How do you replace a legend? This summer, for only the second time in more than 30 years, it will not be John Motson’s voice delivering the commentary on the World Cup final for BBC viewers. There will be no throaty chuckles, no bizarrely trivial stats, none of the nasal conveyance of perpetual enthusiasm. Instead the voice relaying the action will be that of Guy Mowbray, or “the anonymous Guy Mowbray” as the Daily Mail would have it. Not that it’s a description to which he objects. “A good commentator,” Mowbray says, “is like a good referee. You probably need one there, but once you start to notice him he’s not doing a great job.”
The affable Yorkshireman is well aware that by replacing Motson he will inevitably draw some criticism, no matter how anonymous a job he does. Or even how anonymous he looks: with his greying hair and ready beam, he passes unnoticed by the fans enjoying lunch at Frankie’s Grill by Stamford Bridge before Chelsea’s final game of the season.
“For some people, especially the casual fan who only really watches football during World Cups, [my voice is] just not going to sound right,” he says. “But even when they get used to me it’s so subjective. Some people might like me but to others I’ll be the sound of nails being dragged down a blackboard.”
It’s hard to know what people could object to. Before his television career took off, Mowbray covered Sunderland games on north-east England’s Metro Radio, winning a following with his simple, unpretentious commentary and amiable banter with his co-commentator, the former Sunderland forward Eric Gates. He remains somebody who sees his job as describing the action rather than becoming part of the spectacle.
The BBC also seemed keen to play down the announcement of Motson’s successor. “We’d known John wasn’t going to do the final for a while,” Mowbray says. “So we’ve all known that one of us [in the BBC commentary team] would do it. There were four or five in line, and the word was that whoever did the Carling Cup final would also do the World Cup final. I got the call to do the Carling Cup final, and since then, without there being an official announcement, it’s just sort of happened.”
For a commentator, as for a player, the World Cup final represents the pinnacle. It also represents a remarkable rise for Mowbray who, by his own admission, “fell into commentary” after he’d quit a job at ABN-Amro because it got in the way of his cricket. (He still plays league cricket in York, but his football career ended after a season at centre-half for Bradford University.)
At 38, he is still relatively young for a commentator, but this summer’s showpiece will not be Mowbray’s first. In 1998, he covered the World Cup final for Eurosport. “I’d been working for [Metro] radio in the north-east and I’d just started the year before doing a little bit for Eurosport, a couple of programmes every fortnight, going over to Paris, and I was chosen as part of their World Cup team, which was quite a shock in itself,” he says. “I remember getting the rota in a phone-call from the secretary, Eva … It was just casually dropped in: ‘Oh and on July 12 you’ll be doing the final at the Stade de France,’ and I put the phone down thinking, ‘You what? Surely quarter-final at best? What’s going on there?’”
That game, in which France beat Brazil 3-0, had perhaps the most dramatic build-up of any final to date, as the Brazilian centre-forward, Ronaldo, having had a fit on the day of the game, was initially left out and then mysteriously restored to the line-up before kick-off. “Pelé was sitting just behind us for Brazilian TV,” Mowbray remembers. “Because Eurosport was connected to TF1, the French broadcaster, we had a man on the touchline and we knew before the team-sheets were out that Ronaldo wasn’t playing, then we got the word that he was playing despite the team-sheets saying that he wasn’t.” Mowbray decided to investigate: “I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, I’ll ask Pelé.’ I didn’t quite know how to address him, so I turned round and said, ‘Excuse me, Mr Pelé?’ – I mean, what do you call him? – and said ‘Ronaldo? He plays?’ and he looked at me with a very knowing smile and said, ‘I know.’”
The need to react to sometimes confusing situations is all part of being a commentator. “You prepare your intro,” he says, “but once the game starts I’ve never had any prepared lines – well, I did once, in a Sunderland game against Millwall at Roker Park. Craig Russell [the Sunderland forward] scored and I came out with this line and as I did so, I thought, ‘Oh God, no!’ and I’ve never done it since. I can’t even remember it but it was wretched.”
That’s not to say Mowbray doesn’t get ready for a game in other ways. “Preparation is everything. I’ve got spreadsheets and databases for everything and at the World Cup I’ll go round with a little portable printer so I can print it all out.”
At the restaurant, he shows me his notes for the Chelsea-Wigan game. They look like a racing form guide, with dozens of statistics and details about players crammed together so he can read them all without having to turn the page.
His time before the World Cup will be spent studying the teams he’ll be covering in the group stage – which includes all three England matches and all three featuring Cameroon – and preparing similar notes. “I’ll watch DVDs, basically just cramming, trying to get a feel for who’s who, what they look like and what they run like,” he says. “It’s like exam revision. It’s like that every week, to be honest – two days of revision for every Premier League game. It’s a bit easier with the Premier League of course because you tend to know the players. But with the World Cup I’ll be trying to take everything I can onboard. You may not use 90 per cent of it, but you know that if you don’t know it you’ll need it.”
And, worse than that, knowing that however much you prepare, however fluent or understated your delivery, there will still be people who don’t like you just because you’re not John Motson.
For more information go to www.bbc.co.uk/worldcup