Last on MOTD: A goodbye to Tony Gubba

It’s the late summer of 2007. Rihanna’s at number one with Umbrella while Steve McClaren’s just about muddling through without one. Gordon Brown’s at number 10 and the economy looks unsinkable. Meanwhile, a no-mark journalist on a local evening paper has an idea.

The reporter has grown weary of fans of various Premier League clubs insisting their team are always last on Match of the Day. To him, it sounds typical of the lame attempts at observational humour/mock outrage that don’t quite ring true. Does the toast always land butter side down when you drop it? Do you always wait ages for a bus, and then three come along at once? Is there always a traffic jam when you’re already late? A no smoking sign on your cigarette break? Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife? Ah well, that’s Ikea cutlery sets for you.

Perhaps because he has a little too much time on his hands, the reporter decides he is going to settle the debate once and for all. On his blog, he will keep a league table of which teams appear last on Match of the Day each week, with a short (or not so short) irreverent (or more often irrelevant) review of the game in question. He does this for five years, during which time his blog builds up a small but loyal following of Fulham fans, and ends up being featured in the Observer’s arts section just below a piece on Damien Hirst’s plans to produce a sculpture of a human turd. It’s fame, of sorts.

But what to call the Last on MOTD league table?

There was only one man I was ever going to name it after; a man who, I would suggest, held a unique place in popular culture. He died this week, aged only 69. There will never be another Tony Gubba. Let me try to explain why – and why he was the inspiration for the Gubbometer.

I remember a Fry and Laurie routine, a running joke during one of their sketch shows, during which they unveiled a Big-o-meter to measure the size of their own celebrity. At the top of the scale was Marlon Brando. At the bottom was Gubba. It got a laugh of recognition from the studio audience. Gubba was no Marlon Brando, but they all knew who he was.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, Match of the Day usually consisted of highlights of three matches. More often than not, Gubba got what was considered the third game, with John Motson and Barry Davies doing two bigger matches. To me, it seemed as though Gubba really was last on MOTD every week, long before fans started complaining about their team being shunted to the end.

And yet, because he was with the BBC for such a long time, and associated with such a well-established show, he became a household name. In essence, he became famous for not being quite as famous as his colleagues. There’s something about this that appeals to the English sense of humour, I think.

Fry and Laurie picked up on it. Half Man Half Biscuit picked up on it when they wrote the song Gubba Lookalikes. And When Saturday Comes magazine picked up on it in 2004 in an article about the new-look Match of the Day which, for the first time, was to feature extended highlights of every Saturday Premier League game. Discussing Gubba, the writer suggested that “the final 20 minutes of Match of the Day wouldn’t be the same without him”.

Times change. Gubba stopped commentating for Match of the Day in 2010, although he carried on doing games for the Football League Show for another couple of seasons. I stopped doing the Gubbometer in 2012; for one thing, I was struggling to keep it fresh, and for another, I had just started freelance work for the BBC Sport website. I wasn’t convinced it was a terribly good idea to be writing about Match of the Day every week, especially if I felt I needed to make a critical point, light-hearted or otherwise.

Gubba moved on; latterly, he became best known as a tongue-in-cheek commentator for ITV’s Dancing On Ice; a job he was offered in 2006 after years as an ice skating commentator on the BBC. Versatility was part of his armoury too.

He always had a bit of quirkiness, though, long before it was allowed full reign amid skating soap stars and daytime TV presenters. In November 1994, he was posted to cover a dreadful FA Cup first-round match between Bishop Auckland and Bury, a 0-0 draw that was enlivened considerably by the commentator’s observation that the ball was “as slippery as a wet baby”. I can’t recall if the game was last on that week’s MOTD. It probably was, though.

Because he was down the football commentary pecking order at the BBC, Gubba rarely got the really big games. His moments were the surprise results, the cup shocks, the freakish occurrences. He was behind the microphone when Wrexham, bottom of the Fourth Division, beat league champions Arsenal in a 1992 FA Cup third-round tie. He commentated on the biggest win in Premier League history, when Manchester United beat Ipswich 9-0 in March 1995. And he was the man given the task of identifying Romania’s players when they all decided to dye their hair blond for a 1998 World Cup group-stage game against Tunisia. But whether covering bore draws at Bishop Auckland or World Cup curiosities, Gubba managed to convey a warm enthusiasm in his commentaries.

On the first Saturday in November 2008, some 15 months after I had started the Gubbometer, I went to cover a Premier League game between West Brom and Blackburn. As I sat reading the match programme in the press room at The Hawthorns, I saw Gubba was sitting opposite me. I’d like to say that I introduced myself, engaged him in an intelligent conversation looking ahead to the game and mentioned in passing that he had inspired the one decent creative idea I’ve ever had. But he was busy reading his commentary notes, and I didn’t really feel I could disturb him.

I regret that now.

This afternoon, five days after Gubba’s death, I was watching West Brom again, in a 0-0 draw at Stoke that was almost completely free of incident. It was a game so boring, that a number of experienced journalists – journalists not normally troubled in this way – were asking each other after the match if they could think of an intro for their report.

As I watched the game meander towards its goalless conclusion in driving rain, I wondered what Tony Gubba would have made of it. He’d have said that the ball was as slippery as a wet baby, probably.

It was, inevitably, the final game on this week’s Match of the Day. But the last word on tonight’s show was left to Gubba. A tribute to the commentator came, fittingly, right at the end of the show. The final 20 minutes of MOTD really aren’t the same without you, Tony.

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