An era will end next summer when John Motson retires from his role as a commentator and pundit on the BBC. Motson, known for his longevity, his sheepskin coat and his excitable boys’ own way behind a microphone, will call it quits in 2018 after half a century at the national broadcaster.
Motson came to prominence in the early 1970s when he provided the TV commentary for what began as a run of the mill FA Cup third-round replay. But not only did Hereford’s victory over Newcastle become a celebrated shock, the 35-yard shot from Ronnie Radford that turned the match on its head itself became an iconic moment in televised sport.
“The FA Cup as a tournament was very good to me,” says Motson, in an interview to commemorate his final year at the BBC. “I’d like to think I can still have some association with that because it was the Ronnie Radford goal for Hereford against Newcastle which really put me on the map in 1972.”
His commentary on Radford’s Rocket was notable less for the words Motson chose – “Ronnie Radford … What a goal … And the crowd have invaded the pitch” –than the tone in which he delivered them. Motson’s apparent excitability behind the microphone echoed the experience felt by fans in the stands and it was this quality that soon saw him rise up the ranks of BBC announcers to become a fixture on Match of the Day and live commentary, especially England internationals.
By Motson’s own calculations, he has commentated on over 2,000 matches during his career, including 10 World Cups, 10 European Championships, and an astonishing total of 29 FA Cup finals. Over recent years, the 72-year-old has stepped back from frontline commentary duties, with Guy Mowbray again taking charge of the FA Cup final which Motson last covered in 2008. As part of his final season Motson will get an as yet unspecified role at the final, and will also commentate on 18 Premier League games for Match of the Day.
“I just thought my 50th year in the BBC is 2018 and it has to end some time and I thought that would be a good note to go out,” he said. “I also don’t want to go into the area where people say: ‘He’s been there too long, he’s lost it, he’s not what he was.’ I wanted to go out while I was still commentating as well – or as badly – as I have for all those years. I didn’t want to carry on and then people say: ‘Oh dear me, we’ll have to get rid of him.’”
Motson was first hired by the BBC in 1968, with a contract to work as a sports presenter on Radio 2. He quickly graduated to TV commentary and directly replaced the BBC’s original star commentator, Kenneth Wolstenholme, on Match of the Day. In 1977 he commentated on his first FA Cup final as a late replacement for the then No1 commentator at the BBC, David Coleman. Coleman stepped aside in the 1980s and for the next 20 years there was a perceived rivalry for the top job between Motson and Barry Davies. If success is measured in World Cup finals, then Motson won, commentating on six in total, breaking the record previously set by Wolstenholme.
His career also took in some of the darkest moments in the national sport. In 1989 Motson was at Hillsborough as the disaster unfolded at the stadium. It was his voice that accompanied much of the news footage of that day and he subsequently gave evidence to the coroner’s inquest into the tragedy in 1991.
Motson covered most of the biggest matches involving British teams for over 30 years on the BBC. The corporation, however, never secured broadcasting rights for the Champions League and missing out on one particular match in that competition is his biggest regret.
“The way the contracts have worked meant I’ve never done a Champions League match,” Motson said. “I’ve never had the opportunity because it has always been a Sky or ITV event but Manchester United against Bayern Munich [in the 1999 Champions League final] is the one I’d have liked to have done.
“My opposite number at ITV, Clive Tyldesley, did Manchester United winning the Champions League with two goals in the last minute,” he went on. “I was proud of the way he did it but I would have loved to have done it myself, although I wouldn’t have done it as well as he did.”
Motson’s self-effacing and sometimes bumbling manner, often accompanied by images of him drowning in his famous sheepskin coat, have no doubt also contributed to his popularity with the British people. He was awarded an OBE in 2001.
Stepping back from frontline commentary in 2008, Motson has continued to work across the BBC, including returning to radio, but he has also attracted a new generation of fans thanks to his voiceovers on the children’s TV show Footy Pups. He says he now has plans to makes full use of his retirement.
“I might feel a little bit empty and it might get to me for a short time,” he said, “but I’m hoping to keep my association with football and with broadcasting – I’m not retiring from everything, I’m retiring from the BBC. I’m certainly not going pipe and slippers.”
The Guardian Sport