Munich 2001: goals of Owen, voice of Motty

With a belt, braces and elasticated waistband approach to life, football's 30-year veteran commentator is thoroughness personified
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The Independent Online

There was a moment during last month's first edition of The Premiership, ITV's Saturday night football highlights programme, when I almost let out an anguished yelp for Match of the Day and, more particularly, Motty.

It came during the Ipswich v Sunderland match, when the camera closed in on the Ipswich defender Titus Bramble, who had just conceded a penalty. "Bramble ruminating, Phillips hoping to be fulminating," cried the commentator Jon Champion. And those words, both too clever by half and decidedly ill-chosen ("to fulminate" is to issue a thunderous verbal attack, according to my dictionary), seemed to me to symbolise the entire programme. Oh for Motty, I thought, with his facts and stats and ability, even in a state of high excitement, to speak plain-ish English.

So on Saturday, at least for this observer, not least of the pleasures afforded by England's astounding 5-1 defeat of Germany, was the fact that Motty talked us through it. When he chuckled at the state of Trevor Brooking's notes, which had run in the rain and become nigh-on unreadable, and complimented himself on the piece of perspex he takes to avoid such an eventuality, my heart sang. He is thoroughness personified. He is belt, braces, and elasticated waistband. But more than that, he is part of the nation's sporting fabric. Just as it simply has to be Peter Alliss commentating as the final putt drops in The Open championship, and Richie Benaud commentating as a Shane Warne flipper befuddles an England batsman, so it had to be Motty at the microphone when Michael Owen scored a hat-trick in the Olympic Stadium, Munich.

Was it, I ask him, the most extraordinary international on which he has ever commentated? "I can't think of one which took me more by surprise, Brian," he says. "It was almost fantasy stuff. Because all the previous evening, and that morning, people had been predicting a low-scoring draw. And indeed, when it was 1-1 towards the end of the first half, there was no indication that it would end up in a landslide.

"I think it was Greg Dyke [the BBC director-general] who said it was the most memorable England match since 1966 and I couldn't challenge him on that. I remember England winning 4-1 in Yugoslavia one time, and 4-2 in Spain, and of course 4-1 against Holland in Euro 96, but the fact that this was Germany, our arch-rivals on the football field, caught everyone's imagination. People say it is a poor German team, and yes, it is the poorest German team I have seen, but it was still Germany, they were still at home, it was still the World Cup."

Shortly after the final whistle, however, the sweetest of footballing days turned decidedly bittersweet for Motty, when Andy Gray came up to him and told him that his erstwhile rival Brian Moore had died that morning. "We had a BBC reception after the match, but the Brian Moore news made that quite subdued. Because in a very competitive and capricious industry, Brian was the perfect gentleman. He was a model professional and set a tremendous example of how to behave. It was very sad news, and very unexpected. Brian took great care of himself, and it is ironic that he retired when he was still at his peak as a commentator because he and his wife were a bit concerned about the stress of the job."

Just as Moore's untimely death cast a shadow over Saturday's proceedings, so Motty was quick to set in perspective the BBC's loss of the Premiership rights last summer. He was in an Amsterdam bar during Euro 2000, when his colleague Ray Stubbs, having got wind of the news, called him on his mobile phone.

"I said I'd phone him back, because at that moment our six o'clock news came on the television, and I remember the first item was that five people had been killed, including two nurses, in a light aircraft coming into Speke Airport. The Premiership football news was the second item, and I will always remember that I phoned Ray Stubbs back, and we are great friends Stubbsy and I, but that was one of the few occasions we nearly fell out, because I said: 'Don't worry too much, there's five people been killed in an aeroplane crash'. I'm not sure he appreciated that.

"No, don't forget, Brian, that I had been down that road twice before. In 1978 there was the so-called Snatch of the Day, after which we and ITV alternated Saturday nights and Sundays for four years. And from 1988 we couldn't touch it for another four years, at a time when we didn't have English clubs in Europe, either. I was going up to Scotland to do Rangers in Europe, and we survived on the FA Cup and recorded England games. So I took a philosophical view.

"Also, I've been saying for some time, but nobody has been paying much attention, that by the end of this season we will have had as many Match of the Days as last season. We've gained all the England matches, and we'll be covering the FA Cup from round one, with two live games on a Sunday from the third round onwards. We've also got the Uefa Cup, and if you think that Liverpool reached the final last year... what's really happened is that, domestically, we've swapped contracts with ITV. They've got the League. We've got the FA Cup and England. And I've been saying all along that you can't make a judgement on who's got the better of that deal until the end of the first season. In fact I've been patting myself on the back a bit since Saturday's match."

We are talking in Motty's study, a little corner of Hertfordshire that is forever Motty. "I am in here six days a week watching football of some sort, Brian," he says. "But for all my so-called obsession I'm terribly conscious that football can start to eat you up a bit, and I try not to let it. I'm always saying to my wife that we must go and see Mamma Mia, or such-and-such a film." Yes, yes, but tell me about this row of books about every football league club, starting with Arsenal and ending with York City. "Yes, although I think there are three clubs missing." On another shelf is every Rothmans year book since 1970, and on another a collection of Chelsea programmes dating back half a century. Motty's interest in Chelsea was kindled when his father, a Methodist minister, took him to see Charlton Athletic v Chelsea in 1952, when Motty was six.

"But I have no leaning towards any of the major clubs now, and I mean that. Commentating knocks that out of you. I still go to see my local teams on my days off, Barnet, Luton and Watford, but with regard to the big clubs, who wins and who loses is a matter of almost indifference to me. Also my father was quite cosmopolitan. If Matthews was at Arsenal, or Finney was at Tottenham, we went there. So I came out of it with no real fixation for any one team."

By contrast, Motty junior – 15-year-old Fred – is a passionate Derby County fan. How on earth did that happen? "Because when he was 18 months old I brought back a sponsor's gift, which he liked very much. It was a shiny pencil case with a Derby County ram motif." At this juncture, Mrs Motty – the saintly Anne, who in 25 years of married life has never once said 'not bloody football on the telly again' – brings us in some coffee. Fleetingly, I wonder what will happen if I accidentally spill some on the immaculate carpet. It is an impressively neat and orderly house, just as Motty's is an impressively neat and orderly life, indeed BBC technicians have told me that he is inclined to get more than a bit shirty if things go skew-whiff, whereas his colleague Barry Davies stays more sanguine.

Motty's belt, braces, and elasticated waistband approach to life is reflected, too, in the directions he gives me, the day prior to our interview, to his home. From junction nine on the M1 he more or less guides me over every sleeping policeman, and then, when I have reached the bottom of my third sheet of A4 paper, he says, "let me take you through that again, Brian, from junction nine on the M1...." When I arrive, 10 minutes early, he asks whether the directions were OK? Impeccable, I say. And when he permits himself a little smile of satisfaction, I have an overwhelming impulse to hug him, which thankfully I manage to suppress. "Goodness me, Brian," I can imagine him saying.

I wanted to hug him, too, during the furore a year or two back over his unfortunate remark during a radio interview that it was sometimes hard for him, from the commentary box, to distinguish between black footballers. I knew he wasn't being racist and so did most black footballers. "I had supportive phone calls from people like Ian Wright, Garth Crooks and Mitchell Thomas, to name but three. But it was a pretty uncomfortable 48 hours, Brian. I should have chosen my words much more carefully. As a commentator I should have known that."

Next month, he will celebrate his 30th anniversary as a commentator. And fellow Mottyphiles will remember the landmark moments, such as the Hereford v Newcastle classic which launched his Match of the Day career, and the bons Mots, such as his 39 steps line when "a man called Buchan" walked up to collect the FA Cup in 1977.

"Yeah, but nobody made anything of it at the time, just as in 1966 nobody made anything of Kenneth Wolstenholme saying, 'They think it's all over, it is now'. That was my first FA Cup final, and afterwards I was thoroughly depressed with my commentary. I thought it had been completely inadequate. So I wish I'd been praised at the time because it would have encouraged me. It's funny how these things come up years later. There was "the Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club", when Wimbledon beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final, that's another one people still go on about. And there's a guy I know who supports Tottenham, and he's always coming up to me and saying 'and it's still Ricky Villa...' And that was 20 years ago."

Motty shakes his head in wonderment. He reckons, he says, to have covered about 1,400 games. "I've done seven World Cups and 22 FA Cup finals, and I've never missed a game through illness, Brian, which I'm quite proud of." And the greatest player he has ever seen? "Well, I've seen Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Maradona, although I missed out on George Best because when he was captivating Old Trafford I was on the local weekly paper in Barnet covering Finchley in the Athenian League, and the season I got to Match of the Day was the season he went missing for the first time. I do remember seeing the 17-year-old Jimmy Greaves scoring four goals one Christmas morning against Portsmouth, and he looked what he was going to become, the greatest goalscorer anyone's ever seen."

In young Michael Owen, however, there is arguably a new claimant to that title. Moreover, Owen's hat-trick against Germany did not include any disputed goals, unlike Geoff Hurst's 35 years earlier. "Yes, but I think that was a goal. Because 20 years later during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, I did a match between Spain and Brazil in Guadalajara. A Spanish player called Michel had shot from very much the same area, and the ball hit the underside of the bar, came down, and bounced out just like Hurst's did. The referee waved play on, but when we showed the shot again it was clear that the ball was a couple of feet over the line, and that the angle, and the backspin, had caused it to bounce back into play."

This seems like a very Motty moment at which to depart, but I have one last $64,000, or rather £183m question. What does Motty think of ITV's The Premiership? "Oh, I think it's only fair to let the programme settle down. I think it's very brave to try a 7pm slot. In fact, we did a pilot two years ago in the early evening slot, which never came off for one reason or another. No, I've been pretty impressed so far. But then four or five of the key people have worked at the BBC and cut their teeth on Match of the Day. Now, are you sure you know your way back to junction nine? Let me give you some directions..."