They thought it was all over

Stan Hey anticipates the return of John Motson to the BBC microphone
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The Independent Online
WITH respect to Les Ferdinand, the most prominent comeback on the English football scene this week will be John Motson's return behind a BBC microphone for the highlights of England's friendly game in Norway on Wednesday. For Motson, the eternal schoolboy of football commentating, who turned 50 last July, has not been heard on the airwaves since 11 June. Match of the Day, already nine programmes into the new season, has been a Motty-free zone, prompting anxious viewers to wonder whether "The Voice of Football" had been kidnapped by aliens, or at least, taken up with Sky.

The truth is rather more mundane - Motson says simply that "after doing Match of the Day for 25 years, and facing a long season with the European Championship finals next summer, the BBC amicably agreed to let me start in October, so that my nine-month span would take in the tournament".

The rumours that his replacement by Barry Davies for the 1994 World Cup final, and subsequently for the 1995 FA Cup final, was a yellow card from his bosses at BBC Sport, do not hold up in the light of their renewed, long-term commitment to a man who has defined the style of football commentary in the modern television age - bubbling enthusiasm, mixed with bags of match facts.

Brian Barwick, editor of Match of the Day, says that: "When Barry got the Cup final, some of the press put two and two together and got five. Barry covering the final, and John's extended break were both discussed a year previously, so there was no mystery. And when I watch the series of Match of the Day in the Seventies, it brought home just how long John has been at it, and how he'd earned a break."

Barwick also knocks down any notion that there is a dispute about Number One Status between the two commentators. "We have never thought in those terms. They are both excellent, experienced front-line reporters, who share the load between them. From January to June next year we'll have football on Saturday and Wednesday nights almost every week, including the European Championships and its build-up."

So how has John spent his time during what he calls "my sabbatical" - well, watching football, of course. "I've seen quite a few Premiership games, but I've also been to Wycombe, Fulham, Barnet and Peterborough, watching just as a fan," he enthused. "It was a pleasure being able to spectate without having to prepare notes. I must say, I didn't find myself twitching to pick up a microphone!"

Those who fear that Motson suffers a "Statto-like" addiction to football will be relieved that he also found time for a holiday, a luxury cruise down the River Nile. And the Motty verdict on the monuments produced by 3,000 years of Egyptian civilisation? "Quite an eye-opener, actually!"

I wondered if this brush with history, and a period of calm, had provoked any reflections about his style of commentary. "Well, I'm aware that some people find me a bit crash-bang-wallop," he said, "so I'd like to try to be a bit more rational and restrained. I don't know if I'll make it, because it's very difficult for me not to get excited. There's an exuberance in me, but it's genuine."

Norway, the home of the "Maggie Thatcher, Lady Diana, Winston Churchill, your boys took one hell of a beating tonight!" rant, should be an appropriate venue for the return of the commentator who etched "Look at that, look at that!" on the soundtrack of our football-watching lives. "I just hope there isn't a riot on Wednesday," Motson adds edgily. England fans, spoiling Motty's big night? Now that would be a real talking point, Trevor.

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