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England on TV – the John Motson years

As John Motson bows out from football commentary, we look back at his long career covering England for the BBC…

Farewell John Motson. Regardless of whatever anyone thinks of his commentary style – he has always had a fair few critics, as well as plenty of fans – Motty has been a familiar voice in our lives for decades. Prior to effectively entering semi-retirement in 2008 he covered numerous FA Cup, World Cup and European Championship finals and, as we shall focus on today, many high-profile England matches. But as with his long-time BBC colleague and rival Barry Davies, the chance to describe England lifting a major trophy would never come his way.

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John Motson and Barry Davies hold aloft the World Cup, but neither would commentate on such a triumph for England.

Motson moved from being a radio to TV commentator with the BBC in late 1971, shortly before gaining prominence by describing Hereford United’s famous FA Cup victory over Newcastle United. But at the time he was considered clearly below both Davies and number one David Coleman in the pecking order and England matches would be out of his reach. He did though get to perform the task of interviewing Sir Alf Ramsey after England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup by drawing with Poland.

A big breakthrough came Motson’s way in 1977, when in Coleman’s absence he was surprisingly picked ahead of Davies to cover the FA Cup final. Not only that, but two weeks later he would be back at Wembley to commentate on England’s annual joust with Scotland. Scotland’s 2-1 win would mainly be remembered for the post-match scenes involving their fans on the Wembley turf, when the goalposts were snapped.

It was far from the last time that Motson would be left to describe incidents off the field as well as on it when commentating on England, but sadly most unsavoury scenes would involve his fellow countrymen. When he first commentated on England at a major tournament – against Belgium in the 1980 European Championship – he got to wax lyrical about a superb Ray Wilkins chip before the day was ruined by violence breaking out on the terraces. A year later Motson was left to find the words on a bleak night as England lost 2-1 away to Switzerland in a vital World Cup qualifier and the hooligans again brought shame upon the nation.

“What a start for England”

But other results would go England’s way, meaning they would qualify as long as they didn’t lose at home to Hungary. It was a rarity for a home qualifier to be shown live and Motson was holding the microphone as England won 1-0 to make it to Spain. “And England are back in the World Cup finals for the first time since 1970,” he proclaimed as the final whistle sounded. For the first time in his TV commentary career, Motson would be covering England at a World Cup.

Motson didn’t have to wait long to describe a memorable moment involving England in the tournament. Just 27 seconds had elapsed against France when Bryan Robson struck in an excellent 3-1 win. “What a start for England. Amazing,” he proclaimed as Robson turned away after opening the scoring.

Although Motson was continuing to be given the vast majority of major finals at the expense of Davies, there was a greater sense of balance when it came to covering England. The side appeared at all four European Championships from 1988 to 2000 and at each of them Motson called just one England match, while at the 1986 World Cup he lost out 3-2 to Davies on England games.

The 3-0 win over Paraguay that Motson covered was not without its high points, but it did not stick in the mind as much as the win by the same scoreline over Poland a week earlier or the infamous ‘Hand of God’ loss to Argentina in the quarter-finals – both commentated on by Davies.

“In the last minute of extra-time…”

The next World Cup was Italia ’90, Motson gave the impression subsequently he gained little enjoyment from the competition, due largely to covering a number of poor matches and having to do a lot of travelling between games. But with England he would help cover their captivating run to the semi-finals, describing four of their clashes in Italy.

The match that really kickstarted England’s tournament was the win over Belgium in the second round, courtesy of David Platt’s last-gasp winner. It would be a memorable Motson moment. “England have done it in the last minute of extra-time,” he cried, using words that were simple but fitted well. Although the quarter-final against Cameroon went to Davies, the semi-final against West Germany was Motson’s.

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It was a night rich in memories. “Augenthaler couldn’t do it, Lineker probably could… and England have equalised. It’s Gary Lineker,” he told many millions of viewers as Bobby Robson’s men drew level. But that joy turned to sorrow as Motson saw Paul Gascoigne painfully receive his second yellow card of the tournament. “Oh dear. Oh dear me. He’s going to be out of the final if England get there,” were Motty’s words as reality bit for Gazza.

And then came the penalties. “And England are out of the World Cup,” Motson uttered as Chris Waddle missed the target (prompting some smartarse to tell him England weren’t actually out as they still had the third place play-off to come). It had been a momentous night, the only time he commentated on England in a major semi-final and as close as he ever came to getting to describe England in a World Cup final.

“Oh and a mistake by Stuart Pearce…”

Four years later England wouldn’t even be at the World Cup. Motson was commentating live on the final qualifier away to San Marino, when the minnows would sensationally take the lead in the opening seconds. “Oh and a mistake by Stuart Pearce… and San Marino have scored,” cried a bewildered Motson. England would go on to win 7-1, but it proved insufficient and before the end the BBC had switched coverage to the more meaningful decider between Wales and Romania with Davies commentating.

And it would come to symbolise a changing of the guard with Davies finally picked to cover a World Cup final and two FA Cup finals in the mid-1990s. Motson was to do the final of the Euro ’96, but the allocation of England matches in the tournament was not favourable. He covered just one of England’s five games, but the match he did was certainly big and memorable – the 2-0 win over Scotland.

It would forever be remembered for the goal Paul Gascoigne scored to clinch victory. Motson would enjoy describing it: “Here’s Gascoigne. Oh brilliant… oh yes, oh yes… what a wonderful goal by Gascoigne, what a pertinent answer to all his critics.”

The next two major tournaments each also only brought one England match, the 2-0 win against Colombia at France ’98 and 1-0 victory over Germany at Euro 2000. But the next time he described England beating Germany would prove far more momentous…

“This is getting better and better and better”

In 2001, after a four-year absence the BBC regained the terrestrial rights to most England matches outside major tournaments – and unlike previously many would now be shown live. The first game of the new season brought a major showdown away to Germany in a World Cup qualifier.

England’s sensational 5-1 win would forever be remembered, as would snippets of Motson’s commentary. “This is getting better and better and better,” he proclaimed with disbelief, before Emile Heskey wrapped up the win. “Emile Heskey… could it be five? YES IT IS.” It was a commentary and match for Motson to savour, tempered only by the news breaking that his long-time ITV counterpart Brian Moore had died.

A month later came another memorable moment with Motty holding the microphone, as David Beckham scored a last-gasp equaliser against Greece to send England through to the finals. The drama was captured in Motson’s voice as the ball sailed into the net and he could look forward to once more covering his home nation at the finals.

“You can smash them now”

It was becoming increasingly clear that the days of Motson and Davies being viewed as near-equals were over, as Motty covered four of England’s five matches out in Japan, including the much-hyped group stage win over Argentina as Beckham scored the winner from the penalty spot. It was night-time in Sapporo but Motson was clearly conscious of the fact it was lunchtime in the UK, saying as Beckham stepped forward: “Hold the cups and the glasses back home… you can smash them now, Beckham has scored for England.”

Motson was now unquestionably the number one BBC commentator and spent the next few years covering the vast majority of England matches, including an enthralling 3-2 friendly win over Argentina in 2005 and the penalty-shoot-out defeats to Portugal at Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. But what he couldn’t have imagined was the latter would be the last time he would commentate on an England match at a major tournament…

“Say something Mark”

In November 2007, England faced a do-or-die Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia. For Motson the significance of England getting through was particularly great. He had decided Euro 2008 was to be his last major tournament as a commentator, stepping down from live TV broadcasts after it (he would continue to do TV highlights and live radio work). There was a serious danger it could be taking place without any British representation and his years of commentating on England could have a particularly painful climax.

England needed only a draw but lost 3-2 on a wet night at Wembley. Motson was literally lost for words. “Say something Mark,” he said to Mark Lawrenson as England’s hopes ebbed away, with the co-commentator equally dumbfounded.

Motson was hurt by England’s failure, to the extent that he admitted in his autobiography being rude to a fan who asked him to pose for a photo afterwards. It was out of character for the affable Motson but it perhaps illustrated his true feelings for the national team – one he had covered dozens of time and experienced his own 30 years of hurt with during his career. The failure to qualify marked an anti-climatic end to his England years as a TV commentator, which deserved a better finale than a friendly against the USA 10 years ago this month.

Motty’s soldiered on for the past decade – mercifully overcoming bowel cancer in the process – but with many viewers it seems familiarity has bred contempt. Plenty of fans have stayed loyal to Motty, with the tributes pouring in upon his retirement from the likes of Sir Elton John. But his critics have increased in number – to the extent that even some who backed him at the time ahead of Davies have reappraised their views on the pair.

But to judge his whole career based upon his twilight years is unfair and overlooks his abilities at his peak. He certainly made an impact. How many commentators are widely known by a nickname as he is? His longevity has been further evidence of the esteem the powers that be at the BBC hold him in – as have the tribute shows broadcast in his honour this weekend.

He certainly wasn’t universally loved even when his commentary powers were at their greatest, with his detractors perceiving him as a statistical obsessive who would get over-excited and didn’t have either the vocabulary or gravitas of Davies. But Motson also had his legion of fans who appreciated his work and identified with him. He would become known for his warm manner and trademark sheepskin coat. Motson was perhaps football’s closest answer to Murray Walker, retaining a wide-eyed and vocal enthusiasm for what he would see before him – to the extent one could almost imagine him getting his autograph book out when conducting post-match interviews. This is a man who really loves football.

There were many memorable moments when Motson held the microphone that will forever stick in the mind. It’s just a shame English glory never came his way, something he regrets. But thanks for the memories Motty and enjoy your retirement.

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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