Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: No33 John Motson, Broadcaster

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The Independent Culture
IN APRIL 1952, Charlton Athletic and Chelsea drew 1-1 at The Valley. It was a fairly inconsequential First Division football match, or so it seemed. With hindsight, however, it was an occasion of huge significance, for somewhere in the crowd were a Methodist minister, the Rev William Motson, and his six-year-old son John. It was the youngster's first experience of a football match and the spectacle had a profound effect on him. By the final whistle, young Motty was hooked for life.

In due course he joined the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, and then, in a not altogether shocking career development for a sports reporter, joined the BBC radio programme Sports Report. His first job was reading the racing results, and it is tempting, but probably inaccurate, to picture him saying "We'll come to Trevor in a moment... but first here are the starting prices from the 3.15 at Uttoxeter."

Motson has flirted with other sports. He covered tennis on the radio for five years, and commentated on boxing when Harry Carpenter was indisposed. Had things gone differently, in fact, his catch-phrase might have been "we'll come to Muhammad in a moment." For his co-commentator, during a Joe Bugner bout at the Albert Hall, was Muhammad Ali. And somewhere in the BBC archives there is a picture of them together at the ringside. In 1971 Motson was given a year's trial on Match of the Day, which passed uneventfully until Hereford United's Ronnie Radford scored a 35-yard screamer against mighty Newcastle United in a muddy FA Cup third-round replay. Newcastle had been leading 1-0 with five minutes to go, but Radford's equaliser, and Ricky George's injury-time winner, ensured that the game, and Motson's commentary, became the main feature on that evening's programme. "What a goal!" shrieked Motty when Radford scored. It wasn't witty, but it contained such feverish excitement that the BBC talent-spotters knew at once that the lad Motson had a great future.

And so it has proved. The BBC may have been eclipsed by Sky Sports as Britain's principal football broadcaster, but Martin Tyler isn't television's Voice of Football. Motty is. And his bons mots have gone down in sporting lore, among them the observation - following the first of his 19 FA Cup Finals, when Martin Buchan went to lift the FA Cup for Manchester United - that it was fitting that a man called Buchan should be climbing 39 steps to collect the cup. Only Motty would have thought to count the steps.

He is, in truth, something of an anorak, not that anything could ever take the place of his beloved ankle-length sheepskin. Unfortunately, his current coat is showing signs of decline. And such is 53-year-old Motson's celebrity - boosted last summer by The Full Motty, his question-and-answer session in front of a star-studded TV audience - that the coat is not to be relegated to the back of his Harpenden wardrobe, but auctioned for charity in a blaze of publicity. After a search for a replacement that briefly engaged the nation, Motty found a supplier in Borehamwood and bought a spanking new pounds 1,000 sheepskin, to be unveiled next season.

Motty's reputation sustained a slight knock a year or so ago, when he asserted that it was sometimes hard for a commentator to tell black players apart. Yet several black footballers were among his most vigorous defenders, insisting that while he had perhaps spoken clumsily, he was the least racist or malicious of men. And now the cult of Motty is back on track, as befits the man who gave broadcasting its most memorable non-Coleman Colemanball, namely: "For those watching in black and white, Spurs are in the yellow shirts."