John Motson’s voice was the soundtrack to every single major football moment. As the lead commentator for the BBC for 30 years, he was there to provide the words which supplemented the pictures in some of the greatest moments in this country’s sporting history.
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 Alan Sunderland’s stunning winner in a manic end to the 1979 FA Cup final – “Sunderland! It’s there! It’s 3-2”.
When football was being played on pitches made almost exclusively of mud, Motty could make it sound like a pristine new carpet. When a penalty spot had to be re-painted before a spot-kick could be taken between Derby County and Man City in 1977, he managed to convey the history, the gravity, the mirth and the magic of the moment all at once.
He was the voice of international football too. There was a tone of sheer delight in every line he delivered, whether calling an England goal at a World Cup or a Josimar pearler for Brazil against Northern Ireland, Marco Tardelli’s memorable strike in the 1982 World Cup final or Ronaldinho’s speculative chip over David Seaman 20 years later.
With his sheepskin coat and his lip mic, he reported from anywhere and everywhere at a time when two TV channels rather than 22 gave us our fill of football. There was nobody like Motty, and nothing made the hairs on the back of the neck stand up more than hearing Des Lynam throw from the studio with the immortal words: “and your match commentator, John Motson”.
The news of Motson’s death at the age of 77, which was confirmed by the BBC on Thursday, ends an era for many UK fans. For decades it was hard to think of football without thinking of Motty. He went to 10 World Cups, covered over 200 England internationals and was the voice of 29 FA Cup finals.
And he never went out of fashion. He always found new, excitable ways of delivering what was happening on the football field. There was a fresh way about how he confirmed that England were out of yet another major tournament. A little audible sigh would often be heard as he happened upon a piece of irony in moments of even complete desolation for the national team. His was a presence in the commentary box that can never be replicated.
His era was nothing like today’s. If you were watching a live TV game, it was generally Motty calling it, and he had to be 100 times better as a result. There was no finding a stream with a different commentary, there was no alternative game later on being voiced by someone else. If you were the lead commentator for the main rights holder in the UK, you had to be absolutely brilliant. And John Motson was all of that and more.