John Motson: The Full Motty

There is little mystery to his hold on public appeal. Whatever he says comes straight from the heart
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John Motson is sitting at a corner table in Schubert's Café in Vienna discussing the sweep of a broadcasting career that will exclaim – and, in moments of heightened excitement, perhaps even gurgle a little alarmingly – at a big, live international football match for the last time here tomorrow night when Germany meet Spain in the final of the European Championships.

Schubert's is the kind of dark-panelled place where it easier to imagine Mozart working on a score than the 62-year-old "Motty" applying his felt tips to still another of the boards on which for nearly 40 years he has been storing facts and statistics, no matter how arcane, with which to bombard his sometimes bemused but overwhelmingly affectionate audience.

However, even here in a café laden with culture, the BBC's voice of football shows that few national institutions have ever been less inclined to stand on their dignity. He merely sighs and smiles when he is asked, at this climactic time in his life, "John, could you tell us why you were once seen leaving the Wimbledon boardroom with a flowerpot on your head?"

It was, he liked to think, a tribute to one of his better lines at the conclusion of the 1988 FA Cup final when Wimbledon, a rough band of professionals who appeared largely to make their own rules, improbably beat the fabled Liverpool. "The Crazy Gang has beaten the Culture Club," he announced.

But then if Motson has sometimes shown a genius for the verbal gaffe – "the Czech Republic are coming from the back in more than one way" and "Jan Koller and Jaap Stam share a hairstyle, but of course they have no hair" – he also has something else that has claimed a place alongside more measured broadcasting legends like racing's mellifluous Sir Peter O'Sullevan and cricket's acerbic Richie Benaud. It is an enduring passion for a game that for all the changes it has seen through the growth of Motson's career, its cynicism and its deluge of money, he can still celebrate it for its beauty and utterly unscripted intrigue whenever he is granted a small but often dramatic window of time.

"It's true that the game has changed so much, and in many ways not for the better," he says, "but it is still the game. It is still beautiful and it still has the power, as few others things, to move nations and continents and, every four years, the world."

Mark Saggers, one of the BBC's top sports broadcasters, has worked with Motson increasingly over recent years on radio with the decline of the corporation's live television commentary opportunities in the face of satellite and ITV opposition, and he believes there is little mystery to his colleague's hold on public appeal.

"There are a lot of good young commentators around but they all have to learn something from Motty," says Saggers. "Apart from the energy and the passion, they have to produce something that he conveys every time he sits in front of a microphone. It is that, whatever he says, it is always coming straight from his heart. No one tuning in to Motty ever has to fear being conned."

The son of a Methodist clergyman who sent him to a boarding school in Suffolk, he pined for football in a desert of rugby, cricket and hockey. On school breaks at the family home in south-east London, he went to the Valley to watch Charlton Athletic, and was entranced by the colour and the flow of the game.

When he left school at the age of 16, his ambition was to be a print reporter, one competent enough to cover football, and he achieved this with the weekly Barnet Press and then, in the classic education of old-style newspaper journalism, a stint at the provincial daily the Sheffield Morning Telegraph. Broadcasting happened by chance. Sheffield was chosen to take part in the experiment of local radio and a minuscule budget required BBC Sheffield to rely heavily on local newspaper reporters.

"I did some radio reports from games at places like Barnsley and Rotherham, and then one night when I was sitting on the sports desk at the newspaper I saw a senior sub-editor screwing up his face as he read my copy. After some time, he said, 'John, on the evidence of this copy, I really think you should try the world of the voice rather than the written world.'"

It was a life-changing dismissal. Motson did so well on local radio – partly because of the strong quality of his voice, which was recently given the highest ranking by a speech therapist analysing the tone and rhythm of eight leading broadcasters – he was given a year's trial on Match of the Day by Sam Leitch, the tough old newspaperman who headed BBC Sport.

When he went to a much-postponed FA Cup replay between non-league Hereford United and first division Newcastle in February 1972, his best hope was a five-minute segment at the bottom of the show. But it was a day when Hereford found glory and John Motson an entry to all his dreams.

"Anyone could see it was a huge story when Hereford won 2-1, but it was still incredible to hear my commentary at the top of the show," he recalls. "Sam Leitch must have thought I did all right because I got a contract soon after that."

He also acquired the first of his trademarked sheepskin coats. "I was at a party at Chelsea and the hostess, who was a furrier, said she wanted to take me to the garage. I was still quite young then, and I wasn't quite sure what was in store. In the garage I saw a lot of coats laid down on the floor. She suggested that I try one on. That was the start of it. Later a man from Hornchurch made me four coats and then disappeared. Now I go to Savile Row. I reckon I'll get one more sheepskin before I finish."

Motson will not disappear from the airwaves. He will do highlights for BBC television, and Radio Five Live is discussing several projects with him, including the possibility of chairing his own phone-in show. But then tomorrow night at the Ernst Happel stadium will undoubtedly be the end of something. It will be the ebbing of the adrenalin that has flowed since his first live commentaries of finals.

The best game he ever covered was a World Cup duel between Brazil and Italy in the little Sarria Stadium in Barcelona in 1982. The stadium, hemmed in by pastel-painted apartment blocks, throbbed with Brazilian drums and opened like a giant sunflower when the yellow banners unfolded and swirled in response to goals by Socrates and Roberto Falcao, but the Italians were resilient and struck three times through Paolo Rossi.

"As a game it had everything," recalls Motson. "The ground is a car park now – it's heart-breaking. The Brazilians, who were so talented, had only to draw to go through but it was as though they wanted to chastise the Italians and they went for the winner after drawing level. But they left themselves open and Rossi hit them again on the counterattack. When the final whistle went I turned to my co-commentator, Bobby Charlton, and I saw that there were tears in his eyes."

In another Viennese café earlier this week, a Russian woman approached Motson and asked if he would mind posing for a photograph with her 12-year-old son. She told the retiring commentator that he was a hero to the boy, who had downloaded his commentaries and told his mother, "You only have to listen to his voice to know that he loves football."

Motson reports that, perhaps inevitably, over the years, he has had offers from ITV and Sky and a "conversation" with the new powerhouse, Setanta, but in the months leading up to what will now be his last big assignment he decided that it was time to go.

"I thought about the prospect of the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and I just didn't feel quite up for it. I thought it would be better to go when I still felt good and confident about my work. I didn't want to risk the chance that one day, while covering a big game, I no longer had the conviction for it, that something had gone out of me."

If he has any deep regret, it is that he never had a chance to cover England in a World Cup final. "I was just a supporter when they won in 1966 but I could see what it did for the country, how it affected so many people – and I would have loved to have tried to put some of that into words. I certainly felt some of that when England played so well against Germany under Sven Goran Eriksson a few years ago."

He conveyed that memorably when England's striker Michael Owen performed a cartwheel of celebration after scoring one of the goals in the 5-1 victory. "It gets better and better and better," he declared.

When he returns from Austria he will start work on his autobiography, which has the provisional title of And still, Ricky Villa, which was Motson's ecstatic reaction to the Tottenham star's beating of a second Manchester City defender in a game-breaking run in an FA Cup final.

Motson's writing style may not have been universally celebrated on the sports desk of the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, but there is one certainty about his memoirs. They will glow with one man's sense of a game that is strong enough to survive any shifts in the values of those who play it and organise it and others who simply make vast profits.

For some years, a legion of young rivals have been snapping at Motty's heels. Some of them have been sharper in the use of the language and certainly louder and more confident in their own judgement. But it was in the Schubert's Café this week as it will surely be in the broadcasting booth tomorrow night. It was to hear of a game that could move a man to his bones, which could create in a 62-year-old the love and the enthusiasm that touched, apart from a whole nation, a young boy from Moscow.

A few years ago John Motson briefly did a show entitled The Full Motty. But then, whenever has he offered less?

A Life in Brief

Born 10 July 1945, Manchester.

Education Culford School near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

Career Began as a reporter on Barnet Press and Sheffield Morning Telegraph in 1963. In 1968 hired as BBC Radio 2 presenter, then Match of the Day junior reporter, 1971. On 5 February 1972 did his first Match of the Day commentary for FA Cup fourth-round replay between Hereford United and Newcastle United; the 2-1 win to non-league Hereford United launched his career. From 1979-1994, commentated on 29 consecutive major cup finals. Made OBE for services to sports broadcasting, June 2001. In 2004 nominated as Royal Television Society's Sports Commentator of the Year. In 2005 nominated as FourFourTwo Sports Commentator of the Year. In 2006 nominated Variety Club, FHM and Zoo Sports Commentator of the Year.

He says "People who know me think it's an obsession. Really and truly, I grew up with football."

They Say "There are a lot of good young commentators around but they all have to learn something from Motty." Mark Saggers, BBC broadcaster

Mottyisms: the first eleven

"The Crazy Gang beats theCulture Club." When Wimbledonbeat Liverpool in the 1988FA Cup final.

"The World Cup is truly aninternational event."

"Bruce has got the taste ofWembley in his nostrils."

"And Seaman, just like afalling oak, manages to changedirection."

"I've lost count of how manychances Helsingborg havehad. It's at least five."

"Brazil – they're so goodit's like they are runningaround the pitch playing withthemselves."

"It looks like a one-man showhere, although there are twomen involved."

"The goals made such adifference to the way thisgame went."

"It's so different from thescenes in 1872, at the Cup finalnone of us can remember."

"That's England's finest victoryover Germany since the war."

"For those of you watching inblack and white, Spurs are inthe yellow strip."