John Walker Motson OBE (10 July 1945 - 23 February 2023)
The voice of football on English television and radio for almost half a century became an icon of English culture, known for his trademark sheepskin coat and his obsession for relentless facts and figures, he was know affectionately as "Motty".
Motson was born in Salford, Lancashire. His father, William Motson, was a Methodist minister and his mother, Gwendoline (nee Harrison). He was baptised in Boston, Lincolnshire and as a child he followed Boston United. Schooled at Culford School near Bury St. Edmunds, a school that did not engage in football but as a teenage he played in the Barnet Sunday League and also earned the title of Barnet and Potters Bar youth table tennis champion.
First steps in his professional life
Motson began his career as a reporter in Chipping Barnet in 1967 but he first covered football at the Sheffield Morning Telegraph in 1968. He qualified as an FA preliminary coach and did some freelance reporting for BBC Sheffield.
In 1968 he moved to BBC Radio Sport, London, and appeared as a national presenter on Radio 4 evening show Sports Session before moving to live commentary of matches on Radio 2. His first live commentary match was Everton v Derby County in December 1969. He rapidly moved to Match of the Day on television in October 1971 when Kenneth Wolstenholme departed - becoming the youngest TV football commentator at just 26 years old. His first TV commentary match was a goalless draw between Liverpool and Chelsea. “I remember my first game, Liverpool against Chelsea,” he recalled. “They kicked off and my heart sank because I thought, ‘What do I say now?’ I still remember the feeling. I realised I had a lot of work to do.”
Motson himself would describe the FA Cup third round replay between Hereford and Newcastle on February 5 1972. No one anticipated a Giant Killing shock but Hereford overcame Newcastle with a truly special goal from Ronnie Radford taking the game to extra time. "Radford again... oh what a goal! Radford the scorer. Ronnie Radford - and the crowd are invading the pitch.. and now it will take some time to clear the field. What a tremendous shot by Radford,"
The match was upgraded from a five minute segment to the main game of the evening.
"I was still on trial that year on television so it was a big day for me. I went down there thinking that Newcastle were going to have a comfortable win," he would recall years later.
"The guy who drove me down to Hereford for the game was called Billy Meadows, he was their centre-forward. He took me down with Ricky George, who was to come and score the winning goal in extra time after Radford hit a 40-yarder.
"Billy then drove us home, because they both lived near me in Barnet, and we sat in Billy's front room and had fish and chips and listened to American Pie [by Don McLean] before Match of the Day came on and there, wonder of wonders, was my match propelled to the top of the show.
"I didn't look back after that because the BBC realised then I was capable of commentating on important matches."
He became the voice of football in the country from there on in. He covered his first World Cup in 1974 and the European Championships in 1976. He would cover ten World Cups until 2006 and nine European Championships up to 2008.
The FA Cup final
Motson married Anne Jobling in 1976 and then commentated on the 1977 FA Cup final between Manchester United and Liverpool. He was granted the opportunity as a late replacement for David Coleman who was in a contractual dispute with the BBC. Motson considered his performance to be a little underwhelming but his eye for detail and flourish is what made him such a favourite with viewers. As Manchester United captain Martin Buchan climbed the stairs to the royal box to receive the cup he managed to make the connection between Buchan and the number of steps. The Scottish author John Buchan had written an adventure novel The Thirty Nine Steps and Motson made the cute connection and observed "How fitting that a man called Buchan should be the first to ascend the 39 steps to the royal box".
Motson would go on to cover every FA Cup final from 1977 to 2008, with the exception of the 1995 and 1996 events. He would describe the event as the most challenging commentator's job. Remembering it used to be known as FA Cup final day and his responsibilities on air extended far beyond the match itself. He had a fondness for Wembley and the magic of the event.
The Eighties and Hillsborough
In 1981 he had the pleasure to commentate on the memorable Ricky Villa goal for Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester City in the FA Cup final replay. "Villa... AND STILL RICKY VILLA! What a fantastic run! He's scored! Amazing goal!"
The BBC stopped broadcasting Match of the Day in 1985 as there was less appetite for highlights and more desire for live football. ITV had secured rights to live matches but Motson was still a regular commentator on midweek fixtures and European tournaments. He welcomed his son Frederick into the world in 1986.
The 1988 FA Cup Final saw once of the most unlikely outcomes in football history as Wimbledon overcame the giants Liverpool. He summarized the feeling of the day by concluding "The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club".
In April 1989 he was commentating on the FA Cup Semi Final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool when the match descended into a fatal disaster at Hillsborough. Motson found himself commentating on the unfolding tragedy rather than a football match. He would later appear as a witness at the inquiry into the disaster. On the non recordings of the footage that day that were not broadcast Motson can be heard over the talkback asking the camera operator to focus on the central pen and then contrast to the emptier side pens of the Lepping Lane stand. "You look at the Liverpool end to the right of the goal, there's hardly anybody on those steps." Then as the game was halted "They have come through the barriers, that can only be from overcrowding, that doesn't look like to me to be any sort of misbehaviour."
The horror of what he saw unfold that day almost destroyed his joy of football, but it was the World Cup in Italy the next year that reignited his passion with the hopeful run of the England team and the resultant tears of young star Paul "Gazza" Gascgoine.
It was also in that year that he was first seen in what would become a trademark of his, a sheepskin coat. As he attempted to battle against horizontal sleet at an FA Cup tie at Wycombe Wanderers. He would go on to get them made to measure at Savile Row. He enjoyed this small piece of luxury after growing up in a family on a "very modest" income.
The BBC lost the rights to broadcast Premier League matches in 2001but Match of the Day resumed once again in 2004. In 2001 he was made an OBE and in September of that year saw Motson narrate one of his favourite matches in his career as England destroyed Germany 5-1 in Munich in a World Cup Qualifier. "Oh, this is getting better and better and better. One, two, three for Michael Owen!" In that same year a speech therapist conducted a speech analysis of football commentators. It concluded Motson scored best in all criteria, pitch, volume, tone and rhythm. An accompanying survey found he was, unsurprisingly, the country's favourite commentator. His voice was then what captured the emotion of a nation as David Beckham had to equalise for England against Greece to book their place in the FIFA World Cup Finals.
The BBC lost live FA Cup football in 2008 and Motson attempted to join the company Setanta Sports. The BBC refused permission and Motson retired from live television commentary with the Euro 2008 final between Spain and Germany in Vienna, although he continued to provide recorded commentary for highlights on Match of the Day. Alongside this he continued to provide live commentary on BBC Radio until 2018. That year h was awarded a BAFTA special award for his contribution to television. He would continue to provide live commentary on the commercial radio station talkSPORT. He published his autobiography, Motty: 40 years in the Commentary Box
was published in 2009.
He became an iconic voice for a whole new generation and an international audience when he became part of the commentary team in the EA Sports FIFA football computer game series. He finally retired from live radio football commentary with his last match being Arsenal v Watford on 1 March 2018. His final TV pre-recorded highlights match was Crystal Palace v West Bromwich Albion broadcast on May 13 2018.
Motty became known for his enthusiasm but also his trademark encyclopaedic knowledge. His obsession for facts he confessed was down to being “terrified of not knowing enough or making a mistake” but he felt he was overdoing it and gradually toned it down so it became a complimentary part of his "performance". His wife assisted in building and maintaining his voluminous library of facts and figures. Fellow commentator Gerald Sinstadt observed that "John's gift was that he did his own research. He knew the key stats and the ones that would make a point when the moment arrived." This was even more impressive as it was collated in the years before the internet. His recall was impressive. He could not just provide you score, scorers, bookings and other such facts, but also hair styles and the small observations that made his commentary so special.
He was prone to verbal gaffes, with live T.V this is hardly a surprise. Highlights include : “For those of you watching in black-and-white, Spurs are in the yellow strip”, “The World Cup is truly an international event” and “The goals made such a difference to the way this game went”.
Motson held Hereford in a special place in his heart after Ronnie Radford's 'rocket' launched his career. Motson attended Wembley in 2016 for the club's first trip to the national stadium and delivered a touching tribute to Radford at the former player's funeral.
Gary Lineker, ex-England captain and TV presenter described Motson as "...a remarkable character and a remarkable commentator."
"He was almost an anorak, if you like, and I think you have got to be that a little bit to be a commentator of his ilk.
"He covered Romania when all the players dyed their hair blonde [at the 1998 World Cup]. It was almost impossible to tell one footballer from another, but somehow he managed it."
Commentator Clive Tyldesley said: "I've lost a friend, first and foremost, but such was the reach of John Motson, such was the distinctive nature of his voice and his commentary style, that I think many thousands of people who never got to meet him will feel as if they have lost a friend too.
"What I can tell people is, if they felt that way about John, that was the real John. There was no front."
Former BBC commentator Barry Davies said: "John was excited by the game and everything about the game.
"Years later he said that if Radford's shot had come back off the crossbar he probably wouldn't have got the job that he got.
"We used to have a laugh about the sheepskin coat because I once said to him, 'I was wearing a sheepskin coat before you came along but you got a better deal than I did'.
"His record is without comparison. I don't think his record will ever be passed."
Former Rangers and Scotland striker Ally McCoist said "Once you heard that voice, you always listened".
Former colleague Martin Tyler had a touching comment for his friend:
"He was someone I admired - in terms of the profession - enormously,' Tyler said. 'His preparation was second to none, his attention to detail, his wish to know everything possible about the game that he was about to broadcast and he was a real example to me for that.
"Before my first TV game back in 1974, he sent me a telegram - yes a telegram. It said "Talk little, but say a lot". And I think that summed up John really, he was economical with his words but he punched them out and when he spoke it had great resonance."
When asked what he thought made a great commentator, Motson opined: "You've got to have a decent voice, you've got to have a sense of timing, know when to talk and not to talk. You are the eyes and ears of the viewer," Thanks for watching John.
John passed away on February 23 2023. He is survived by his wife Anne Jobling and their son Frederick.