In praise of Motty – it was 25 years ago today

On Thursday this week, I was working in and around BBC TV Centre in Wood Lane, White City, West London. I’m spending more and more time in this area, partly because it’s a thriving and growing media hub, partly because I’ve got a major client just around the corner. It was a cold day – the hardest Southern English winter in recent memory lingering well into February as winters should – so I chose a leather jacket with a faux-furry collar. Though it wasn’t a sheepskin, there was a certain essence of one of the most famous BBC football commentators about my garb. I was – as friends and clients pointed out – channelling my inner John Motson.

As I headed home after a successful workshop with the local (if global) client and flicked through the headlines of the day, I learned the sad news that the man of many sheepskins had commentated his last. The news brought me up short. Although I was aware he’d hung up his commentator’s headphones and mic five years ago – his last commentary featuring on BBC1’s Match of the Day on the last day of the 2017/18 season; Crystal Palace vs West Brom, for those as obsessed with detail as Motty – his voice and elegiac turns of phrase have always had an immortal quality for me.

As I reflected on the life and work of Gentleman John, my mind drifted back 25 years and a few days to the one occasion I met and worked with the voice that dominated football over six decades. In 1997, I was a PR man, doing a lot of work with Unilever in the UK. One of my favourite clients at the time was Colman’s of Norwich, the undisputed mustard kings of Britain.

At the time, everything that had a hint or tinge of the Zeitgeist was referred to as “the new rock ‘n’ roll”. Food and football had the greatest claim to that mantle. If only there was somewhere we could put the two together. Thanks to a gloriously simple idea, compellingly expressed, and a brave client – Richard Kingsbury, now a big cheese in TV at PBS – we found a way to marry food and football, and so was born the germ of the idea that went on to become the Colman’s Football Food Guide.

Perhaps rashly or naively, we told Richard and his colleagues we’d eat all the pies, visit every one of the league grounds plus Wembley, and rank the grounds from one to 91 in just a few months. (At the time, there were two ground shares – Brighton at Gillingham, Wimbledon at Crystal Palace). We planned to eat and drink on the approaches to the ground from major public transport hubs, around the ground, and in the ground, both home and away. Here are a few of the highlights and lowlights:

  • No Premiership clubs in the top ten, lowly (but delicious) Cambridge United winning for its bacon baps, most pucker of Pukka pies and gravy. Huddersfield Town second, Rochdale third
  • Many top-flight clubs penalised for either ripping off fans (Chelsea) or serving food that wasn’t football food (smoked tuna bagels with a dash of aioli at Arsenal)
  • Questionable definitions of vegetarian options – at Torquay we were offered Opal Fruits (our research took place the year before they were rebranded as Starburst), though at the approaches to the City Ground, Nottingham, we fell in love with the Veggie Balti Slice
  • Our reviewer said of old Wembley – ranked 89th – that “if you ate your seat and sat on your burger, you’d get a better view and more nutritional value”
  • The away fans’ tax levied by up to a third of clubs: charging travelling supporters 20-50p more per pie and burger than home fans
  • Norwich City – sponsored by Colman’s and majority-owned by celebrity chef Delia Smith and her husband Michael Wynn-Jones at the time – was ranked just 61st. Rather than throw a hissy fit, Delia said, “We’ve clearly got a lot to do” and got to work on the fans’ food and for corporate guests – but in that order
  • Imaginative uses for leftovers – again at Torquay United – where the crusts of Cornish pasties were routinely hurled at linesmen (yet to be renamed “referee’s assistants”)
  • Unbelievable pork rolls at Lincoln City, overbrimming with crackling, apple sauce, stuffing and gravy for less than £3
  • Bottom-placed Leyton Orient serving burgers with plastic cheese so noxious and hot that it tore the roof off our reviewer’s mouth

If food and football were vying to be the new rock ‘n’ roll, then put together they were like Jonathan and Jennifer Hart in the seventies American detective TV series Hart to Hart; “they were murder” – and in a very positive way. Our intrepid reviewers started on their task in August 1997. By early February, we’d visited every ground, written every review, commissioned Private Eye “Yobs” cartoonist Tony Husband to illustrate the guide, printed tens of thousands of copies, and negotiated a free give-away with FourFourTwo magazine.

Which takes us to the PR launch, and brings us back to Motty. Tuesday 3 February 1998. Upstairs at the Ivy in Maiden Lane (at the time, there was only one Ivy, not the 30-plus there are today). The emcee was football journalist and editor of the guide, Jim White. And flanking him were the two finest English commentators: Kenneth “They Think It’s All Over” Wolstenholme, immortalised for his 1966 World Cup final commentary, and John Motson. All were brilliant, but perhaps the most brilliant – and the most game – was Motty. He’s shown with two of the catering team from first-placed Cambridge United in the picture that accompanies this blog (rights bought from Al@my for personal use; thanks, chaps), and whichever media outlet wanted a quote, Motty obliged.

It was a long, long day for us all. But most particularly for Motty. There was wall-to-wall, saturation media coverage. Every paper covered it, many with double-page spreads. The guide was mentioned on BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. It appeared on BBC1’s Football Focus and Match of the Day. On the game featured on 5Live on Friday evening – hosted by last-placed Leyton Orient – their fans chanted: “We’ve got the worst pies in the land!”, and commentator Alan Green noted: “They’ve clearly been reading their Colman’s Football Food Guide …”.

The next day, I was on a tube headed to see my team, Fulham, beat Southend 2-0 in a third-tier clash. The Southend fans were more interested in directions to the widely-praised Lockhart’s Fish Restaurant on Fulham High Street than the game, and were chatting about it. Southend finished 24th and last in the league that season, so haddock and chips was much more absorbing than their team. But to hear real people, in the wild, talking about the outputs of a campaign you’ve worked on is a rare moment indeed in public relations.

My association with Motty was a brief one and – stupefyingly – took place 25 years ago. But just a few friends, clients, and collaborators teasing me about my Motty-esque jacket earlier this week brought the memories flooding back. And – I’m glad to say – those memories were much more like the lamb shish kebab from the Bebek Aile on Tottenham High Road than the BSE Burger from the van outside Selhurst Park (one bite, a crunch on – what? – spinal cord, then all spat out and dumped in the bin). I well remember Dons’ manager, Joe Kinnear, walking past me and my fellow reviewer as we took that bite and remarking: “Rather you than me, lads!”

Motty rocked, and I was touched by his professionalism. As you can see from the picture, he was as much a fan of the Cambridge United pies – albeit heated up in the Ivy’s ovens – as our team of football gluttons.

What a professional, what an honour, what a man.