If you work in sport, people are reluctant to believe you work at all. You get in free, you watch the event and when it’s all done – can you believe it? – you actually get paid. This is surely the ultimate example of the good life.
The fact is that for a few of us – and not only footballers and coaches – a football stadium is our office. We enter it sober and serious and we are dedicated not to pleasure, but to the greater satisfaction of doing a good job.
I have shared a stadium with John Motson –who delivers his last-ever commentary on Match of the Day this weekend– many times, though our paths never crossed: me hammering on a laptop or, in earlier times, yelling down a telephone; him with a lip-mic pressed to his face. So when, a few weeks before his retirement, we meet at last – at his pleasant place in Hertfordshire, he with a cigar going nicely – we talk shop rather than discuss favourite footballers or rudest managers. How do you do the job? What are the disciplines?
As we talk, I remember what someone once said about the football writer Brian Glanville, and think it’s probably equally true of Motty: that there are two kinds of football commentators, those who have been influenced by him and those that should have been. For his commentaries were always and only about football – and never for a second about him.
It begins with a love of the game and that’s something that can’t be faked. It continues with a desperate, almost pathological, desire to get it right: an inner certainty that no error is truly forgivable. That can’t be faked either.
Motson’s love of the game came from going to matches with his father, a Methodist minister who took delight in the downtime ahead of the week’s Big Day. Their shared love was not for a team, but for all football: for the occasion, the skill, the beauty, the drama, the pursuit and occasional capture of excellence. Something of that innocence is part of Motson to this day: and perhaps it’s his great strength.
His desire to get it right is famous. “The nightmare for a commentator,” he says, “is to make a bad mistake – live. When you get the name of the goal-scorer wrong, or get two players mixed up… the commentator’s biggest challenge is to do the homework.”
He produces a piece of A4 card: a chequerboard of beautifully ruled lines, and within each resulting oblong, words and numbers are inscribed in fine ballpoint, so neat they might have been printed. He’d put this together for a recent match. The name of the left back, his previous club, how many appearances, scoring record, style of play… you get the idea.
“It’s very old-fashioned. The younger people are all using the internet, but I’m doing it exactly the same way I did in the 1970s. I do it for every match and it takes from Thursday lunchtime right up to kick-off. So if you have a complete blank, you can look down.
“When substitutes are coming on, you’re dealing with up to six new players and trying to remember who they are and who they’ve replaced. That’s where it takes time and concentration – it’s the toughest time during a match.”
I remember a classic Motty moment, though not the game. But I know a man who can… “It was a Cup tie. Tranmere Rovers v Sunderland, 2000.”
Tranmere had a player sent off. They instantly made a tactical substitution – forgetting to take off a second player. Everyone in the crowd was wondering what on earth was going on. Motson nailed it. “If you get a tricky one right, then you’re quietly pleased with yourself. But when you get it wrong – you berate yourself.”
Motson is always seen as a man lost in football, but he has covered other sports, mostly for radio. He did six Wimbledons. He’s done boxing, once with Muhammad Ali as his co-commentator. There was a second-round knockout. “I turned to Ali for his thoughts and he wasn’t there. He was up in the ring with his jacket off, doing imaginary sparring with Joe Bugner.”
He’s also worked on two Olympic Games. In 1972 he covered white-water canoeing. As the British competitor floated past upside down, he said, “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but British hopes seem to be fading fast.” Today he recalls, “People teased me about that for years.”
At the 1976 Games he switched to Greco-Roman wrestling. “I did the first bout quite successfully – until I realised I had got the wrestlers the wrong way round. It was the Russian, not the Bulgarian, who was in blue…”
Mistakes are inevitable, however much homework you’ve done. “For those watching in black and white, Spurs are in yellow… the World Cup is a truly international event… I could rattle off 20 of them,” he says, “and I frequently do.
“I think the job of the commentator is to capture the moment. When you get a great moment – like that overhead goal scored by Cristiano Ronaldo the other week – you have to find a way of conveying the brilliance of that.
“Warmth of tone, yes, but that’s not something you practise. You have to try to reflect what the crowd are thinking. When there’s a great moment you’re almost their spokesman – if you’re getting it right.”
It was the internationals he enjoyed most: for him, doing the commentary for an England match was a matter of genuine pride. “I was always tempted – and always advised not – to use the words ‘we’ and ‘us’. The World Cup was the ultimate, and I was lucky enough to do ten of them.”
When a football stadium is your workplace, the satisfactions aren’t from victory and a nice goal, beer and your mates. The pleasure comes from getting it right – and Motson has done that for half a century. There’s a picture of him with Ali on the wall, sharing that brief commentary stint.
“I can say I’ve done a commentary with the Greatest,” Motson says. Perhaps Ali said the same thing.
John Motson will be given a special award at the British Academy Television Awards 2018 on Sunday 13th May at 8pm on BBC1. His final commentary will be on Match of the Day, Sunday 13th May at 10.30pm on BBC1