John Motson taking a call – perhaps a prank call from the author (Photo via)
Our paths have crossed twice before, albeit some time ago. And yet only now have I found the courage to issue you an apology. While my atonement is driven by our second engagement, the actions for which I seek forgiveness occurred in our first.
The First Act: An Office Block, Greater London, 2006
A few years ago, long before the youth unemployment of today, it was perfectly possible to spend your teenage hangovers in a well-paid, part-time job. For many at my school it was the WHSmith or Early Learning Centre in Brent Cross Shopping Centre, but for me it was an admin gig in a drab office near Wembley Stadium. You know the sort; filing, stapling, liaising. The sort of work that makes you feel like you're trapped in the paper grave of a hole punch.
The office was always fairly empty on a Saturday, and so my mates and I would amuse ourselves by sitting in the boardroom arguing about who should win Big Brother, comparing the previous nights’ drunken cab rides and trying to digest BBC Bitesize revision over Kiss FM. It was a good time to be alive, if maybe a little repetitive.
All that changed one afternoon when my mate Dougie (think the annoying student from the BT Broadband adverts) came bumbling in with a big beaming smile and a mobile number he’d sourced from one of the filing cabinets. John, it was yours. You must’ve been a client.
Inevitably, we dusted off the phone and after briefly allocating each other a role, we fired up the first prank call. My fellow administrators and I sat hearts pounding as the dialling tone echoed around the room on loudspeaker.
In case you’ve forgotten, here’s the transcript:
“Hello,” you answered. Which was and still is a perfectly reasonable way to answer a phone call.
“Hi, can I speak with Mr Wall, please?” I said, fighting the urge to piss myself as I focused on delivering a script that by this point had become a staple of our frequent prank call sessions.
“Nope, sorry," you replied, politely. "No Mr Wall here."
“Okay, Mrs Wall, then?”
“Nope, I’m afraid not. I’m at work and there are no Walls here.”
“No Walls? Well, what’s holding up the ceiling?”
There followed a prolonged pause at your end. A room full of teenagers were silently laughing, imagining you looking perplexed in your sheepskin.
“Excuse me I don’t thi… oh, Richard? Richard, is this you?... Very good, OK, very good. Richard?”
“You want to get out of there mate, the place is going to fall down!” came our parting shot.
And then we slammed down the phone and fell about the place in hysterics like the total dickheads we were (and, let's face it, probably still are).
Hardly the highbrow execution of erstwhile radio prank call figurehead Steve Penk, but nevertheless one of the few mild successes that wasn’t cut short by uncontrollable laughter. And who was Richard? Richard Keys? The obvious suspect for a bit of telephonic banter within the corridors of footballing power.
Later on in the week we called back again, John, this time adopting the role of John Terry’s disgruntled agent, wondering why you’d refused to come to his client’s wedding engagement party.
“Right, pack it in you little shit!” came the inevitable reply, after a brief initial period of what seemed like genuine confusion.
In the wake of those two Australian DJs, prank calls have really come under fire. In post-Coulson Britain we’re all a bit more sensitive to the dangers of manipulating phone security. Who knows, we might’ve been inadvertently giving the hackers at the News of the World a good laugh listening in. Also, with Twitter, there’s perhaps less need to connect with celebrities through deceit and silly voices.
Prank calls have seen better days, but back then they were as much a part of growing up in London's Zone 4 as getting mugged at bus stops and Wednesday night Powerleague. But John, you never really got angry, nor did you fall back on the lazy “Haven’t you got anything better to do?” line so often used by fools taking the higher ground. I like to think you appreciated that we actually didn’t. And yet it was still no way to treat the voice of football.
By the following Saturday, we’d found new entertainment in playing hide-and-seek around the office. I’d totally forgotten about the calls, until one afternoon a couple of years later...
John Motson pitch-side in 2008 (Photo via)
The Second Act: Westfield, London, 2008
In amongst the gloomy graduate job market of autumn 2008, I secured a job on the Champagne Bar in London’s newly opened Westfield. The £1.7 billion complex was opened way ahead of schedule to suck up what was left of the reckless spending power that had originally justified its construction. On the face of it, the place looked spectacular.
However, behind the glitzy window dressing and fancy burger restaurant discounts, the back corridors and storage hangars were very much still a building site. The lift we relied on to transport the bottles from the cold room to the shop floor was manually operated by a mute labourer who was so desperate he'd accepted the offer to sit out a 12-hour shift in a freezing, semi-fitted box. There was no connecting electrical system, so we had to bang on the door and call out the floor we were on for him to collect us.
Searcys, the catering company who ran the Champagne Bar, was an equally miserable environment to work in. It was only my second day and already I’d received a bollocking in the manager’s office for going slightly over the 15 minutes designated for a break. It was particularly unfair; it was over a nine-hour day and the nearest Burger King was a good ten minutes away – at least.
But then along you came, John, cutting my clock watching short with your much loved and instantly recognisable voice; your voice like the smell of a favourite uncle's house, your voice like the taste of a ploughman's lunch. You pulled up a chair for yourself and a friend and there you were: legendary footballing commentator and unwitting prank call nemesis, John “Motty” Motson OBE.
Celebrity spotting wasn't anything new to me. I'd been an extra in Grange Hill for a couple of years at the end of the 90s, which meant long days at the BBC studios in Elstree, sharing the cafeteria with stars from Top of the Pops and Sylvia Young alumni. But here was a legit national treasure. I didn’t have to wait long to get assurance that we were in the presence of somebody worth sticking around for.
“Do you play FIFA on the PlayStation?” whispered Kris, the Aussie I was working with. “That guy over there sounds just like the commentator.”
Despite the boardroom sessions coming back to fill me with fear and angst, I approached the table. I wondered if I should adopt a foreign accent.
“Hello, Sir,” you said, looking up from the menu. “What do you recommend?”
“Well,” I replied, taking the menu to have a look myself, “the Veuve Clicquot is always a good shout.”
I knew fuck all about champagne, and had only just learnt the proper pronunciation of Veuve Clicquot after being corrected by another customer, but I was keen to make use of my new lexicon. Also, unlike the popular Bellini cocktail, there was less chance of fucking it up.
You ordered two glasses, John, generously buying into my facade.
Out of respect, although against Searcys policy, I poured from a fresh bottle. While doing so, some lad a few years below me in school called out my name from up above. Leaning over the first floor balcony, he thought he’d take this opportunity to get my perspective on the realistic prospects for post-graduate life.
It was from this point, after presumably hearing my name being called, that you stopped calling me "Sir" and started calling me "Rob", addressing me as such for every polite request and kind compliment, without correcting my pronunciation or limited knowledge once. This was when the guilt really began to sink in.
As you left, you covertly crushed a £5 note into the palm of my left hand with an avuncular smile and an understanding wink. Though it further compounded the guilt I felt for what I'd done, I was over the moon as I’d pretty much doubled my hourly rate and so decided to take rest of the week off, never to return to Searcys again.
And so for that, John, I’m both very grateful and remorseful for our interactions in the mid-to-late 2000s. I just hope that next time we can have a laugh and a joke about it all. I’ve since heard you’re more of a real ale man anyway.
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