John Motson: The unmistakeable voice of football known simply as ‘Motty’

Motson’s trademark sheepskin coat became a familiar sight at grounds across the country

Jim van Wijk
Thursday 23 February 2023 11:13 GMT
Commentator John Motson enjoyed a distinguished career with the BBC (Adam Davy/PA)
Commentator John Motson enjoyed a distinguished career with the BBC (Adam Davy/PA) (PA Archive)

To the millions of football fans who tuned in to listen to his instantly recognisable commentary on television or radio for over half a century, he was simply known as ‘Motty’ – sheepskin coat and all.

Yet when the then fledgling broadcaster John Motson, who has died aged 77, turned up at Edgar Street on February 5 1972, he had little idea of just where his distinguished career would go on to take him – 29 FA Cup finals and 10 World Cups, not to mention all the other domestic, European and England international matches along the way.

Ronnie Radford’s famous long-range strike which equalised for non-league Hereford against top-flight Newcastle, before substitute Ricky George went on to score the winner in extra-time on the quagmire pitch, is, of course, established FA Cup folklore – along with Motson’s commentary.

“Radford again… oh what a goal! Radford the scorer. Ronnie Radford – and the crowd are invading the pitch.. and now it will take some time to clear the field. What a tremendous shot by Radford,” the broadcaster bellowed out, stating the obvious as only ‘Motty’ could.

However, had that angled thunderbolt ended up flying over the crossbar rather than arrowing into the top-left corner past the desperate dive of Newcastle goalkeeper Willie McFaul, then things could have turned out very differently for the young man ‘on trial’ in the Match of the Day commentary box.

“If Ronnie hadn’t scored that goal and Hereford had not beaten Newcastle, I don’t think I would be here talking to you now,” Motson said as he reflected back on his long career ahead of finally putting down the microphone with the BBC for the last time in May 2018.

“It changed my life, in the sense I was on trial that year at the BBC, I hadn’t got a contract at that stage. I had been in radio, and they kind of borrowed me for a year if you like to see if I made out.

“That replay between Hereford and Newcastle was sort of designated to be a bit of a formality. If Newcastle had won it, the match would have been shown for about three minutes on Match of the Day.

“Then when Ronnie’s goal turned it, and Ricky George, who by coincidence was a friend of mine, scored the winning goal in extra-time, the match was propelled to the top of the running order and we had an audience of about 10 million.

“From that moment onward, maybe the BBC thought they could trust this young guy with a big match, so yes it was a stroke of luck and a huge turning point, it was the moment which changed my career.”

The son of a Methodist minster, Motson was born in Salford, Lancashire on July 10 1945.

Motson, though, grew up in Lewisham, south-east London and attended the local Ennersdale junior school in Hither Green.

When he was 11, Motson was sent to boarding school at Culford near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, where rugby, hockey and cricket took centre stage, with the youngster having to get his football fix when taken to games by his father during holidays.

“He made me into a football nut,” Motson said.

Once put into detention for playing football in the grounds while wearing a coloured pullover – which was also against the strict school rules – Motson went on to achieve eight O-levels, including Latin.

After only staying on for only one term into the sixth-form, then spending 18 months working in a Methodist publishing house and a bookshop, Motson took his first steps into journalism with the Barnet Press in Hertfordshire as junior reporter.

It was then while at the provincial daily Sheffield Morning Telegraph, joining in 1967, where ‘Motty’ would almost stumble into an opportunity to test himself behind the microphone.

In the still early days of the experimental ‘local’ radio, BBC Sheffield looked to utilise regional newspaper reporters in their broadcasts.

Motty took to it like a duck to water – the same, though, could not be said of his match reports for the newspaper.

“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,” Motson said in a 2008 interview with the Independent.

“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.'”

Rather than take it as a knockback, Motson made the most of his new-found skillset.

Motson would also cover two Olympic Games – in 1972 and 1976, commenting on Greco-Roman wrestling – as well as sitting alongside Muhammad Ali at the Albert Hall in December 1974 for Joe Bugner’s heavyweight title clash against Santiago Lovell which was over inside two rounds.

Drafted in as a late replacement for David Coleman, who was in a contractual dispute with the BBC, Motson covered his first FA Cup final in 1977 when Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-1 – all the goals coming in the space of five minutes early in the second half.

A unique take on the beautiful game, honed from hours of diligent research, utilising the scrapbook maintained by his wife Anne, won Motson, who remained a life-long Barnet fan, the affections of the sporting public.

From Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club of Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final at Wembley to the drama of Italy’s 3-2 win over Brazil at the 1982 World Cup, France’s last-gasp extra-time victory against Portugal in the 1984 European Championship, “Tigana…. Tigana… Platini, Goal!” – there was a Motty Moment for all of them.

“This is getting better and better and better,” Motson declared while watching England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich during a 2002 World Cup qualifier – which left the then Three Lions boss Sven-Goran Eriksson happily repeating the phrase the next time they met.

There were, though, also more serious moments.

Motson was the commentator on the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough. He later went on to give evidence at the inquest.

Selhurst Park was the venue for his last Match of the Day commentary, as the 2017/2018 Premier League season drew to a close with Crystal Palace beating West Brom.

Afterwards, Motson went on to collect the Special Award by BAFTA, back at the Royal Albert Hall, in recognition of his distinguished career in broadcasting – which was swiftly dedicated to all at the BBC sports department who had helped him along the way.

“We will miss John Motson. His voice will always be ringing in our ears,” Football Focus presenter Dan Walker posted on Twitter, summing up the sentiments of the nation.

Motson, awarded the OBE in 2001 for services to broadcasting, returned to work for a spell at talkSPORT and also provided voiceovers for some football computer games.

He is survived by his wife Anne and son Frederick.

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