John Motson’s distinctive voice has been the soundtrack to football in Great Britain for half a century.
The 72-year-old’s career with the BBC has taken him to 29 FA Cup finals and six World Cup finals, and has also included a very brief stint working alongside Muhammad Ali.
Unlike Ali, Motson is not the sort of person who would ever pronounce himself the greatest, but to many supporters and peers in broadcasting he is the best at what he does, bar none.
He delivered his final commentary in Crystal Palace’s win over West Brom last Sunday for Match of the Day, hours before being given a Special Award by BAFTA in recognition of his distinguished career in broadcasting.
The BBC will rightly celebrate his amazing career with a dedicated ‘Motty Night’ of programming on BBC Two on Saturday evening.
Motson credits his father, a Methodist minister, with passing on his love of football.
“He took me all around the London grounds, if we went on holiday anywhere else in the UK he’d find a match somewhere, I remember being taken to Preston when Tom Finney retired and I saw Stanley Matthews play as well in the flesh,” Motson told Press Association Sport.
“He made me into a football nut. I did all the things young fans do – scrapbooks, programmes, you name it, I was into it.”
Motson’s career in journalism began in print, before he moved into radio and joined the BBC – initially with Radio 2 – in 1968.
He has been with Match of the Day since 1971, with an FA Cup upset at Hereford in February 1972 proving to be his big break.
Motson did not just limit himself to football. He covered two Olympic Games – in 1972 and 1976 – but admits to not covering himself in glory.
He commentated on Greco-Roman wrestling and got the competitors the wrong way around, and also found himself in at the deep end with the white-water canoeing.
As a capsized British competitor floated past, Motson observed: “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but British hopes seem to be fading fast.”
Motson said of those Olympic experiences: “I think somebody after that thought I’d better stick to football.”
Between those two Olympic assignments came the meeting with Ali.
“He was my co-commentator at the Albert Hall in December 1974 when Joe Bugner, who he was about to fight in a heavyweight title clash, knocked out Santiago Lovell in the first minute of the second round,” Motson recalls.
“I got Ali to give his summary of the first round and then when Bugner knocked this guy out, Ali just took his jacket off, left me, ducked under the ropes and started sparring with him.
“The commentary with Muhammad Ali lasted about three and a half minutes, but I have got a picture on my office wall of the two of us at the ringside. It’s one of my most prized possessions.”
Motson’s career after that is intertwined with some of football’s most memorable moments.
“The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club,” he said after Wimbledon somehow toppled Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final.
He summed up the excitement and drama of Italy’s 3-2 win over Brazil at the 1982 World Cup, France’s victory over Portugal in the European Championship in 1984, and Denmark’s stunning upset success in the same competition eight years later.
And when England recovered to beat Germany 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier, he summed up a nation’s thinking by uttering: “This is getting better and better and better.”
“Sven-Goran Eriksson mimicked me for that commentary the next time I saw him because he’d just watched the tape,” Motson said.
Any would-be commentator could do a lot worse than mimic the Motson approach.
He spent days on end preparing for assignments, utilising the scrapbook maintained by his wife Annie, and would even check out sight lines in a stadium to avoid any nasty surprises on the day.
Asked whether he could pass on any advice to the next generation, Motson said: “Keep at it, and do your homework. It’s a much more crowded field now. Now on any given week there are over 150 people doing commentary on radio and television.
“I would advise any would-be commentator that you have got to be very determined and persevere to get through that kind of field, whereas when I came through it was a smaller field. I was lucky to get into it when I did I would say, and it must be much harder now to push your way through the ranks.”
Ronnie Radford’s Edgar Street thunderbolt in 1972 may have been the bit of luck Motson needed to break through, but staying at the top for so long has nothing to do with luck at all.
In retirement Motson hopes to stay in football and keep in touch with the many friends he made along the way.
His is a face, and a voice, that will surely be welcome anywhere that football is played.
:: ‘Motty Night’, a special night of programming dedicated to John Motson, airs May 19 on BBC Two.