The love rush for Motty balances the need for football to honor its past

Vale, Motti. “Oh, I say.” That was your catchphrase. “Ooooohhrrggh.” That was a different one. There were probably others too. There’s no real need for this article to talk about how good, final, or loved John Motson was as a football commentator; You don’t have to flip through the highlights of a 36-year career at the top; or, as a form of eulogy, to reconstruct the age of Motsonism, of comfortable certainties danger here And fast feet from the little mexicanof milk wagons and proper breakfasts not like the ones they have now, of children flying kites beside pylons, of white dog poo (not like the ones they have now) to offer a hymn to an age when the Great Man Theory of football commentary still applied.

That is done more thoroughly elsewhere, by those who actually knew and worked with Motson. But the reaction to the death of a public figure is fascinating because it’s uncontrolled, finding its own life and addressing things that stretch into strange and unexpected realms. So it is with the death of 77-year-old Motson, who has had a fine and happy career and whose death is by no means a tragedy, just the usual sadness of departures. But who else has drawn what the newspapers are calling “an extraordinary flood” of deeply passionate tributes?

Related: ‘Voice of Football’ pays tribute to John Motson after commentator dies aged 77

In recent days, Motson has been repeatedly described as the voice of English football and beyond that as a bardic gatekeeper of sorts, prizewinners of our most treasured cultural moments. I heard a middle-aged man on the radio close to tears describing him as “an angel sent to make this world a better place.”

All of this must seem strange to the post-Motson generations, even in a country where the past is always a heavy thing, revered and fetishized and used as a stick to beat the present. The clips don’t seem to match. Was Motson a word genius with a voice like melted nougat? Not really.

Barry Davies had better lines, delivered with the on-air persona of a deeply skeptical wooden woodpecker who spoke of infinite human folly via a violent 1-1 draw mid-table. Motson’s lines, on the other hand, were clunky.

The Crazy Gang Have Beaten The Culture Club track from the 1988 FA Cup Final has become his Sgt Pepper, his Ulysses, his You Can’t Touch This. But it never really made sense. What is playfully gender-fluid cod reggae doing here? What, in his opinion, was a cultural club? In what corner of the Motson brain did he find this thing? (Mmm, clubs, culture! A geisha mystique! The rugged defensive styles of Andy Thorn! Here’s something John, just go, hit the gas, nail the moment).

But that was never Motson’s thing. His gift was more visceral, a combination of sounds and phrasing that was musical in its own right, capturing time and place.

John Motson works for the BBC at the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

There is still a distinct pitch and timbre on older English football pitches. the sound of mass voices bouncing off a corrugated iron roof, a collective human noise contained within these large, rickety metal spaces. Motson’s voice has the same quality, a nasal resonance that’s somehow totally in place, like certain types of period guitar tones that have become authentically unrepeatable: Motson as the Kinks’ torn amp, George Martin’s mixer, the crackle of heavy vinyl.

The lines written were so-so Motson. But “Arconada… ARMSTRONG!!” is brilliant. As does the insatiable World Cup excitement over exciting Brazil of 1978-1986, from “little chip…” to the simply called names (“Falcão!”, “Careca!”, Josi-MAR!” and (in a panic) “Again Paolo Rossi!”) to the raw, defining craziness of “Sócrates scores a goal that summarizes the philosophy of Brazilian football“.

Tone, feel, connection: it’s an underrated but vital broadcast quality. Motson had it, that feeling of being in character all the time, every waking moment captured by something Glenn Hoddle is doing, ready to be wheeled out of his broom closet to leave.

Does that explain the outpouring? Probably not. But when there’s a lot of public sadness, it’s always about something else. His death is a bookend of sorts for anyone who had an English childhood of football in the 1970s-early 90s and experienced that part of public life through those luminous everyday hunks that are remembered.

Yes, one can already sense an eye roll at such things, which sounds like yet another example of Britain’s great preoccupation with the past, another symptom of a country in decline and reluctant to change, a Motson-as-Brexit kind of dynamic.

This monovision experience was destroyed by deregulation, Sky’s tanks rolled through the Berlin Wall. Honestly, in its place we have a much better, more diverse, more fluid and more nuanced TV product.

But nostalgia can be useful. It was born out of the need to preserve and football is clearly in a violent upheaval. Nobody knows what parts are left. Maybe that’s why Motty’s death feels particularly poignant. The age of Big Commentary also coincided with things valued for good reason, the importance of connection and shared physical experience, a narrative that spans a few major content-selling companies.

As of this week, football has taken its first steps toward adopting some sort of protective measure, the regulatory act, which is an unexpected consequence of the excitement in the Super League, and is already under attack from free-market zealots who tend to race things .

It is tactically necessary for football to honor its past. The deep, vital outpouring of love for a deceased commentator seems to harmonize with this, either accidentally or on purpose. The outline of this exaggerated figure might fade in the blizzard. But the dead have a kind of authority in these matters; and there is value in remembering those tones and textures, appreciating a little the age of Motsonism.

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