This article first appeared in the February 2020 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Listen to the full interview on the FourFourTwo podcast:
They have been in the same room for less than five minutes, and already Barry Davies is threatening to punch John Motson. Clenching his fist and sending it very close to Motty's jaw, Davies bursts into laughter when he realises that he's not only taken his commentary colleague by surprise, but also FourFourTwo's photographer.
"Too late, you missed it!" exclaims Davies, realising that his split-second pretend assault hadn't been caught on camera.
The BBC duo were once the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of television commentators; two all-time legends sharing the stage in the same era. Their rivalry was hyped so much by the media that you could have been forgiven for thinking they didn't get on at all, but from the moment they walk through the door together at the London Bridge Hotel, ready to meet FFT, it's obvious that couldn't be further from the truth.
"We're not supposed to be seen together," smiles Davies, as they joke around in front of the camera. Reunited for this interview, soon they are sat down with a glass of red wine, ready to discuss memories from their glittering careers...
FFT: How long have you known each other?
Motson: I started at Match of the Day in 1971 and Barry was already there. I think you joined in 1969, didn't you?
Davies: I joined in 1969, yes.
JM: So it's 50 years - an awful long time is the answer to that question!
BD: I still remember the first time we ever had a conversation, because Motty was the new boy. He asked if I had any tips and I said, "I'll give you a tip right away - if they offer you the contract they offered Kenneth Wolstenholme, who's turned it down, then take it before they change their minds." Little did I know he was going to break all of Ken's records...
JM: Yes, I remember that first meeting - we were on a train coming back from watching West Bromwich Albion in the old Watney Cup. Barry had commentated and I was there for radio, but he knew I was joining television. I was very nervous about moving from radio, coming into television where I'd have to mix with some powerful managers; the Shanklys and the Revies. I was nervous about meeting these people and how they'd react to me. Barry just said, "Don't worry about that - television will help give you an identity." He was spot on.
FFT: Some people thought that because you were both competing to commentate on the biggest games, you weren't the best of friends - particularly as John got more of the major finals. Were you baffled by that?
BD: I was a very understanding fellow!
JM: We were placed in a competitive situation by other people. It suited the BBC to have two commentators whose styles were distinctly different. The head of sport, Jonathan Martin, once told me, "Barry commentates from the grandstand and you're commentating from the terraces." Meaning that my style was a bit crash bang and Barry's was more considered, which I'd agree with. But it suited the BBC, because Match of the Day was a two-game format then - Barry would do one and I'd do the other. Then when it came to the World Cup, and the BBC were doing England one day and Scotland the next, they had two front line men to cover it. It worked very well, and we managed not to fall out!
BD: Yes, we did!
JM: Which I think was a compliment to him...
BD: Well, simply on the basis that you enjoyed more visits to Wembley than I did, certainly for the FA Cup. But I think the BBC also used it for publicity - they tried to set it up. But we've agreed since then that it was good for us, for the longevity of our careers. With the greatest of respect to all of those commentating now, they're not going to last as long as we did. We were lucky. We were around at the right time.
FFT: Did the rivalry help to bring the best out of each other?
JM: It may well have done, I wouldn't disagree with that. Where our careers differ slightly is that Barry had the gift of being an all-rounder. He didn't just do football. One of our producers, Fred Viner, was with us one day - you rattled through all the sports you covered and said, "In fact Fred, the only sport I've never done is golf." You'd worked on the Olympics, athletics, gymnastics, you name it.
BD: I did. It's nice of John to bring that up - the only slight irritation I've had down the years is that some people believe the only reason I did that was because he was getting more of the cake. But it wasn't. Producers came to me and said, "Would you like to do this?"
FFT: Barry, how do you view your difference in commentary styles?
BD: I thought he summed it up well, possibly slightly to his own detriment! [Laughs] John does have a different style, possibly because he came from radio, which I didn't really. I did a little bit of radio when I was in the army, but then I was lucky that the 1966 World Cup was in England. If ITV hadn't suddenly needed to find four commentators, I wouldn't have had the opportunity. John was still in short pants, so they couldn't go to him! I commentated on North Korea 1-0 Italy in Middlesbrough, which is one of the great World Cup stories.
FFT: John, your big break came courtesy of Hereford beating Newcastle in the FA Cup...
JM: Yes, I went there for a third round replay - the BBC thought they'd wrap it all up in three minutes at the end of the programme because Newcastle would win comfortably. Anyway, we know what happened, Ronnie Radford and all that. It was my first season and they'd given me a one-year attachment from my radio job, just in case things didn't work out for me. It was important that I did well throughout that season, and the match just dropped my way. What would have been the last game on the show suddenly became the main event. That probably made them think I could be trusted with bigger matches in the future.
FFT: What would have happened if Radford hadn't scored that famous goal?
JM: I've often woken up in a cold sweat and wondered exactly that - and I've shared that conversation with Ronnie as well!
BD: And bought him a few drinks because of it.
JM: Yeah, and gone down on my knees every time I see him!
BD: I've got to tell you, I didn't know you were only on temporary attachment - I might have kicked you a bit harder! [Laughs]
FFT: John, what's your favourite memory of commentating on England?
JM: England's 5-1 victory in Germany. It came from nowhere for me. I'd never seen England take a team of Germany's stature apart quite like they did that night. When Michael Owen got his third goal, I said, "This is getting better and better and better!" Not long afterwards, I was at West Ham and someone tapped me on the shoulder saying, "It's getting better and better and better." It was Sven-Goran Eriksson - he'd watched the video! Although even after we'd won 5-1, we still had that rocky match against Greece when David Beckham scored his last-gasp free-kick. That was the only time I ever saw Trevor Brooking lose his cool. Not only did the ground erupt, the gantry erupted. Trevor broke a cable and I sent a microphone flying off the desk. It was a priceless moment.
BD: He's had a few priceless moments - like who was and wasn't in the Brazil team before the 1998 World Cup Final!
JM: I lost it a bit. Des Lynam kept coming back to me to ask who had which team-sheet, and whether Ronaldo was playing. I was gasping!
BD: The best England game I commentated on was when they thrashed the Netherlands 4-1 at Euro 96. That's the best England display I've seen, although it was recorded because the game was live on ITV. As a live match, I'd pick an England defeat: the semi-final against Germany. I can still see Paul Gascoigne just getting his toe to the ball, and England would have been in the final - which would have set up John, who was doing the game. Instead he had a rubbish final with Germany against the Czech Republic! But the atmosphere for that semi-final was the best I've ever known. I also liked the way they presented it at the start - Des Lynam handed over to me very early and I didn't say too much, I just let the music of the crowd take over. 'Football's coming home'. That's never been beaten. It's the best song.
JM: Barry's just touched on one of his great strengths - he had such a remarkable talent for choosing his words carefully and knowing when not to talk. I found it so hard not to talk. He could do that naturally, and that night you did. Wow. I did a few matches at Euro 96 and sensed the same thing - the country grasped that tournament, didn't it Barry?
BD: It did, and probably one of the best goals you commentated on helped set it up - Gazza against Scotland.
JM: I don't think Gareth Southgate is able to pick a midfielder who can do what Gazza did - collect the ball on the turn, beat people, play a penetrating pass and score a goal. He was the complete midfielder.
FFT: Barry, your commentary for Southgate's penalty miss is still iconic.
BD: Well I didn't say very much. Truthfully, as Gareth ran up I wasn't comfortable with it. If you'd asked me if he was going to score, I felt he wasn't. But my reaction...
JM: "Oh no..."
BD: It was just what everyone sitting at home would have said. Probably with a couple more adjectives added to, "Oh no..."
JM: Yeah, that was exactly what you said and it was just perfect.
FFT: After those words, Barry stayed silent...
JM: Yes he did - he was like the nation, really.
BD: Then Terry Venables came on, put his arm around Gareth and I said a few words. It was a terrible moment for Southgate and a terrible moment for England.
FFT: That was indeed awful, but what's it like to commentate on a great football moment?
BD: I just open my mouth and hope my foot is sufficiently far away! I prepare for the match, I do all my homework, but I don't even like to prepare the opening because sometimes I've seen matches, particularly abroad, where the opening bears no relation whatsoever to the pictures. I hate that.
JM: Yeah. This man will remain nameless, but there's a commentator who used to prepare three things before the match had kicked off - one of which he'd say at the end, depending on the result. I could never do that - it has to be spontaneous and it has to come from here. [Points to head]
BD: And from here... [Points to heart]
JM: Absolutely - I can think of moments that Barry captured brilliantly, and one or two I did where I thought, 'That didn't sound too bad'. The rhythm of Barry's commentary was one of his great strengths.
FFT: What's your own favourite commentary line, and do you have a favourite of theirs?
BD: Oh my goodness. I can't even think of any of mine these days!
FFT: We've always liked, "Brolin-Dahlin-Brolin" for Sweden against England at Euro 92...
BD: Yes - it was almost like a poetic sequence.
JM: I liked Barry's commentary of the second Diego Maradona goal against England at the 1986 World Cup - "Oh, you have to say that's magnificent." It was all that needed to be said. The other, with a little sense of amusement, is Francis Lee for Derby in '74 - "Look at his face!"
BD: Face! [Exclaims in high-pitched voice]
JM: Look at his face! [Exclaims in high-pitched voice] But it was right because Franny Lee was screaming as he celebrated!
BD: I opened my mouth and sometimes I won, sometimes I lost!
FFT: Barry, do you have a favourite of John's?
BD: His description of the winner in the 1984 European Championship semi-final.
JM: That was France vs Portugal - Jean Tigana took over and laid on this great goal for Michel Platini. I was screaming - that was as near as I ever came to losing control. When I got back to England, we had a producer at the BBC who said, "John, well done at the Euros, but there are a couple of opposing views about the way you dealt with the winning goal for France." He said it as if half the department thought I'd screamed my head off and it was horrible, and the other half thought it was memorable. You can't please all of the people all of the time!
BD: That's probably true about the pair of us, that remark!
JM: Yeah! [Laughs]
FFT: As a commentator, do you get accused of bias a lot?
BD: Oh... the moment a commentator opens his mouth and says something a bit nice about Team A, the fans of Team B think he's against them - that's a fact.
JM: That happened to me a lot in the early-80s when Tottenham got to two cup finals. People used to come up to me and say, "We all know you're a Tottenham fan." I've had other people come up to me before games and ask, "You're a Gooner, aren't you?"
JM: Yeah! The irony is - and this is something I've not been accused of but can admit now - Chelsea were the team I saw the most during the days with my dad. But once I'd started to commentate, you're neutral.
BD: I was a Spurs supporter as a kid, but I went to great lengths not to give it away. If I turned up at a ground, I wouldn't wear a shirt or tie that might suggest it, and I don't think people could have pinned that.
FFT: Are there any of your own commentary lines that make you cringe if you hear them back these days?
BD: There's quite a few of those! There's also one I didn't say. When Charlie George scored in the cup final for Arsenal, I wanted Kenneth Wolstenholme to say, "By George!" Later on, he scored for Derby against Real Madrid at the Baseball Ground and I thought, 'You had your chance and you missed it!'
JM: Oh, I've had that feeling. When Marco van Basten scored that great volley in 1988, I wish I'd said, "That goal wasn't made in Holland, it was made in heaven." You don't know what you're going to say. The one I laugh about, and people remind me of, was when Wimbledon won the FA Cup against Liverpool, and I said the Crazy Gang had beaten the Culture Club.
BD: That was a great line!
JM: That wasn't written down or even thought about, it just fitted at the time. You mentioned Kenneth Wolstenholme, Barry - when Ken set out for the 1966 World Cup Final, he couldn't possibly have thought, 'I'm going to say they think it's all over, it is now', as he would never have known that people would be on the pitch.
BD: That was total simplicity. He can see there are people on the pitch, so he just says, "Some people are on the pitch." A statement of fact. He's thinking, 'Why are people on the pitch?' "They think it's all over." Then Geoff Hurst, and bang. Ken's great line was to say, "It is now."
JM: "It is now" - that's what made it. I don't think any of us will ever beat that.
BD: I've seen quite a few people come and go in the length of my career, and I said to a few of them, "Don't think you're going to get the top line, because it's already been said!" We should raise a glass to Ken and David Coleman actually, because they moved out of the way and gave us our chance.
JM: Yes. [Both raise their glasses]
BD: You mentioned Maradona and the 1986 World Cup earlier. I made a complete mess of the handball. I didn't see it. But the important thing about the second goal is that sometimes people think I said, "That was sheer football genius." But I did not - I said, "That was pure football genius." The choice of that word was important, even though I didn't think about it at the time. That was pure - what had gone on before was cheating.
JM: I think you're playing yourself down by saying you made a mess of it. A lot of people watching that for the first time didn't know it was handball either - and I was watching the game live in Guadalajara.
BD: Years later, dear Lee Dixon - it was on the programme they put out on Match of the Day when I left - said, "Everyone knew what had happened except the commentator!" [Laughs] Hey, I'm enjoying this! Are you?
JM: I'm having a great time.
FFT: Barry, you covered one World Cup final, in 1994. It was 0-0...
BD: It was hard work.
JM: I just want to say one thing about that. We had this nip and tuck through the years, and it probably was a bit premature when I did my first FA Cup final back in 1977. Looking back now, Barry should have had that. Then the World Cup became an issue as well. I had a poor World Cup in 1990, not up to my normal standard. Brian Barwick was the head of football and chose to stick with me, rightly or wrongly. When we got to 1994, I sensed the time had come. Barry was in really good form and I wasn't. I was in a bar with Terry Venables when I got a call. Barwick said, "Look, you may or may not be surprised about this, but we're giving the final to Barry." I just thought, 'Yeah, well done Barry'. I phoned him straight away, and I was disappointed for him when it wasn't a very good final - not that my 1990 one was memorable, it was awful. You got one which was nearly as bad! [Laughs]
BD: No I agree, I'll accept you had the worst one - but you bloody deserved it because of all the others. [Laughs]
JM: I got more out of myself because I knew that the competition was there all the time. Also, because of the style thing we've been talking about - even when I was doing cup finals, a lot of people used to say to me, "I tell you what, I really like that Barry Davies." I wonder now, how many people walk around the street discussing current commentators? There are about 10 of them because there are 10 games now. There were only two back then. Barry and I were very lucky - we were the only two on the BBC. It's just nice to look back all these years later and not feel any resentment about what happened. I hope you don't, and I'm so pleased to be able to sit here today and have such a lot of fun. I'd never bear a grudge if I could help it, and he doesn't.
BD: No, no.
JM: The thing about Barry is sometimes the commentator should be spelt with a small 'c' and the broadcaster with a capital 'B'. [Points at Davies] Capital 'B', at all times.
BD: You're very generous.
FFT: What's it like to be national treasures?
JM: Oh! Are we?
FFT: You most certainly are! Do people still stop you both in the street?
JM: I couldn't fight them off when we arrived today and I saw Barry! [Laughs] But people do sometimes get the two of us mixed up. A fella rang me from Manchester City a while ago and said, "I'm so glad I've got hold of you. I want you to talk me through the commentary you did when Georgi Kinkladze scored his amazing goal at Maine Road." I let him finish and said, "Excuse me, I think you'll find I didn't do that match." He said, "Yes, you did!" I said, "Look, excuse me once again, but I remember goals. I think you'll find the commentator was Barry Davies..." And it was!
FFT: John, you had your famous sheepskin coat. Barry, did you ever consider donning your own signature garment?
BD: People kept talking about the sheepskin coat. A magazine asked me once and I said, "I wore a sheepskin coat long before he did!"
JM: You did!
BD: Then I said, "And they've now gone out of style!" [Laughs]
JM: Both yourself and Brian Moore had what I'd call sheepskin jackets, whereas mine went right down to my ankles. I went to a cup tie at Wycombe, a second round game in December 1990 - how can I forget it. They were due to play Peterborough, the snow came down and the referee decided to call the game off. I was standing there, about to start my Grandstand preview with Martin O'Neill, and they said to me, "Forget that, the game's off, can you just tell the viewers why?" So I stood in the freezing cold with my silly cap on and the sheepskin, and did a minute-and-a-half piece to camera.
BD: You did look very cold.
JM: I looked like the abominable snowman!
FFT: What was the rivalry with ITV like?
JM: There was no Sky back then - it was BBC vs ITV. It was hostile.
BD: Even if there was a game between the two sets of staff, our boss said, "You will not play in that game." He always refused to allow the BBC to play against ITV.
JM: My first World Cup was West Germany in 1974. We were at the hotel in Frankfurt and ITV were staying there, too. I remember our boss saying, "You will not go to the bar if ITV are down there." Alf Ramsey was working for ITV and he said, "Even if it's Alf Ramsey, you won't buy him a drink." Even if it's Alf Ramsey!
FFT: What did you make of Brian Clough?
JM: Captivating. My final interview with Brian was in the stand at Nottingham Forest and by then, unfortunately he... well, you know. But he was sitting there being provocative as usual, saying, "I'd sack the whole of the FA." I said, "You're quite long in the tooth as a manager now - have you got any real ambitions left?" He said, [Puts on a Clough voice] "Yes - I want to last even longer than you and Barry Davies!"
BD: I remember that!
JM: It threw me completely.
BD: It's possibly the best compliment we ever had! When he was at Derby, the place lit up. I said to him, "If I could play to the standard required, I would play for you for two reasons - one, you're a great coach; and two, to prove you wrong when you left me out of the team. You're stick and carrot." He said, "Isn't that the only way you can manage?" And it was.
JM: Other managers used to say, "He doesn't do any coaching, they just go for walks by the Trent." I asked him, "How do you respond to accusations that you don't do any coaching?" Clough replied, [Puts on voice again] "I coach every time I open my mouth, John."
FFT: Barry, you left Match of the Day in 2004 but returned to commentate for the show's 50th anniversary in 2014…
JM: Bravely I thought, having not done football for a few years.
BD: A few years? You're being kind - well, kind or unkind, I'm not sure which! [Laughs]
JM: He was absolutely immaculate. I thought, 'Crikey, he could still be doing it'. Probably still now. He didn't put a foot wrong.
BD: It was Crystal Palace against West Ham - I walked from the tunnel to the commentary position and the crowd were generous to me. I got up to the gantry, and as I was walking to my commentary seat there was a cameraman walking backwards filming me. I thought, 'I'm rather enjoying this', but suddenly I thought, 'Yeah, it's fine now, but if I make a mistake in the first five minutes, they'll be saying I was never any good anyway!'
JM: It's funny, because I did my last match at Selhurst Park at the end of my last BBC season in 2018, against West Brom. The same thing happened to me - that hike around the pitch and going up the ladder while the crowd were applauding. I thought, 'Oh God, this is all very well, but if on my last day I get the goalscorer wrong in a 1-0 win, how will I feel?' Fortunately the goals were quite straightforward, but we have that place in common - Crystal Palace.
FFT: Barry, Euro 2020 is coming this summer. As the man who commentated on Gareth Southgate's penalty miss at Euro 96, how pleased would you be if he guided England to glory at Wembley?
BD: I'd be so delighted for him, and I think it's been a major part in his attitude as a manager. He knows how people feel in their very worst moment, and he's doing a great job. There is sometimes a debate about the formation that England play, but we all get carried away with things like that. I believed in Total Football, just like the Dutch - everyone was in an attacking position when they had the ball, and everyone was in a defensive position when they didn't.
JM: I'd go along with that. Roy Hodgson and I were talking and he said, "All this talk about formations is overplayed - if you froze a game at any one time, it isn't necessarily so that the players are 4-3-3." The press sometimes focus on if it's a 5-3-2 or 4-3-3, but at different points in the game, Gareth may do either.
BD: I really think we should make a comeback!
JM: Don't speak too loud!
FFT: Lots of people would be in favour of it...
BD: Come on, let's go for it! It's a very generous observation, but it was a joke...
JM: A good one, though!
This interview was originally in the February 2020 issue of FourFourTwo magazine, available in shops and online now. This issue is a Euro 96 special, delving into the last time England hosted a major international tournament with interviews and features from Terry Venables, Gareth Southgate, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, Karel Poborsky, Barry Davies, John Motson and many more. We also speak with Peter Crouch about life post-retirement, ask Darren Anderton your questions and chart the highs and lows of Panini stickers.
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