EXCLUSIVE John Motson interview: Four decades, 1700 matches... and countless sheepskin coats!
Dear old Motty’s notes went flying, a table on the gantry overturned and microphone leads were ripped from their sockets.
Somehow, amid the bedlam, John Motson managed to convey the drama of David Beckham’s stoppage-time free kick against Greece, which sent England to the 2002 World Cup finals, into the nation’s living rooms.
Patriotism is the last refuge of the commentator, but even when Motty lost it, he still wasn’t lost for words.
“Trevor Brooking was my summariser, and between us we virtually broke the equipment,” said Motson. “There was such a furore – I was running along the gantry with the microphone, and Trevor was scrambling around on the floor trying to pick up the bits of furniture we had sent flying. That was an iconic moment.”
In 40 years of commentating for Match of the Day, a milestone he reaches this weekend, Motson has never known such excitement since the intruder in the BBC potting shed on Court No.3 at Wimbledon during his radio days turned out to be Jack Nicholson.
Mercifully, the Hollywood star did not make his entry using his deranged character’s preferred method in The Shining – with a fire axe – and Motson, ever the pro, conducted his first showbiz interview on the hoof. “Give ‘em the score, Johnny,” chided Nicholson playfully when a producer told Motson not to ignore the tennis at the expense of his special guest.
Fast forward to last year’s World Cup in South Africa, and Motson could hardly bear to look as England crashed out against a familiar nemesis in Bloemfontein. Don’t mention the score, Johnny.
The voice of football has served the Beeb through 11 full-time England managers, from Sir Alf Ramsey to Fabio Capello, and that Black Sabbath when the Fatherland added to 44 years of hurt still haunts the patron saint of sheepskin coats.
Two years earlier, Motson had announced the Euro 2008 final in Austria would be his last live commentary at a major championship. Goodnight, Vienna. Now, stranded on a sofa in Cape Town among the talking heads, he felt the first pangs of detachment from the front line.
The views of Table Mountain were nice, but his natural habitat was hundreds of miles across the Cape hinterland – on safari with the Three Lions.
“The one time I stopped to think about missing live commentary at the World Cup was during England v Germany, a game I had done so many times on big occasions,” said Motson, now 65.
“Of course, when the game unfolded, I realised I was probably better off keeping a safe distance.
“I had been to the group match against Algeria in Cape Town as an England fan, which was grim, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve been through this all before and it’s not getting any better.’
“Maybe I had got all of that out of my system at nine previous World Cups and 10 European championships.
“But when Capello got the England job, I had really high hopes, even if some people were wary of another foreign manager.
“Sven Goran Eriksson had done OK, if you disregard all the other stuff around him, but it needed moving up another notch.
“He came in with the reputation of a disciplinarian, but it seems to have rebounded on him.
“Where people used to think the players were being given too much rope by his predecessors, he doesn’t seem to have given them any at all. That came out loud and clear in South Africa. I’m a bit disappointed his English has not got any better.
“Roberto Mancini and Carlo Ancelotti seemed to pick up the language a lot faster when they became part of the Premier League.
“Sometimes Capello answers questions in press conferences and you wonder if that’s his real answer, or has something been lost in translation?
“I don’t mind things being lost in translation for first six months, but the old boy has been here four years, and that slightly worries me.”
Language barriers aside, the World Cup has smiled on Motty. Except when Barry Davies got the nod for the final in 1994.
And Father Time has been kind to the rookie commentator who was on trial at the BBC when he was assigned an FA Cup replay between Hereford and Newcastle in 1972 which is still the benchmark for romance in football.
“My voice hasn’t changed much, I’ve been blessed there,” he added. And touch wood, I’ve never missed a game through illness.”
It all began with a goalless draw at Anfield on 9 October, 1971. Forty years, and almost 1,700 games later, Motty is not just an institution at the BBC. He is still a national treasure.
DID YOU KNOW...
- His collection of every FA Cup Final and England programme since 1921 includes a rare, pristine copy from the 1924 Cup Final between Newcastle and Villa, when many fans at Wembley used the publication as protection from torrential rain. It is worth around £9,000 now.
- The famous scene of Motty standing in a blizzard, refusing to desert his sentry post, was a live update for Football Focus at Wycombe Wanderers, minutes after their FA Cup tie against Peterborough had been postponed in December 1990.
- He stayed loyal to the BBC when ITV offered him the late Brian Moore’s old job in 1998, and again when Sky tried to poach him in 2004.
- Motty commentated on Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
- He rates his top three games as Italy 3-2 Brazil (1982 World Cup), Hereford 2-1 Newcastle (1972 FA Cup) and Germany 1-5 England (2001 World Cup qualifier).
- Motty’s contributions to the gaffes archive are rare for such a long career. One of his best lines was, “Nearly all the Brazilian supporters are wearing yellow shirts... it’s a fabulous kaleidoscope of colour.”