Brian Viner: Forty years on, Motty still brings highlights that have made him the Voice of Football

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Of all the facts and stats brought to us over all the years by John Motson, surely the most deliciously arcane was that there were 39 steps leading up to the Royal Box at Wembley, and how fitting it therefore was that a man named Buchan should be climbing them to receive the FA Cup.

That was in 1977, when Manchester United, skippered by Martin Buchan, beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final. Had Liverpool won, and Emlyn Hughes hoisted the trophy, we would never have known about the 39 steps. That's the funny thing about greatcommentators; they invariably get fed the lines they deserve.

Of course, not everyone agrees that Motty is a great commentator. But for my money, or at least the £145.50 of it that I shell out for my licence fee, he is still easily the pick of the bunch on the BBC. When Match of the Day returns nextSaturday, just listen for thecommentary that most radiates knowledge, authority and passion. It will be Motty's, even though he is now an old codger of 66.

He was just 31 when he was awarded that 1977 FA Cup final, a remarkable vote of confidencegiven he had never commentated on a live football match before. The more experienced Barry Davies was the likelier choice to replace David Coleman behind themicrophone for what in those days was television's blue-riband sporting occasion. But Motty had by then served more than five years on highlights duty, which brings me to the most irresistible, Motty-esque stat about him, that in all the league matches between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield, there has only been one 0-0 draw, and it happened to coincide with the young Motson's Match of the Day debut, on 9 October, 1971. Which, as the quicker-witted of you will have worked out, is 40 years ago tomorrow.

The celebrations have been going on all week, starting with some twinkly-eyed banter last Saturday with Sir Alex Ferguson. Even though the Manchester United manager has graciously allowed the BBC back into his orbit thisseason, I have discerned a slight, lingering froideur. But there was none in evidence on last week's Match of the Day, indeed it might even be that Motty helped Fergie kick the earth over what remained of the hatchet.

It has been a pleasure, during my own years chronicling sport, to enjoy several encounters withMotty. The most memorable of these was a bibulous lunch three years ago at his favourite Italian restaurant just off the Gray's Inn Road in London, sitting at the very same table, he informed me, where in 1996 he had been wooed by ITV suits who wanted him to succeed Brian Moore as their chief football commentator. Sky has made some gentle overtures too over the years, yet to hear John Motson enunciating on behalf of anyone but the BBC would surely send the ravensfleeing from the Tower of London.

I am aware there are folk who think it absurd that "nationaltreasure" status should be conferred on those who merely talk into a microphone, but if you think of men such as Sir Peter O'Sullevan, the late Bill McLaren and, yes, John Motson, then it is unarguably the case that they have enriched our enjoyment of sport no less than, and quite often more than, the creatures whose deeds they describe. With that in mind, The Last Word sends warm 40th anniversary wishes to a fellow who has managed to remain, despite the prospect of ending his career as he started it, purely as a TV highlights man, the Voice of Football.

As sport legends go, Joe knocked it out of the park

This is quite an anniversary weekend, sports-wise, and I hope John Motson will forgive me for suggesting that it marks an occasion more notable even than his inaugural Match of the Day commentary: it is 60 years today since the great Joe DiMaggio struck his last home run in his valedictory World Series,smacking Sal Maglie's curveball into the left-field seats, andhelping the New York Yankeesto beat the New York Giants in what was the last "Subway Series" the two teams wouldcontest, before the Giantsrelocated to San Francisco.

At Yankee Stadium, when it was all over, the Yankees pitcher "Spec" Shea sat down next to DiMaggio and gently raised the possibility that he might not retire, although he had promised to do so. "What about it, Joe?" he said, to which Joe softly replied: "I've played my last game." He was 36 years old, and had won a record nine World Series, two more even than the Bambino himself, Babe Ruth. Yet still there was rampant speculation that he would continue, especially when the Yankees offered him another $100,000 contract. In 1951, it was unthinkable that a sportsman could turn down 100 grand. But DiMaggio was trueto his word, retiring, and withina few months finding a replacement passion in the delectable form of Marilyn Monroe. It isfair to say that they don't make sporting stories quite like that any more.

Dilley, unwitting bard of the scorecard

The desperately sad death this week of Graham Dilley at least brought with it a reminder of the joyous poetry of cricket, as immortalised by the scorecard of an Ashes Test match at Perth in 1979: Lillee c Willey b Dilley. However, for me that was just pipped when another England stalwart of the 1980s played on an all-weather pitch, which famously yielded the spectacle of Gatting batting on matting.

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