were Motson’s stock in trade and if the famous sheepskin coat became part of the caricature then his unique gift was always an ability to capture a moment in time with THAT voice.
‘What a goal!’ What a voice.
A voice with power and authority, the sort his Methodist minister father might have used to project his preachings. A voice with the volume, the pitch, the cadence, all seemingly set to perfect, permanently.
Yes, Motson delivered memorable lines, too, with the ‘The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club’ after Wimbledon beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final being perhaps the most famous.
But it was the voice, not the words, which set Motson apart from the rest in a world still inhabited by such expert communicators as Sky’s Martin Tyler and ITV’s Clive Tyldesley.
“Ronnie Radford…what a goal! And the crowd have invaded the pitch,” was the commentary on Hereford’s giant-killing cup victory against Newcastle which launched Motson’s career in 1972.
Nothing extraordinary, to use a quintessentially Motson word, there, but listen to the sense of anticipation, the rasp of excitement, the conveyance of astonishment and no-one could be in doubt that history was in the making.
The BBC have been adept down the years at discovering commentators with voices perfectly in sync with their sports.
John Arlott’s burr was synonymous with leather striking willow, Bill McLaren’s enthusiasm and memorable turn of phrase perfectly suited rugby union, the mellifluous tones of Peter O’Sullevan were beyond compare in horse racing and Peter Alliss’s enduring whimsy perfectly suits the sport of golf.
Even dear old Murray Walker, who made a living out of interrupting himself while covering motor racing for the BBC and ITV for a quarter of a century, really did have a voice which sounded like a set of Formula One tyres negotiating a Silverstone chicane.
There are those who say Motson went on too long. That at 72 he was past his best. And that is true, although he was still better than most during the past 10 years when he was winding down.
The more pertinent question is: In football, has anyone ever conveyed the ebb and flow of the world’s most popular sport with such empathy and authority as John Motson at the peak of his powers in the 1980s and 1990s?
The answer has to be no.
That is why Motson deserves the special Bafta award he received for his outstanding contribution to sports broadcasting as well as so many heartwarming plaudits from inside and outside football and journalism.
To paraphrase a well-worn terrace sentiment: ‘There’s only one John Motson.’
It is unlikely his unique gift will ever be matched.