''I Wanted To Be John Motson'' Clive Tyldesley Pays Tribute To Iconic Commentator

Tyldesley spoke to The Sportsman after the passing of John Motson, aged 77.
17:51, 23 Feb 2023

Today the footballing world mourns the loss of a true great as the voice of football, John Motson, passed away at the age of 77. Motson worked for the BBC for 50 years, covering 10 World Cups, 10 European Championships and 29 FA Cup finals before his retirement in 2018. 

One man who was inspired by Motson, and then worked with and befriended, was Clive Tyldesley. The Sportsman caught up with him on a sad day for football to reflect on some of his memories of the great man. 

“I go back a long way with John,” Tyldesley explains. “I wanted to be John Motson when I was a teenager. I had ambitions to be not just a commentator, but to be that commentator and he was probably my favourite football commentator in my late teens.

"But fortunately, there was only quite a short bridge between looking up to him with aspiration - an iconic figure in television - to actually getting to know him because in my early local radio days, I got to meet him and befriend him. And he was very generous with his time then; very supportive, encouraging, in the early part of my career, and so I looked upon him with a great deal of reverence and affection.

"I've had social times with him, I can see him smiling right now. I know his enthusiasm and passion for the game, I've seen it on and off screen and heard it on and off screen. And so it is, it's a sad day. 77 really is no age for a man who gave us so much."

After so long in the business, Tyldesley was able to reflect on the impact Motson had on the entire footballing community. He even tried to copy him when he first started his own career.

“The great communicators in modern broadcasting not just in sport, are able to - with their voice or by their warmth - look down the black hole on the end of a camera and reach thousands or millions of people and those people feel as if they know the great broadcasters or the great presenters, the great commentators. The Attenboroughs of this world if you like, even though they will never ever get to meet them. 

“John had that power, he had that reach, he had that connection, particularly with football fans. And all I can say to anybody who's feeling a sense of loss in that way today is the man who you thought you knew, is John Motson. There was no front with John. He was no different when he put the microphone down. His love and passion for football was evident in his conversation as well as his commentaries. And as I say, as a broadcaster. He went out of his way to help those of us who were trying to make our way in his shadows, so he was very kind as well as a very talented man.

“I always say to budding young commentators, try to take the best of the people that you most admire in the business but don't try to copy anybody. I remember I had my first boss in television actually gave me a bit of a rollicking for trying to copy, trying to sound like John Motson. They say 'imitation is the richest form of flattery' and maybe I was trying too hard to be this man who I thought was the best commentator.”

Starting on Match of the Day in 1971, Motson quickly became part of the fabric of the game. Before there were six games on television every weekend, he was the voice of the sport and with his sheepskin jacket, quickly became known for his statistics and research. 

“For me, John was the first broadcast journalist football commentator,” Tyldesley explains. “He was as well connected as he was well loved and well researched. He could pick the phone up to most of the managers in the top division, and have a private conversation with them the day before the game in which they would divulge a lot of the team information, a lot of their tactical thinking. And so he was then able to apply that knowledge, that insight into the commentaries that he gave, and maybe not quite the same rich tones, as Brian Moore, maybe not quite the same rich vocabulary as Barry Davis. But the richness in John's commentary was the the information, how informed he was, how across the subject matter of the game he was and obviously that came from, from hours of research, but it came from hours of contact with people in football, and the knowledge for the game, which I think were his strongest points.”

Such was his brilliance, Motson voiced pretty much every iconic football moment in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. From Ronnie Radford’s stunning goal against Newcastle United to David Pleat’s dance of delight after his Luton Town side had just relegated Manchester City. From Liam Brady’s screamer in a 5-0 win at Tottenham – “Look at that! Just look at that!” – to Keith Houchen’s diving header that won Coventry City's only FA Cup. 

“I'm a great believer that football belongs in the moment,” Tyldesley smiles. “You're talking about Coventry City, whether you're old enough to actually remember that, you know about it. The legend has been passed down to you, but it does belong in that moment, in the spring of 1987. It belongs in that Keith Houchen moment. And John's job, my job, is to try to capture those moments and to become a very, very small part of people's recollections of those moments when they get nostalgic about them and pass them down to their offsprings. 

“John's skill was capturing those moments. In the irreverent, satirical weekly publication called Private Eye, there has been for years and years a section called Colemanballs. Now this was named after an old broadcaster David Coleman, who occasionally said rather wacky things, and if a quote of yours appeared in Colemanballs, it was derision. It was criticism, really, it was a sense that you've said something really, really stupid live on air. 

“And the only time I can really remember John appearing in Colemanballs was something he said during the 1982 World Cup finals. And the phrase was "The Argentine squad are numbered alphabetically." And somebody in Private Eye must have thought, 'Well, that's an idiotic thing to say he's got his numbers and his letters mixed up here. letters are in the alphabet, not numbers.’ What John said, was as concise and succinct and accurate, as any phrase he's ever said. The Argentine squad that year, were numbered alphabetically. Number one was not a goalkeeper Ossie Ardiles was number one, he was number one on his back during that World Cup, because alphabetically his name came first in the list. So even when John was being derided and indirectly criticised, he was still right.”

Motson was truly magnificent. A man who never used more words than he needed to tell the perfect story. He inspired future commentators like Tyldesley himself, but also narrated the world’s greatest sport for half a century. 

“We are very, very fortunate to get to do the job that we most wanted to do, in the sport that we probably all wanted to play, but weren't good enough to play, and actually to be a small part of some of the major occasions in football, and our job is to reflect those moments, but reflect them instantly. Football commentary is one of the few things in broadcasting, which is not scripted, you have no idea how it's gonna work out once the referee blows the first whistle. So you're reacting to it all the time.

“If there was a challenge in this job then it is to come up with the right words, the right moment, which create the right kind of memories. And John was an absolute master of his craft. And therefore, so many of the great moments of the 1980s and 1990s have the soundtrack of John Motson's off the top of his head words, and the people that were involved in them, the Ronnie Radfords of this world, the Michael Owen hat-trick in Munich, people who are associated with the most famous moments, Lawrie Sanchez in the 1988 Cup final - they're lucky that John Motson was the man on the microphone on their day of glory.”

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