Soccer commentator John Motson is set to relive his brilliant career during a night out in Birmingham. Graham Young reports.
Many a famous name has spoken at Birmingham Town Hall over the years. Charles Dickens, Joseph Chamberlain, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.
Soon, on the stage where Ozzy Osbourne eventually followed Mendelssohn, Elgar, Buddy Holly, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there will be an orator of a different kind.
A commentator, by the name of John Motson. Humble John Motson.
With 86-year-old David Coleman having long retired, and following the passing of legends of the mic like Brian Moore, 69 (1932-2001) and Kenneth Wolstenholme, 81 (1920-2002), Motson is still a young pretender at 67.
Manchester-born in July, 1945, he is a man with a self-protecting bashfulness about ever daring to admit that he’s earned himself a special place in the hearts of football fans nationwide.
‘Motty’, as he even signs his own text messages, is arguably the proud owner of the most affectionate nickname in the land.
Like Del Boy, his physical appearance is defined by the distinctive coat on his back – sheepskin instead of camel.
Hertfordshire-based Motty was at Culford School near Bury St Edmunds with a future rival ITV soccer presenter, Gary Newbon.
Once they would have been competitive rivals, now it’s the Solihull-based, Sky presenter Newbon who will have the pleasure of introducing his old mate for a Q&A session at the Town Hall on March 11.
Half a dozen such shows have already taken place here and there, and Motty, whose preparatory skills suggest he enjoys a sense of order, is happy with the format.
“In the first half, I take people through my career – both commentating and what I did before that, like working in newspapers,” he says.
“I just talk people through how I arrived at the point I did, with a DVD showing about 20 minutes of some of the greatest moments in games that I have commentated on.
“After a break of 15 minutes, we come back and then Gary hosts it as a Q&A format with the audience, which usually lasts another 45 minutes to an hour.”
Motty looks at me like my floodlights have gone out when I ask if the punters can buy pies at the midway point of this show of two halves.
When the penny drops via a big hint, he simply reasons, without any obvious intention to deadpan, that he’s ‘not in charge of that side of it’.
He says that some questions from the floor often lead on to others; issues like offside and video technology develop debate. But while every Match of the Day game has been edited to the bare bones, only ‘very rarely’ does his commentary get tweaked.
“Having done so many live games you get used to living with the idea of there being no safety net,” he says.
“It’s a job like any other. You have to concentrate and call it as you see it. That’s what you are paid to do.”
In terms of keeping up with games, Motty watches a DVD of a team’s previous match during the week before a new match in order to familiarise himself with players.
Notwithstanding that a game might see half a dozen substitutions in the final 20 minutes, teams like Wigan Athletic wearing stripes pose a threat to accuracy, not least because of squad number inflation beyond the traditional 1-11.
In today’s era, some matches are covered with 24 cameras and I wonder how many Bobby Charlton shots we must have missed during his pomp.
“He was slightly before my time,” Motty says. “Ronnie Radford’s goal (for FA Cup giant killers Hereford during Motty’s Match of the Day debut) was only on one camera.
“Pre-war stuff is very rare, and you can’t see enough of how good Tommy Lawton and Stanley Matthews were.”
Next August, Motty will surely come to the fore again, when Match of the Day celebrates its 50th anniversary.
“That’s going to be massive,” he says. “It’s such a big landmark, we’re already talking about how we are going to do that.
“A lot of other (soccer) programmes started a lot later.”
Now that he’s two years past the standard retirement age for males and hasn’t been covering live matches since the Euro 2008 Final, Motty admits he can only look ahead one year at a time.
“While my voice and eyes are able to let me do it, and while I enjoy the challenge of preparing for a match, I am quite happy to carry on,” he says.
“But you have got to keep up your standards and I would hope to be able to gracefully step down.
“The minute I decline, somebody will notice and they will tell me.”
One out-of-bounds subject is the health of Paul Gascoigne, though he qualifies that by pointing out that, in his opinion, he’s the most naturally gifted England player he has commentated on.
Of all the managers he’s met, Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United has to be the most successful, though his refusal to talk to the BBC was once at odds with the way he carried on talking to Newbon at ITV.
“I’m pleased that issue was resolved,” says Motty without criticising the Scot directly.
“In February, Football Focus had a big interview with Fergie. Television cameras at football grounds are almost part of the furniture now, but things are a lot more structured than they were. Teams news used to be ad hoc. Now press officers arrive at 2pm and read them out to you. It’s all very official.”
In a modern world obsessed with change, I am impressed that Motty hasn’t given into the computer age yet.
More than a decade after he told me he was a ‘typewriter and ribbon’ man whose one concession to technology was a mobile phone which ‘saved a lot of time’, you won’t find Motty arriving at matches with either a laptop or an iPad under his arm.
“We have a computer now in the house,” he admits.
“But I don’t use it for commentating work and my wife, Anne, still compiles my famous book.
“I still stick to the same methods I’ve used over the years so I’m not in great need of modern technology.
“I like to go into a game feeling as comfortable as I can with the preparation that I have done using a felt tip pen.
“It’s what comes out of the mic that’s important, people don’t need to know exactly how I go about it.”
* An Audience with John Motson is at Birmingham Town Hall from 7.30pm on Monday, March 11. Tickets: £16.50. If you require a wheelchair position please call the Box Office on 0121 780 4949. Details: www.thsh.co.uk