Last Sunday saw the end of an era, as the final whistle was blown on John Motson’s legendary commentating career. Before taking his place on the Selhurst Park gantry to paint one last picture for Match of the Day viewers, he spoke to Terry Byfield about his Palace-related memories, and his thoughts about hanging up his iconic sheepskin coat.
After a 50-year career with the BBC that has seen him commentate on 10 World Cups, 29 FA Cup finals and some of the most famous league and cup matches, today’s game will be last that John Motson lends his famous voice to.
When the icon of the commentary box announced his retirement back in September, football fans from across the nation recalled their favourite Motty moments from over the years, and many Palace supporters will have their own involving the Eagles, who have featured in many of Motson’s classic broadcasts.
We caught up with him as he prepared for his visit to Selhurst Park - the scene of his final Match of the Day commentary.
We are delighted you’ll be at Selhurst Park for this memorable afternoon John. What are your memories of working here covering Palace?
I have always loved it at Selhurst Park. I started working there back in the days of Bert Head, Ray Bloye, Malcolm Allison and Terry Venables before the club moved into a new era under Ron Noades when he became chairman.
In recent years, when I look down from the gantry to my left-hand side you have had the group of fans in the famous Holmesdale Road Stand that gets the whole stadium bouncing, and the eagle flying from one end of the stadium to the other. It all adds to the great atmosphere that the stadium has become renowned for all around the world.
Strangely your supposed rival Barry Davies started and finished his career at Selhurst Park, but can you remember your first Palace game?
That was in 1972 when I was still in radio before making the move to television. Palace were playing Derby County when Brian Clough was the Derby manager. After the game I had to interview him and I was terrified because it was live on the radio, so he stood in front of me calming me down before we started!
As for Barry, it was quite unique that he started and finished with Palace. Despite what many people thought, we were always on speaking terms during our careers and still are. I am looking forward to seeing him later this month at an event that a number of our colleagues are attending at the BBC.
What is your best memory of watching Palace?
The 1990 FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool at Villa Park. That was one of the best games I have ever covered, and I can recall the memories of that game so easily such as that great run from John Pemberton that set Palace on their way. It was just a magnificent afternoon for the underdogs as both semis were shown live, and after the Villa Park match, the tie between Manchester United and Oldham Athletic was full of goals as well, so the BBC were absolutely thrilled!
I remember Steve Coppell very kindly quoted me in his post-match interviews because I had said to him in the build-up that you needed to score the winning goal against Liverpool as late as possible, because they always came back.
What are your recollections of commentating on the subsequent FA Cup final?
What a day! In terms of end-to-end excitement, the 1990 final was certainly one of the best I have commentated on. It obviously finished 3-3 with Mark Hughes saving the day for Manchester United when it looked like Ian Wright had won the game for Palace after his two goals. Wrighty had been out of action with a broken leg and started on the bench for the final, but came on to such lightening effect and really lifted the whole occasion.
Unfortunately after everything had died down, the replay turned out to be quite a dour game in which United won 1-0. Palace wore a yellow and black change strip, and from the gantry I was struggling to identify the numbers on the back of the shirts!
You made your name commentating on FA cup giantkillings, but what can you remember about our run to the semi-finals in 1976 as a Third Division side?
I remember the quarter-final against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge when Malcolm Allison wore the fedora, and that cup run was the making of Peter Taylor. During the 1970, big personalities like Malcolm and Terry Venables helped put Palace on the map. I remember Selhurst on a Friday night when the ground was heaving with over 50,000 in the crowd as the club got promotion to the First Division in 1979.
You worked at 10 World Cups, so it must be a regret you had little to celebrate in terms of England’s showings.
I have done everything up to the semi-final with England when we have had audiences of over 20 million watching on the BBC, and all I have been able to do is bring the viewers disappointment. From a personal point of view, it is a little sad that one thing I have never achieved as a commentator is seeing England in a World Cup final.
How do you feel about their prospects this summer under former Palace skipper Gareth Southgate?
I think Gareth, as he was as a player, has great presence and poise and doesn’t let anything ruffle him. He has a good management style and comes over very personable, but I’m sure there is a hard man underneath when needed.
I think the players will respond to him. He has decided quite early on how he is going to play and probably knows already the squad that he will be taking. I have a feeling England will get to the quarter-finals, and after that you never know.
Looking back on this season, how do you evaluate the job Roy Hodgson has done?
It has been fantastic. I am really pleased for Roy after how it finished with England, and it is nice he has rightly earned a lot of respect for the job he has done since being at Palace. When you look back at where the club was at when he came in, you wouldn’t have given any manager much of a price to beat relegation at that stage.
Looking back I probably knew him best as a manager at club level whilst he was at Fulham. He has a good team alongside him and I also know his assistant, Ray Lewington; I remember when he was at Watford and was voted Manager of the Year. I think they work well as a team alongside the other members of their coaching staff.
Are you preparing any differently for this final game, or sticking to your usual methods?
I have done it the same way for this game as I have all of them since I started. I haven’t altered my pre-match routine; the notes are all compiled on card with the team line-ups and stats, all done with felt tip pens. I am very much old school; I don’t go through a host of websites for information or delve into a lot of statistics. I just try and keep it simple, which is for my sake as well as the viewer.
Finally John, how will it feel putting the microphone down for the final time this afternoon?
I thought that after spending 50 years with one employer it was very good platform to go out on, so I am quite comfortable about it - and I think the BBC probably feel the same!
Finishing at Selhurst Park is a very happy note for me to end on, and I will be paying a visit to the Wright & Bright Lounge as I always do to take a look at the words from my commentary on a couple of their goals in the 1990 cup run. I am always proud to see that displayed in such a popular area of the stadium.