Last night’s Euro 2008 final was the last live broadcast by John Motson, BBC Sport’s most senior commentator and the voice of its football coverage for over thirty years. His decision came after the BBC lost the rights to screen live football as of next season. Motson will continue to commentate on BBC1’s Saturday night Premier League highlights show Match of the Day and BBC Radio 5 Live, but will not be present at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “I’d been thinking about it at the start of the season,” says the 62 year-old, on the eve of Spain’s European Championship triumph in the Austrian capital. “But now I’ve decided I don’t want to be tearing around South Africa at the age of 65. It’s physically and mentally challenging.”
Motson was hired by the BBC in 1968 as a sports reporter for Radio 2, and replaced Kenneth Wolstenholme on Match of the Day in 1971. The son of a Methodist minister, Motson was born in Lancashire in 1945 but educated in Suffolk, where to his dismay football was not among the sports played. Famed for his sheepskin coat and encyclopedic knowledge of the game, Motson habitually spent evenings before matches compiling statistics and laminating team-sheets. “People who know me think its an obsession,” he says. This unwavering method of preparation and boundless enthusiasm for facts and trivia have often led to derision amongst critics and armchair fans, though I for one have always admired such old-school professionalism. It’s certainly preferable to the smug, pat-on-the-back, 19th-hole boy’s club banter that passes for BBC football coverage these days.
Motson’s first appearance on Match of the Day was non-league Hereford United’s shock victory in an FA Cup fourth round replay over Newcastle in 1972. He went on to commentate at 34 FA Cup finals, nine European Championships, nine World Cups and more than 200 England internationals. Motson excelled at major tournaments, where his true appreciation of drama and unparalleled ability to evoke a sense of occasion were most valuable. He picks out Italy’s Paolo Rossi-inspired win over Brazil in the 1982 World Cup and the epic France-Portugal semi-final at Euro 84 as two of his most memorable games.
For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, Motson was replaced for big games — including most famously the 1994 World Cup final — by Barry Davies. Though well-respected in the world of sports broadcasting, Davies’ style often suggested condescension towards both players and viewers, especially later in his career, and his over-pronunciation of foreign names — plus occasional bias — began to grate. I remember listening to him getting into a live heated debate with John McEnroe while commentating at Wimbledon the day after Italy knocked Holland out of Euro 2000, and in doing so revealed himself to know less about football than a former tennis pro from New York.
Motson however made good use of his co-commentators. For many years his partner for big matches was the calm and intelligent former England and West Ham player Trevor Brooking. Sometimes, when handing over to Brooking, Motson would literally shout his name in full at the end of a particularly excited sentence without pausing: “And with that goal Gary Lineker has yet again saved England in this World Cup Trevor Brooking!” Less memorable have been his more recent collaborations with the charmless and patronising Mark Lawrenson.
Like all live commentators, Motson was prone to the occasional on-air gaffe or ridiculous outburst. Here are some of my favourites:
“It’s a football stadium in the truest sense of the word.”
“For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are playing in the yellow strip.”
“So Arsenal 0, Everton 1, and the longer it stays like this the more you’ve got to fancy Everton.”
“On a scale of one to ten that was one hell of a strike.”
“And Seaman, just like a falling oak, manages to change direction.”
“That’s an old Ipswich move — O’Callaghan crossing for Mariner to drive over the bar.”
“I think this could be our best victory over Germany since the war.”
— On England’s 5-1 defeat of Germany in Munich, September 2001.
“Northern Ireland were in white, which was quite appropriate because three inches of snow had to be cleared from the pitch before kick off.”
“The referee is wearing the same yellow-coloured top as the Slovakian goalkeeper. I’d have thought the UEFA official would have spotted that — but perhaps he’s been deafened by the noise of this crowd.”
“It must be like being stuck in the middle of a giant Outspan.” — Motson imagines life as a Holland fan.
“You couldn’t count the number of moves Alan Ball made… I counted four, and possibly five.”
“I’ve just heard that in the other match Real Madrid have just scored. That makes the score, if my calculations are correct, 4-3! But I’m only guessing!”
“I’ve lost count of how many chances Helsingborg have had. It’s at least five.”
“Chelsea haven’t got any out and out strikers on the bench unless you count Zenden who’s more of a winger.”
“In a sense it’s a one-man show… except that there are two men involved, Hartson and Berkovic, and a third man, the goalkeeper.”
“And what a time to score! Twenty-two minutes gone!”
“The World Cup is a truly international event.”
“Middlesbrough are withdrawing Maccarone the Italian, Nemeth the Slovakian and Stockdale the right back.”
“Trevor Brooking’s notes are getting wet with the rain. I must lend him some of the perspex I always bring to cover mine.”
“It’s so exciting we’re talking at the same time for the first time ever!”
“I was about to say before something far more interesting interrupted…”
“Actually, none of the players are wearing earrings. Kjeldberg, with his contact lenses is the closest we can get.”
“It’s so different from the scenes in 1872, at the Cup Final none of us can remember.”
“That shot might not have been as good as it might have been.”
“Not the first half you might have expected, even though the score might suggest that it was.”
“He’s not quite at 110 per cent fitness.”
“There is still nothing on the proverbial scoreboard.”
“Whether that was a penalty or not, the referee thought otherwise.”
“Bruce has got the taste of Wembley in his nostrils.”
“This is the biggest thing that’s happened in Athens since Homer put down his pen.” — reacting to Greece’s surprise triumph at Euro 2004.
“Koller shares a hairstyle with Jaap Stam. Of course, they have no hair.”
“Say something, Mark, say something!” — For once at a loss for words, a shell-shocked Motson implores his co-commentator Mark Lawrenson to make sense of England’s disastrous defeat to Croatia in the Euro 2008 qualifier.
During the 2002 World Cup Motson famously developed something of a fixation with the fact that games being played in the evening in Japan and Korea were broadcast live in the early morning in the UK, and attempted to insert references to cooked English breakfasts into his live commentary at every opportunity:
“Just one minute of overtime, so you can put the eggs on now if you like.”
“You can have your breakfast with Batistuta and your cornflakes with Crespo.”
“I can confirm that Trevor Brooking did have his own eggs and bacon before setting off this morning.”
“England will be having Sweden for breakfast.”
“Hold on to your cups and glasses… You can smash them now! David Beckham has scored!”