Brian Viner: Motty still puts heart into art of commentary

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

A few months ago I enjoyed a long and bibulous lunch with John Motson, who told me over the second bottle of white that there had been a divergence of opinion between him and Virgin Books, the publishers of his forthcoming memoirs.

Motty wanted the book to start with the bad news he received from his boss during the 1994 World Cup, informing him that, although or perhaps partly because he had commentated on the last three World Cup finals, this time Barry Davies would be taking the BBC microphone. His publishers, however, felt that the opening chapter should deal with the famous FA Cup tie at Edgar Street in 1972, when non-League Hereford United beat First Division Newcastle United 2-1, and the rookie commentator Motson, in his first season at Match of the Day, became part of footballing folklore.

Anyway, Motty: Forty Years In the Commentary Box duly landed with a satisfying thud on my doormat this week, and I was pleased to see that the Sheepskinned One had got his way. He was right too, I think, because that episode offers a vivid insight into Motson's extraordinary, perhaps even preternatural, devotion to his craft. "I can say with hand on heart that once the feeling of being mugged died away," wrote Motson of that 1994 phone call, "I was nowhere near as heartbroken as people seemed to think."

Of course, what's so interesting about that recollection is not that he wasn't as heartbroken as people assumed, but that they assumed he'd be heartbroken. And note, he doesn't say that he wasn't heartbroken. Indeed, he tells us that the experience initially felt like being mugged, a notion, I feel, worthy of further deconstruction. To be mugged is to be subjected to an act of violence sometimes so distressing that the victim ends up traumatised, needing therapy. But I don't think Motty makes the comparison glibly. On the contrary, I think it's marvellous that he can compare the news conveyed in that phone call with the feeling, just to picture a typical mugging scenario, of being punched to the ground and robbed at knifepoint. If only the comparison could sometimes work in reverse, so that a man might perhaps stagger into a police station with his clothes ripped and blood pouring from a nasty head wound, and say, "I feel as though I've just been deprived of commentating on the next World Cup final," the world might be a happier place.

I am not poking fun at Motty, I hasten to add. He is a man for whom I have great admiration and no little affection. Moreover, in that one sentence on page seven of his excellent book he illustrates what the televised coverage of football has lost. What is the modern-day equivalent of the Motson v Davies debate? Do we really care whether Sky hands a big match to Rob Hawthorne rather than Martin Tyler? I think not. And how many commentators these days have real emotional empathy with the footballers whose deeds they describe? On Wednesday, shortly after Peter Crouch had scored in England's World Cup qualifer against Belarus, the ITV camera swung to Emile Heskey in the stand, applauding with the expression of a man who'd just heard that his house had burnt down. That wouldn't seem like hyperbole to Motty, the last survivor of the golden age of football commentary. In fact, he could have offered counselling.

Positive twist on Tweddle's flop

My heart goes out to Beth Tweddle, an engaging young woman and the most successful gymnast Britain has ever produced, who crashed out of her favourite event at the world championships on Wednesday while performing a move named after herself. The toe-on tkatchev with half-turn on the asymmetric bars is known as a "Tweddle", so she was hoist with her own leotard, poor thing. Still, she can console herself with the thought that she now has membership of an exclusive club. I'm quite sure that the greatest of Dutch footballers must once or twice have buggered up the Cruyff turn, and that Dick Fosbury occasionally made a horlicks of his eponymous flop.

Orienteering to the rescue in search for lost moral compass

The estimable sport of orienteering has never before found its way to this page, doubtless taking a wrong turn earlier in the section, but there's a first time for everything and I am indebted, as Cyril Fletcher used to say on That's Life!, to David Parkin from Bristol, who emailed me this week to describe an incident in the orienteering world championships in Hungary a month or two ago. Martin Johansson of Sweden was leading the race when he was very nastily impaled on a branch, which penetrated no less than 12cm into his thigh. The Frenchman Thierry Gueorgiou, soon arrived at the scene, and stopped to administer first aid, using his shirt as a compress. Two other competitors, Anders Norberg from Norway and the Czech Michal Smola, ran for help. In so doing all three sacrificed their chances of a medal, showing such nobility of spirit that one can only weep for Formula One, rugby union, football and all the other sports in which the yearning for money and glory has subverted some of the most basic tenets of sportsmanship, if not humanity. Orienteering shows the others they have lost their way.