Forty years in the commentary box
Xby John MotsonX
Reviewed by Taylor Parkes
From WSC 274 December 2009
If you disregard the alarming cover, on which Motty appears to be offering you outside for a fight, this exhaustive autobiography is more or less what you’d expect. Spanning a gruelling 386 pages – the last 65 just listing the games over which Motson has jabbered and chuckled – at its best it’s warm and charming. At its worst, it’s slightly deranged. Mostly, it’s boring.
Motson’s near-Aspergic obsessiveness is in truth quite endearing – he limps through the 1994 World Cup with a broken toe, having kicked a bedpost in frustration “after being told that our commentary positions would be several rows farther from the pitch than expected” – but it doesn’t make for great entertainment. Every now and then he’ll surprise you, mind: the night before England’s 5-1 victory in Munich, he goes out on the piss with England fans and wakes up on his hotel bed fully dressed, with no memory of the past 12 hours. On a trip to South America, he hangs out with Ronnie Biggs (a meeting he’s “always treasured”).
Most of these anecdotes, though, are what you might call low key. While Motty’s commentating on the tennis at Wimbledon, Jack Nicholson wanders into the commentary box unannounced (“his receding hairline reminded me of so many nights in the cinema”). Then there are Johnny and Patrick Cobbold, one-time owners of Ipswich Town, who Motty visits at their country estate with Alan Parry in tow. Surveying the grounds, Alan asks: “How much of this do you actually own?” Johnny C shoots back: “All of it, you cunt.” Motson points at a photo of a pre-war shooting party and asks: “Who’s that guy with your father?” Patrick exhales testily. “That’s the king, you wanker.” See, these are the kind of characters you just don’t find in the modern game. “Even though they came from aristocratic stock,” smiles Motty, “they were as down to earth as you could imagine.”
It’s a shame someone talked him out of using his original title, And Still Ricky Villa. A hint of identity crisis might have pepped things up a bit. I’d have suggested Croissants With Crespo, but I doubt he’d have gone for it. He admits here, in a fit of self-awareness, that the breakfast references which peppered his commentaries on early games at the 2002 World Cup “got on some people’s nerves – including my bosses”. Indeed, it turns out that BBC head of sport Niall Sloane administered a slightly bizarre bollocking: “The younger generation don’t have breakfast, John. They have coffee.”
Still, Motson has principles: he blasts the bloated Champions League and has “serious moral reservations” about the new breed of club owners: “All this greed and gratification has done football in this country no good.” These are hardly original opinions, but one wishes there was more of this stuff here. What has he got to lose? A few good rants would have shown him in a far more flattering light and sold the book too. Instead, he natters for a half a chapter about where he buys his sheepskins. Dear old Motty. Living proof that all it takes to become a national treasure is dogged constancy plus time.