“Radford…now Tudor’s gone down for Newcastle…Radford again…Oh, WHAT A GOAL!! What a goal! Radford the scorer! Ronnie Radford! And the crowd…the crowd are invading the pitch! No goalkeeper in the world would have stopped that!”
Rarely has a commentator delivered so many memorable lines to millions of football fans across Britain, but John Motson has done exactly that over the best part of the last five decades.
Famous for his nickname ‘Motty’ and that Sheepskin commentary coat he has worn for numerous years in gantries across the world – Motson has become one of the undisputed voices of football.
From World Cup Finals to third round FA Cup ties. From that famous interview with Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough to the comfort of hearing his reassuring voice on arguably football’s most loved programme Match of the Day – he has undoubtedly played his part in the ‘Beautiful Game’.
In this exclusive interview with Stuart Appleby, John talks about how he started off in the journalism business, the art of commentary and his favourite broadcasting moments.
Like most young journalists, Motson began his career in newspapers, which allowed him to learn his trade and gain the necessary experience as a working day to day member of the press.
“I started off on the Barnet Press weekly newspaper in Hertfordshire as a trainee reporter in 1963 when I was 18,” he said.
For a budding journalist in today’s climate, a university degree or subsequent course now seems the requirement to pursue a career in the media industry, but that was not the case when Motson first started out.
“I had no qualifications apart from what were then called O-levels in those days, I hadn’t been to university and I did a four year apprenticeship with the Barnet Press. This included what was then called a proficiency certificate, organised by the National Union of Journalists, which was the paper qualification once you done the time in the local journalism area if you see what I mean.”
Although Motson’s career is rightly famed for his footballing exploits, he cut his journalistic teeth in both news and sport.
“I did a combination of news and sport. I covered everything from council meetings to court cases and I did football locally on a Saturday. It was an all round training.
“I did four years there and I was looking for something that would give me an introduction to full-time sports journalism. I wrote to most of the provincial newspapers, both mornings and evenings, as that was the next step up.”
Fortunately, The Morning Telegraph in Sheffield (which incidentally no longer exists) offered Motson a job.
“It was the morning newspaper and sister to the Star that was the evening newspaper in Sheffield (The Star still exists today). It gave me football league reporting experience with both Sheffield Wednesday and United,” the 66-year-old said.
“I covered most of the South Yorkshire clubs like Barnsley, Rotherham and Chesterfield. I followed that beat and to be honest with you that’s where I saw myself working for the next two to three years.”
Though, as so often is the case in the journalism industry, Motson’s break into broadcasting arrived as a result of the emergence of BBC Radio Sheffield, which began in November 1967.
“They were looking for freelance reporters to help them out because they had no permanent staff or budget. Lots of reporters on both the Telegraph and Star got the chance to go into the radio station and just do a report or a preview of the match they were covering for the newspaper. That was my breakthrough really.”
Renowned for his energetic, engaging and enthralling commentary tone, Motson admitted he felt his skills with the microphone were better than his writing expertise.
“My voice, in the opinion of one or two on the newspaper, was certainly better than my writing ability at the time. I wrote to the BBC in London to apply for a couple of jobs that were being advertised and at the second attempt I got a job as a Sports News Assistant in what was then the Radio 2 department.”
Although, BBC Radio 5 Live did not begin until much later, Radio 2 offered Motson the perfect opportunity to earn his crust in the radio world.
“I trained writing scripts and reading the racing results, as well as doing a regional sports programme. I did this until somebody suggested towards the end of 1969 and the beginning of 1970 that I audition (if that was the right word) to become a commentator,” he said.
“In 1971 a famous commentator called Kenneth Wolstenholme (the man with the commentary line: “some people are on the pitch…they think it’s all over…it is now!”) left the BBC and they had a programme which is still there of course, called Match of the Day. David Coleman and Barry Davies were the lead commentators and I had a year’s experience with them. The rest of it speaks for itself really, I’ve been there ever since.”
Audience interaction is pivotal for any media outlet or form and Motson, a master at both radio and television commentary explained the more subtle differences between the two.
“Obviously it depends whether you’re doing it in radio or television. In radio you are the picture, you’ve got to describe everything from where the ball is from which way the team is kicking, give the score every two minutes, how long there is to go and really talk all the time.
“As a television commentator most of what I’ve said is already on the screen so you’ve got to interpret the game, identify the players and try to explain the referees decision if it’s not obvious. It’s a different technique but very much the same sort of research beforehand.”
Having watched and witnessed the changes in the game for the past five decades, Motson says he still gets the same thrill out of commentating now as he did when he first started.
“No I don’t think there’s any change in that. I get the same buzz out of it as I did. I do my homework in very much the same way. I treat every match as a challenge in terms of preparation.
“Obviously the game has changed, but we haven’t got time to go into that! When I started teams wore numbers 1-11 and there were no players names on a shirt, the corporate side of football hadn’t started and the Premier League hadn’t been thought of so the game itself has changed enormously.”
Motson freely admits that broadcasting has been enhanced through the rapid growth and development in new technology, but he believes the fundamentals of commentary are still the same.
“The broadcasting side has changed a little bit. When I started they didn’t have all the equipment to give you all the help they give you now. For example, you didn’t have as many replays of an incident and you weren’t able to analysis patterns in play from all sorts of angles.
“It was very much a four camera job when I started and you just saw things from the normal viewpoint. Now, of course, we’ve got cameras behind the goal and just about anywhere you can think of. The technology has changed things for the better, I’ve no doubt. I don’t think the commentators job per say has changed enormously because the role is still there to just help the viewer along.”
Having covered World Cup Finals, European Championships, The Premier League, The Football League and The FA Cup to name all but a few, ‘Motty’ recalled two contrasting matches he had commentated on as personal highlights.
“You do get asked that question a lot but two games always spring to mind for me. The first season I was on Match of the Day a long time ago, I was at Hereford United when they beat Newcastle United in the FA Cup. It was the biggest shock of its type in that era and probably compares with any since so that was one at grass roots level if you like.
“At international level it has to be the England saga which I’ve covered for many, many years. The highlight of that was probably England winning 5-1 in Germany in 2001 where Michael Owen scored a hat trick.”
Listen to John over the course of the 2011-2012 football season on BBC Radio 5 Live and, of course, Match of the Day.
Generous thanks goes to www.janemorganmgt.com for their assistance in organizing the interview.
To listen to the audio version of this interview, please click below.