Television: Voice of the Cup - Life and Style - The Independent

Television: Voice of the Cup

John Motson, the BBC football commentator, wishes to sort out once and for all one of the nation's most burning debates - what sort of coat he wears. "People can't work out whether it's an anorak or a sheepskin coat," he admits. "The authorised version is that I haven't got an anorak, and my sheepskin coat is worn out. Which reminds me - I must get a new one for next season."

For nearly three decades now, Motson has been held in affection by fans for just this sort of devotion to detail - a fact that impressionists such as Rory Bremner and Alistair McGowan have been quick to send up. Not for nothing has Motson earned the sobriquet "Stats".

The Full Motty, an affectionate BBC1 tribute to the great man in front of a celebrity audience, plays on his supposed worship of footy trivia. Introduced by Jimmy Hill as "the wolf in sheepskin clothing", Motson comes on stage to the sound of "I Believe in Miracles". Right off the bat, he reveals that he is worried about England's prospects should they reach the World Cup Final because they "have never won a match on 12 July."

The show goes on to feature such items as: "Motty's Totty", in which Page Three Stunnas put the commentator's knowledge of team strips to the test ("That was the bit where I nearly lost concentration"); "Spot the Baldy", where Motty has to guess who disguised hairless players are; and a "Rockney" number paying homage to Motty, sung by Chas 'n' Dave, Bradley Walsh and Vinnie Jones.

But much of The Full Motty is taken up with the sight of our foremost commentator being lightly char-grilled by the assembled company of footeratti. Johnny Vaughan asks him: "Do pub landlords get a bit edgy when they see you lurking around the trivia machines? For you, it's a bit like a cashpoint." The celebs - who include Tony Banks, Ainsley Harriott, Clive Mantle and Peter Sissons - proceed to quiz Motty on such straightforward matters as how a player called Castro, who scored a goal for Uruguay against Argentina in the first World Cup Final, lost his arm. "I got one or two questions wrong," Motty is ashamed to admit. "But the audience were quite kind. They cheered when I got one right."

As you might expect of someone who agrees to undergo such a ribbing, Motty is not that bothered by his anoraky reputation. Dressed in a smart light suit and sipping champagne in a posh central London hotel, he says: "I don't mind it, it shouldn't be taken too seriously. It's done me more good than harm. In some subliminal way, it's made me different to other commentators. People have built up this idea that I'm this terribly serious bloke who never takes his head out of a football book. That image comes from early in my career. Commentating was a competitive field, and I was struggling for an identity. I was on trial for a year, and I thought, 'I've got to make an impact'. So I overdosed on homework and got a reputation for facts and figures and statistics. The irony is that I now use less trivial information than two other commentators I could name. Football has become so quick now that I'm mostly just calling the game."

His commentaries can occasionally sound over-rehearsed - he once famously exclaimed "Socrates scores a goal that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football" - but his sheer commitment to football has made him something of an icon among fans. "I wouldn't be pretentious enough to call myself an icon," he laughs. "Fans just identify with my commentaries and feel they know me. They can come up to you at inconvenient moments, but at the same time it's flattering."

As a representative of the BBC, however, Motson can't get away with sounding biased. "When it's an England match, you think to yourself, 'I can afford to be partisan'. But when you start to lapse into 'we' this and 'our' that, the BBC Duty Office is flooded with complaints from Scottish, Welsh and Irish people living in England."

He's been researching for the World Cup for more than a year now, sometimes watching as many as four games in a day. Like the Scouts, he prefers to Be Prepared. "It's not rocket science, but a big mistake would live with you for the rest of your life. As Peter O'Sullevan said, 'The only commentary you'll ever be remembered for is the one you got wrong'."

Even as Motson psyches up for a punishing schedule of 10 live commentaries in the first 16 days, there is no sign of his trademark enthusiasm waning. "It's incumbent on me as a professional to put everything into commentating. I'd put as much effort into Kidderminster versus Torquay as the World Cup Final. The moment I lost that, I'd have a problem."

And a nation would weep.

'The Full Motty' is on Friday 5 June at 10.20pm on BBC1

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