John Motson talks about his esteemed career in football commentary after celebrating 50 years at BBC Sport. Interview by Toby Weidmann
You started out as a print journalist, didn’t you?
John Motson: Yes, that’s right. In 1963, on a local paper in Barnet, Hertforshire, where I spent four years as a trainee reporter. In 1967, I joined the Sheffield Morning Telegraph as a sports reporter, sub, and editor on the sports desk. The turning point in my career came when Radio Sheffield started in 1967. I was on the paper and my sports editor, a fella called David Jones, was asked to put a sports programme together without much of a budget or staff, so he got the boys from the paper to go down to the radio station and do the reports. It was very much hand to mouth, there was no training.
I joined Radio 2 in 1968, which was the sports channel back then, and started off writing scripts as a junior member of the team. They tried me out reading the racing results and I passed that test, so they decided I was going to be a voice and I started doing match reporting. I did my first radio commentary in December 1969, which was Everton against Derby County in the old First Division – Alan Ball scored the only goal. And then I settled into the radio commentary team, not I hasten to add as a senior person – the big names there then were Peter Jones, Bryon Butler and Maurice Eddleston.
I did that for about two years and then when Kenneth Wolstenholme left the BBC in 1971, they already had David Coleman and Barry Davies on Match of the Day duty and they brought me in as the third and ‘young’ commentator.
Were you always interested in covering sport?
JM: I always had sport in the back of my mind, but I never envisaged becoming a television football commentator, certainly not as quickly as I did. I mean, I was 26 when I started at Match of the Day. But there was a career progression in the sense that I cut my teeth as a reporter and then graduated into the spoken word from there.
People thought I had a good voice and my bosses in radio channelled that a bit and gave me one or two lessons. The big change was when I went to television. It was a completely different technique. In radio, you describe everything, from the time on the clock to who’s kicking which way and where they are on the pitch. When I got to television, I had to curtail a lot of that and concentrate on telling people things they didn’t necessarily know. In that respect, David Coleman gave me a lot of advice.
Do you remember your first commentary?
JM: My first television commentary I can remember thinking very vividly, “what do I say now?” and being very nervous. It was a league game between Liverpool and Chelsea, which ended nil-nil.
My real breakthrough was my first FA Cup tie in February 1972, when I did the game between Hereford and Newcastle. It was probably the biggest giant killing that had happened in English football for many years, and remains so. I was sent down to Hereford to sweep up what they thought would be Newcastle winning one or two-nil. Hereford, who were not even a League club, they were in the Southern League, came back and Ronnie Radford scored that amazing goal. Ricky George, who was a personal friend of mine, got the winner in extra time. Lo and behold it was top of the show that night and I went from being a support commentator to being the lead – well, at least for that day.
What kind of games did you enjoy commentating on?
JM: The FA Cup became very important to me when I did my first ever live match. It sounds crazy now, but I did the 1977 Cup Final between Liverpool and Manchester United when David Coleman was away. It was the first live match I’d ever done, but from then on the FA Cup became part of my culture. I finished doing 29 finals for the BBC, including five replays and plenty of matches in the intervening rounds.
Now you’re retiring from the BBC, are you able to reflect on your career?
JM: The thing I’m most pleased about is that I managed to do 50 years of unbroken service to BBC Sport. I was really chuffed when the BBC gave me my last contract, because it was for two years and not one, which took me up to 50 years. I suppose that longevity, and the fact that I’ve never been off the air during that period, is the thing that gives me the greatest satisfaction.
What advice would you give your younger self or a wannabe commentator?
JM: A lot is down to diligence and determination. Just because you’ve become a commentator that’s not the end of the story, that’s the beginning. The homework is very important and the background you study before you do a commentary.
In terms of television commentary, my advice would be not to over talk. Don’t talk trivia when the ball’s in play, stick to the game. And try to get some light and shade into your commentary, so that you get excited at the right time and so on. Also, go out and see as much sport as you can. It was football in my case. Part of my success, I think, was that I got out to see as many games as I could when I wasn’t commentating and got to know many of the players and managers personally. I made good contacts from a journalistic point of view and that’s always helped me when it’s come to covering future games.
Finally, how do you feel receiving the Special Award from BAFTA?
JM: I was never expecting to get it. After it was announced, everyone has told me how prestigious it is. I’m really very honoured, flattered and quite taken aback.”
Read the full feature in the 2018 Virgin TV British Academy Television Awards brochure