The Legendary commentator compares the accolade to a BAFTA he received earlier this year, reveals his favourite English footballer and talks in-depth about those sheepskin coats that helped put him on the map
Speaking before the awards on Monday, November 12 John answered the following questions
Firstly John, what does receiving this Northwest Football Award mean to you?
I’m very proud and would put it on the same level as the BAFTA award that I got earlier this year. It’s very flattering as you don’t get these awards very often. Having worked so much in the north west I’m well versed with all the journalists who work there. To be honoured by the Northwest Football Awards is one of the biggest compliments I could ask for. I’m so flattered I can’t tell you.
Stand out commentary moment in the north west region
The one thing I would pick out would be the David Beckham free kick at Old Trafford in 2001. England were playing Greece and were struggling and at risk of not qualifying for the World Cup.
It was actually injury time and 2-1 to Greece and then Beckham scored that free kick. The whole place went wild and Trevor Brooking and I jumped up on our feet from our seats in the gantry. It was a case of England and all their fans being salvaged by Beckham. He himself had outplayed Greece in the second half and been our best player. The Germans were playing at the same time and that goal guaranteed England a place in the 2002 World Cup in Japan.
Do you have any other special memories of your time in the north west region?
Last season was my last at Match of the Day. When Manchester City played Burnley at the Etihad it was my last game and Manchester City very kindly presented me with one of those blue coats that they wear with the badge on. That was the highlight of my commentating at the Etihad.
I’d done many matches commentating at Maine Road including one fans won’t want reminding about, when Luton avoided relegation on the last day of the season and sent Manchester City down.
The north west also played host to all the great Liverpool games in the 70s and 80s. There was a game when they beat Nottingham Forest 5-0 which Tom Finney said was the best football he’d ever seen. I commentated on that and did a lot of Merseyside derbies at Goodison Park. In the 70s, 80s and 90s I was a regular in the north west for Match of the Day because I was at one of the Manchester clubs or Liverpool clubs.
Is there anything you miss from your early days in commentary?
Everything’s changed. Everybody wore numbers 1 to 11 on their shirts which made it a lot easier for commentators. There were no shirt numbers like 34 or 46 like there are now. There was only one substitute which meant you only had to work on 12 players not 18 per side. Commercially the games were very different. There was no sponsors lounges, no names on shirts, no great corporate entertainment, no executive boxes. It was a very basic game then. The teams as I remember it didn’t even come out of the tunnel together.
How has football changed in the past 50 years?
The biggest change of all was connected to Hillsborough. When the Lord Justice Taylor report came out, the big change was all-seater stadiums which gave the game more of a shine and families started to come back to football.
It was all of a sudden safer, more comfortable. There have been incredible changes over the years. Another one being the arrival of foreign players which had never been on the cards when I started in the 70s. Its 40 years since Spurs signed Ardiles and Villa and it really mushroomed from there which changed things for commentators as we had to get used to how to pronounce their names. What had essentially been an English game became a global game right in front of us.
How did you get into commentating?
I was working on a newspaper in Sheffield and a freelance position came up at a local radio station. That led to a job on BBC Radio 2 as it was then as there was no Radio 5 Live in those days. I did three years in radio writing scripts and reading the racing results. They then tried me out on radio commentary and that went well.
The two big turning points in my career were when Ken Wolstenholme left the BBC, they brought me in as a junior commentator on Match of the Day along with David Coleman and Barry Davies.
Shortly after, while I was on trial so to speak, I stumbled upon that famous FA Cup tie between Hereford and Newcastle. That was the greatest cup shock of all time. I wasn’t meant to be commentating on that game but got sent down there as they thought it was going to be a formality. And lo and behold Hereford won and I was top of the show which helped me to get a contract after my year on trial.
Did you ever imagine you’d become a household name?
I didn’t think I’d be doing 10 World Cups and 29 FA Cup finals, commentating on England nearly 200 times and all the other big games that came my way – I could never have envisaged that when I started. It all led to a love affair with the BBC which lasted 50 years.
Who is your favourite footballer?
Paul Gascoigne when it comes to English players and overseas players, I’d have to single out Eric Cantona. With Sir Alex Ferguson I think Eric Cantona changed the history of Manchester United. There were lots of other players I admired including Mike Summerbee at Manchester City. At Liverpool you could take your pick really, Keegan, Toshack, Souness, Kenny Dalglish. But the best English player I ever commentated is definitely Gazza. In addition to Cantona, where do you start with the amount of high-quality overseas players and where do you stop? Thierry Henry is one but Cristiano Ronaldo is probably, of the modern breed, the one that stands out. His years at Old Trafford speak for itself and everything he has done since has been absolutely fantastic.
What is the key to becoming a good commentator?
First and foremost, remember what you are there for which is to identify the players. You have to have a good voice, delivery and sense of timing. What’s very important is that you mustn’t over talk. In radio you talk all the time, but in television terms an economy of words is very important. I tried not to talk trivia while the ball was in play. Background information for me, was when the ball went dead or there was an injury. There’s nothing more irritating than when you hear the commentator talk throughout the match when all you want to do as a viewer is listen to the names of the players and watch the game for yourself.
A favourite piece of commentary that you didn’t deliver?
Everyone would say Ken Wolstenholme line in 1966 when England won the World Cup – ‘they think it’s all over, it is now’.
One people often talk about with me is when Wimbledon won the FA Cup Final and I said ‘the Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club’.
What about your involvement with the original Fifa video games?
I did the first ten years of Fifa and know all about that. If you’re a young commentator and want to get on in the business the first thing to say is – you’ve got to brush up your knowledge and get up to date. You’ve got to put a lot of effort in. I used to go to a lot of matches when I wasn’t working and still do. Just purely to see the teams that I was going to commentate on in the future, or purely learn what the players looked like and who took corners etc.
I think commentating is more difficult than a lot of the players realise, as the game happens very quickly, particularly now. To keep up with it you really have to be on top of things and have got to have done your preparation very carefully. It’s a matter of hard graft and perseverance and a bit of luck. There are a lot of people who want to become commentators, so you have to be competitive and also understand that it doesn’t happen overnight.
What about your early life and current family life?
I was born in Salford but my dad the Reverend William Motson, a Methodist Vicar, was moving from church to church at that time. When I was a baby he was moved to south east London by the Methodist Church. Although I can claim I was a Salfordian by birth I never lived there for any length of time.
Later I joined the weekly local paper in Barnet in Hertfordshire and trained as an apprentice reporter. I’ve also been married to my wife Anne for 42 years and have a son called Fred who is a law lecturer. He lives near me and is a Derby Country season ticket holder. Living in Hertfordshire, and on the north side of London has saved me lots of time on travel, particularly when heading north – I got to know the M6 like the back of my hand. I’ve moved-house within Hertfordshire but never left since arriving there all those years ago.
What does the BBC mean to you?
Firstly, it’s a big coincidence now that the BBC Sport department is in Salford, having been born in Salford myself. To be honest I couldn’t have done all I have without the support of the people I have worked with at the BBC. They looked after me for so many years and when it came to my retirement they gave me a fantastic send off. They gave me opportunities I never thought would come my way and put up with all my mistakes and all my foibles. I can’t tell you how proud I am to have been with the BBC for all that time.
Finally, tell me about that famous sheepskin coat
I haven’t worn the same coat for 42 years. It became a trademark and eventually the sheepskin coats did wear out. When that happened, I would get a new one. Over the years I’ve had a dozen or so. I got the sheepskins from all over the place. They were mostly made to measure. The one I’ve got at the moment was made by a lady who lives around two miles from my house.
I once got one from a guy who is now living in France, got another one with furs from Russia. They came from different sources. What you couldn’t do with sheepskins was go into a shop or a major London store and buy a full-length jacket, which is why I had them made.
It was a nice thing to be recognised for as it put me on the map a little bit. And I’m quite proud of that. It kept me warm in the cold weather up on the gantries when it was freezing.