Almost none of us met John Motson. Almost all of us felt like we knew him. That is the mark and the power of great commentary
February 23, 2023 12:54 pm
For Christmas 1998, my half-brothers – aged five and seven – received a football compilation video of the type that were catnip to children of a certain age in the years before YouTube.
In “Motty Takes The Mike”, John Motson effectively sends himself – and various clumsy or bungling footballers – up for just under an hour.
I’d play safe and say we watched the video 100 times before the following Christmas, when Santa delivered the goods again. Most likely “Nick Hancock: Football Doctor”.
This was an unmistakable parody: the big headphones, the old school microphone held up on the front cover, the sheepskin coat (it is impossible to imagine Motson in shorts and a t-shirt, even though you know he commentated on 10 World Cups).
Parody is best avoided, of course; it invites accusations of selling out. And yet, before the final generation of “Motson kids” had even arrived, here he was, making us fall in love with this knockabout silliness.
When the news of his death broke on Wednesday morning, I was sent an image by one of my half-brothers captioned only with a heart: the sleeve of Motty Takes The Mic.
It worked because Motson was the voice not just a voice. The rest of the schtick – even the sheepskin coat – were mere accoutrements, memorable in their own way but only because the next synaptic jump is to the voice that begins to play in your mind. The tone, the timbre, the accent; it helped that Motson was commentating on the national game on the national broadcaster, but hearing him reading out the Yellow Pages would have been just as soothing.
That combination of tone and mastery of the art is just about unique. The tendency with Motson is to overlook the majesty of his lines in favour of the general warmth of his lifework as a whole. That’s deeply unfair: “Crazy Gang beats Culture Club”; “Here’s Gascoigne. Oh brilliant. Oh yes. Oh yes”; “Oh, this is getting better and better and better. One, two, three for Michael Owen!”. These are cornerstones of football commentary in this country.
Each of them shares a common theme that runs like a seam through Motson’s work: there is no superfluity. Motson is not describing the action; as a television commentator he understood the importance of trusting the audience to use their own eyes, not his.
He is using between five and 15 words to convey, simply, the context into which sporting history was being written. Motson was not the star – he embraced that truth rather than trying to rise above it. He believed deeply in the power and importance of football and probably had to be convinced of his own worth.
Motson extended his vowels so that they contained reams of implicit information and emotion. When Motson exclaimed “Yes!”, you became convinced that he was happy for himself (particularly in the case of an England goal), happy for the goalscorer and happy for the viewer that they were getting to witness it.
He loved the simple repetition of a word, phrase or idea for emphasis – if there was any Motson style, it was that. It is precisely what made children in every playground or green space in England mimic his work while commentating on their own small feats and big dreams.
As the tributes rush in, note the age range of those expressing their sorrow: 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and above. Old and young, Motson was there, a touchstone of our formative years whoever we are.
He was a mark of permanence, and as such this is a particularly personal death. It provokes memories of our own childhoods and the connections we made with those who we may have lost or lost touch with: relations, friends, the idea of football as a romantic escape, our own innocence.
There may well be commentators that you prefer, from before, during and after Motson’s 50-year career. But there will surely be nobody who transports so many back to roughly identical scenarios: cross-legged, sat on the floor of a lounge, slightly too near the television screen (at least until the “You’ll get square eyes” shuffle backwards), neck cricked from looking upwards but any nagging ache imperceptible because football was on the telly.
That induces the most sadness, because there was John Motson and Motson is no longer. We remember our childhoods by breaking them down into major international tournaments, and there he was.
We remember specific years with the FA Cup final as the cornerstone, and there he was. We mapped out our weeks with Match of the Day as the crescendo – the repeats, the records and the glorious mark of adolescence when we stayed up to watch it for the first time; there he was.
Almost none of us met John Motson. Almost all of us felt like we knew him. That is the mark and the power of great commentary: warmingly familiar and yet non-intrusive, the soundtrack to the memories that made us.