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28 February 2023

John Motson channelled the exhilaration of football, but commentary has moved on

For many fans the veteran commentator’s death has been the focal point for a wider sense of loss.

By Jonathan Liew

The night before he died peacefully in his sleep, John Motson strolled down to his local pub in the Buckinghamshire village of Little Brickhill. He had a pint, watched the Champions League game between RB Leipzig and Manchester City, and went home. Which, on reflection, feels perfect. He was 77, retired as a commentator for only a few years, a man for whom football and thoughts of football consumed virtually every waking moment, perhaps right up until the last.

The death of Motson on 23 February precipitated a torrent of golden memories from fans and fellow broadcasters. You too may have your own favourite Motson commentary moment. Perhaps it is Ronnie Radford’s famous goal for Hereford United against Newcastle in the 1972 FA Cup (“Oh, what a goal! WHAT a goal!”). Or Robbie Keane’s late equaliser for Ireland against Germany at the 2002 World Cup (“Look at these scenes! Just LOOK at these scenes!”). In fact, a lot of Motson’s most memorable lines seemed to involve simply repeating the previous line with a little more emphasis.

[See also: Football remains spectacular, but the trust between clubs and the public is broken]

Motson, by his own admission, was no wordsmith. If his BBC colleague Barry Davies was a lyricist, all measured erudition and polished authority, then Motson was a vocalist: everything was timbre and tenor, the guttural roar, the little chuckle, the pock-pock of statistics, the brief lapses into falsetto. It was telling how so many of the tributes referenced childhood: somehow Motson had a way of forging a connection with the very young, channelling the giddy exhilaration of a child attending a football stadium for the first time, even as he approached pension age and closed in on 2,500 career games.

And so when people remember Motson – particularly when they do so publicly – they are often evoking not so much a string of words as a feeling: the feeling of being young, of seeing this sport with fresh eyes, a love as yet unsullied by contact with the real world and its problems. Perhaps there is also a kind of wistful yearning for a more innocent game – one without adverts or armpit offsides or super leagues or state ownership, when the FA Cup final was the highlight of the calendar rather than a useful route into the Europa League.

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As with all nostalgia, there are canny elisions at work. Many in the media were acquainted with a subtly different man to the eccentric ingénu depicted in the obituaries. Then there were the unfortunate comments made during a 1998 radio interview in response to a question about identifying similar-looking players. “Of course, with more black players coming into the game, they would not mind me saying that that can be very confusing,” he said.

There were some rumbles of discontent at the time, but even though Motson refused to apologise, there was never really any danger that he would lose his job. “Would he have got away with it now, or would he have been ‘cancelled’ instantly both by the BBC and the wider football ‘family’?” lamented the Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn in a supposed tribute to Motson that was really another of his thinly disguised rants against basic human empathy. The point here is not to impugn the character of a dead man but to pose a question: when we mourn Motson, what exactly is it that we are mourning?

[See also: The tragedy of English football]

What cannot be disputed is that commentary as a profession has changed immeasurably in the digital age. When Motson started out in the late 1960s the primary role of the commentator was simply to identify the players, these little shapes bobbing around on a grainy black-and-white screen. These days, the priorities have shifted. Now the main function of a commentator is to sell the “product” – and often many other products besides – while generating the sort of viral content that harvests social media views.

Our relationship to commentators has changed too. The classic trope of the nuclear family huddled around a single television set has splintered into a multitude of consumption methods: watching on mute, watching while travelling or cooking, watching while scrolling through our phones. The game may still be experienced communally, but the role of the commentator as conduit has largely been replaced by WhatsApp and Twitter, where, of course, everyone bitches and moans about how terrible the commentators are.

Indeed, perhaps the modern heir to a Motson or Davies is not Guy Mowbray or Sam Matterface but somebody like Mark Goldbridge, the sardonic Manchester United fan who hosts live YouTube “watchalongs” of his club’s games for an audience of thousands. As the game progresses, Goldbridge emotes. He throws his arms up in the air, holds his head in his hands and swears liberally. He splatters trenchant opinions roughly every one to two seconds. Most importantly, his club bias is explicit and stated in advance. The partisanship is the point: in a fiercely tribal sport, any appeal to impartiality is generally to be scorned and distrusted.

For many football fans of a certain generation, this is the sort of change that convinces them the game has gone to hell in a handcart. And often the death of a much-loved figure from the past can provide a focal point for this wider sense of loss. We saw it with Pelé and we saw it with Diego Maradona and perhaps we are seeing it again with Motson: the comfort of a simpler and more familiar time, in a sport where the pace of change feels more disorientating than ever.

[See also: The problem with sport’s endless “greatest of all time” debates]

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission