FACT: My local phone book (which, this year, has a lovely photograph of 1984 Olympic 100m hurdles silver medallist and self-confessed occasional smoker Shirley Strong on the front) does not contain a single Motson.
There are hundreds of Davieses and Moores, numerous Wolstenholmes, a couple of dozen Tylers and even a handful of Tyldesleys. But if John Motson ever came round to my place for a cup of tea, he would be the only Motson in town. Unless, of course, there are loads of ex-directory Motsons lurking in the neighbourhood, sheepskins hung up in the hall, phone numbers kept from the general public in the forlorn hope of fending off cold calls from electricity companies. I find this unlikely.
Some become famous enough to be known only by their first name: Elvis, Madonna, Beyonce, Jedward. And some become famous enough to be known solely by their surnames: Fawlty, Mainwaring, Rigsby, Partridge. John Motson has become famous enough to be known just by his nickname. There’s only one Motty – and it’s only partly because there aren’t that many Motsons.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Motty’s Match of the Day debut, and his first television football commentary; a goalless draw between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield. There have been tributes across the media this week, all deserved; it’s quite an achievement to stay in the same job for 40 years; especially in a field as competitive as sports journalism.
Motson’s secret, I think, lies in his distinctiveness. His voice stands out as much as his name. And in football commentary, having a memorable voice can count for as much as what you do with it.
Barry Davies effectively said as much in a recent interview with The Blizzard. Davies was asked about some of his own memorable Match of the Day commentary moments, including the time he greeted a Francis Lee goal for Derby at Maine Road by shouting: “Look at his face! Just look at his face!” It was pointed out to Davies that the crack in his voice said as much as the words.
“It tends to suggest that it’s not what a commentator says, but how he says it,” was Davies’ reply. And he should know, as one of television’s most recognisable football voices. Perhaps the fact that both started out in an era when there were fewer commentators on television, and fewer television channels, helped them to become such familiar voices to so many. Maybe they’d have still stood out anyway.
One of the more surreal experiences of my life came on an afternoon in March 2004, when the phone rang at my desk at the Bolton Evening News, and I picked it up to hear a Match of the Day stalwart on the other end utter the words: “Hello Mike, it’s John Motson here.”
I should add that the call wasn’t totally unexpected. I’d been trying to get in touch with Motty for a couple of days, because I wanted to speak to him about a planned trip to watch Bury, who were on our patch. It was a significant trip for Motty, as Gigg Lane was the only one of the 92 Premier and Football League grounds that he had never visited.
Motty had spent a chunk of the 2003/04 season ticking off the 18 league grounds he had never visited. A couple of minutes into our interview, he challenged me to name them. As I floundered, he was able to reel them all off, just like that. It was an extraordinary insight into Motty’s dedication to facts. Perhaps that’s another reason why he has lasted so long.
Looking back at my article now, I can see another example of classic Mottyism. I must have asked him for a few words on the match he was going to see – Bury v Boston United – and he responded with a marvellous little preview, peppered with stats and personal reminiscences. Reading it back, I can hear his voice saying the words.
“It’s a sentimental journey for me,” he said. “Of course, Bury have a long history, going back to their FA Cup win of 1903, but the fact that they are playing Boston United is special for me too – because Boston is my parents’ home town, and I still have relatives there.”
Motty’s dedication has not, I suspect, always made him the easiest person to work with. That came across during a Football Focus interview which, at the time of writing, is still available on the BBC Sport website.
Discussing some of his commentary memories, Motty chuckled about the time his notes were turned to mush when Mark Lawrenson accidentally spilled a bottle of water all over them just before the Euro 2000 final between France and Italy. While telling the story, Motty pulled out a card bearing his notes for last weekend’s Manchester United-Norwich game, which he was just about to commentate on.
“Keep your notes there, Motty, so we can get the camera on them,” said presenter Dan Walker.
“No, I’m keeping my notes there, because I never show them before a game,” Motty replied. “Superstition.”
Walker, who is by some distance the most even-tempered journalist I have ever met, manfully resisted the urge to yell: “Well, why the bloody hell did you bring them into the studio if we can’t look at them, you fool?”
Then again, Motty wouldn’t be Motty without his quirks. Just ask the former Kaiserslautern and Germany striker Stefan Kuntz. (None of those in my local phone book either.)