The commentators who gave voice to sporting history

Football man: John Motson is hanging up the microphone at the end of this season. (PA).
Football man: John Motson is hanging up the microphone at the end of this season. (PA).
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With Henry Blofeld and now John Motson calling time on their BBC careers, Chris Bond looks at the art of sports commentary and how it helps shapes our sporting memories.

One of John Motson’s earliest TV football commentaries also proved to be one of his most memorable, even though as a Newcastle United fan it pains me to say so.

The Newcastle team, which boasted stars like Malcolm MacDonald, Bobby Moncur and Frank Clark, were up against non-league minnows Hereford United in the FA Cup. With the Geordies a goal to the good, Hereford’s Ronnie Radford picked up the ball in the middle of a pitch that resembled a ploughed field and unleashed a howitzer of a shot.

It prompted a brief pitch invasion, while Motson’s accompanying commentary put him on the map as the shock result became one of the lead items on Match of the Day.

This was way back in 1972 and over the intervening 45 years ‘Motty’, as he’s affectionately known, has become a household name. During that time he’s commentated on 10 World Cups, 29 FA Cup finals and more than 200 England matches, while the sight of him gamely standing pitch-side in the middle of a blizzard wearing his famous sheepskin jacket and clutching a microphone has become an enduring image.

For decades, when football fans turned on the TV to watch a match it was Motson’s voice they heard. Everyone has their favourite commentary moment – from his giddy excitement when Michael Owen completed his hat-trick in England’s 5-1 win over Germany in 2001, to his quip after Wimbledon surprised everyone to beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final: “And there it is, the Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club.”

Now, after 50 years, Motson is calling time on his BBC career at the end of the current football season. It comes after Henry Blofeld announced he was stepping down as a cricket commentator on the much-loved Test Match Special, and follows Brendan Foster’s decision to hang up his microphone following the recent World Athletics Championships.

Richard Jones, a lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, says Motson has become synonymous with football. “There are certain commentators we associate with particular sports. People like Bill McLaren in rugby, Murray Walker in Formula One and Peter O’Sullevan in horse racing, and it’s the same with John Motson and football. He’s one of the last of that generation.”

There is undoubtedly an art to good sports commentary and woe betide you if you don’t do your homework. “If you ask sports fans who their favourite commentator is they’ll often start by saying who they don’t like.

“Nothing irritates fans more than a commentator coming in who doesn’t fully understand their sport.”

What unites Motson and Foster with Henry Blofeld, even though ‘Blowers’ made his name on radio, is their knowledge and also, crucially, knowing when to say nothing.

It’s interesting, too, that their accents – Foster’s Geordie lilt and Blofeld’s plummy tones – could hardly be more different, yet viewers and listeners warm to them in equal measure. “It proves that there isn’t one single style, or voice, needed to be a great commentator,” says Jones.

Much of the affection that we armchair sports fans have for our favourite commentators stems from the fact we’ve grown so accustomed to their voices and feel like we know them – as Jonathan Agnew pointed out recently, the point of Test Match Special was to provide company – even friendship – for its legion of listeners.

Then there’s the passion. “John Motson still sounds excited when he sees a great goal,” says Jones, “and I think that enthusiasm combined with knowledge of your subject is the secret to great commentary.”

It’s why we cherish the likes of Motty, Blofeld, Foster and co, because they helped bring some of our greatest sporting memories to life.