April 3, 2019
As John Murray watched a beaten but unbowed Gareth Southgate ready himself for a necessary but painful post-match interview, in the wake of England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia, BBC Radio Five Live’s football correspondent took a moment to take stock.
As a child growing up on a remote hill farm in Northumberland, the closest he came to international sport was infrequent terrestrial television coverage and invaluable, insightful radio commentaries delivered by Peter Jones, Bryon Butler et al.
John vividly remembers watching grainy pictures of Sir Bobby Robson lead England at Mexico in 1986, and in Italy four years later, but never imagined he would be charged with asking the difficult questions of the current England manager, 30 years down the line.
“It always felt like a distant dream to do what I’m doing,” he explains. “It still does. So when I was about to interview Gareth in the tunnel at the Luzhniki Stadium, minutes after England had been knocked out of the World Cup, I had to pinch myself.
“Where I am now still seems unreal. Last summer was such a great example of that. It was my first World Cup covering England and when they had the success that they had, just the idea that I was in Russia, commentating on a World Cup semi-final, sitting next to Chris Waddle, seemed ridiculous!
“Not only was I there to describe this huge match, I was then going down into the tunnel where the England manager and his players were brought across to speak to me. I couldn’t help thinking back to when I watched England reach the semi-finals at Italia ’90 – when Chris missed his penalty – and at the time a job like mine felt so far away. Yet there I was, talking to Gareth, live on air, just moments after England had come so close to reaching a first World Cup final since 1966.”
Refreshingly humble, reality bites for John every time he reflects on his remarkable rise from work experience student at the Hexham Courant to the most prominent position in the BBC sports commentary team.
It may feel like some kind of modern-day fairy tale and yet, as an ambitious teenager, John set his sights on a career in the media even if such a fanciful move seemed worlds away from the traditional family business.
“I was always interested in sports journalism,” he adds. “But I came from a farming family. If the BBC ever considered featuring me in one of their Who Do You Think You Are programmes I’d have to stop them in their tracks. There would be no surprises where the Murray family tree is concerned! It would be generation after generation after generation of farmers.”
The Murray farm straddles Hadrian’s Wall, in the hamlet of Sewing Shields, and John was schooled in Newbrough, Haltwhistle and Haydon Bridge. Winters were spent playing football and rugby union – several members of the Murray clan have represented Tynedale RFC over the years – and summers were all about playing and watching his beloved cricket.
“For years I’d head to Newcastle for the Callers Pegasus-sponsored England versus the Rest of the World cricket matches at Jesmond,” he recalls. “Every year the best players on the planet pitched up in Jesmond and it was an autograph hunter’s paradise.
“I loved my cricket and, at that time, I was an avid listener to Test Match Special. A good friend of mine is one of the TMS producers and for a while he was keen for me to cover cricket. I had a little dabble in 2013, covering a World Cup and an England tour to Sri Lanka, and it was one of the best experiences of my career. But it felt like I’d put my life on hold for six weeks and it gave me a real insight into what life must be like for international cricketers and the media who cover those tours.”
John happily describes cricket as his first love and it was a chance meeting with one of the sport’s best-loved commentators which set him on the road to a career in radio.
“I remember one year travelling to Leeds to watch England play at Headingley and, as fate would have it, I was staying in the same B&B as a lady who was working on the TMS production team. I must have been in the sixth form by then and I was probably down there on my own.
“We got talking over breakfast and she invited me to spend some time in the commentary box the following day. Christopher Martin-Jenkins came out and had a chat with me and he was absolutely fantastic in terms of offering me all of the right advice.
“It’s the same advice I give to anyone in a similar position now. He told me to play as much sport as I could and gain an understanding of how sport works and how sport is played. It’s advice which has always served me incredibly well.
“At around the same time I did my work experience at the Hexham Courant and I met Ian Murtagh for the first time. Ian, who went on to work for The Journal and is now one of the Daily Star’s England reporters, was probably the first print journalist I met and he was so helpful.
“By then I knew I wanted to work in the media but I wasn’t sure where or how. Then my careers teacher asked me if I’d ever considered radio.”
John’s mother had identified her youngest son’s ability to communicate clearly at an early age and imagined Murray Jnr working at the local auction mart while his father and brothers managed the family farm. Talking was his talent but hitting the airwaves almost didn’t happen.
“I’d graduated from university in Wales and I applied to every one of the six or seven national training centres which catered for would-be broadcast journalists,” adds John. “I was rejected by almost every one and was resigned to a rethink. Darlington was the only course I hadn’t heard back from and I couldn’t believe it when they offered me a place – just a few weeks before the course was about to start.”
Newly qualified, John joined BBC Radio Cleveland and one of his first jobs made front page – rather than back page – news. “Tony Blair was about to announce that he was standing to become leader of the Labour Party,” he adds. “I did an interview with him walking over the green at Sedgefield and the next morning the Independent on Sunday used the picture of us talking as their main front page image! You can imagine that the new lad plastered all over the Sunday papers caused quite a stir in the office. I never lived it down.”
If John was adept at breaking the big national news lines, then talking sport remained the ultimate ambition. His time with BBC Radio Cleveland – now BBC Tees – and commercial station TFM revolved around juggling arduous news shifts with evening and weekend fixtures in an attempt to land that dream role.
Fast forward to 2019 and it’s difficult to imagine John as anything but the trusted voice of football, golf, the Olympic Games and more. It is almost 25 years since he was snapped up by BBC Radio’s sport department in London and last year the 52-year-old celebrated his 20th anniversary as part of the station’s prestigious football commentary team.
In the summer of 2014 John followed in the footsteps of Butler, among others, when he was appointed football correspondent. “In the end I got my big break reading the racing results,” he adds. “I’d been destined for a production role until that point but somebody thought I sounded ok – and it was at a time when a northern accent counted in my favour – and I joined the commentary team.
“Football will always be my main job but I’ve been fortunate enough to cover cricket, the Olympic Games and, of course, golf. Heading to Augusta every year for the Masters is an absolute pleasure and I love covering the Ryder Cup.”
Tune in to BBC Radio Five Live during this month’s Masters golf tournament in Georgia and it’s likely you’ll come across the hushed tones of Northumberland’s gentle giant as he hunkers down on the edge of the green to describe a pivotal putt or a potentially fatal miss. John might have made his name making himself heard above the cacophony of a capacity FA Cup final crowd but his skill as an understated and perfectly pitched golf commentator is second to none.
“One of my favourite memories is covering the final day of the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in 2010,” adds John. “Mayhem was breaking out and public order was breaking down. We were on the 16th hole and Graeme McDowell, who was playing Hunter Mahan in the final match, had a putt from 22 feet and we got wedged in.
“The crowd was coming in from all directions and we couldn’t get out. I got stuck by the side of the green and I must have been 15 yards away from McDowell which was way, way closer than I wanted to be at a moment of the highest tension. I was just thinking ‘how can he not hear me?’. But he holed the putt and it was just an incredible experience to be there and to be so close to the most meaningful sporting action.”
Being so close, so often, to the most meaningful sporting action might still seem surreal to the man from Sewing Shields, but even a dream job comes with its price. “If a week goes by where I have seven nights in my own bed then that’s very, very unusual,” admits John, who travels the world from his North Yorkshire base. “There’s so much overseas travel and a lot of my life involves little trips, going away and coming back again. If there was a world championship of packing bags then I’d fancy my chances! It’s not for everyone but it suits me.”
John, who won the Sports Commentator award at last month’s British Sports Journalism Awards, might not have made it to the Bag Packing World Championships just yet but it’s the diversity of his role that still holds the greatest appeal.
“I commentated on William and Kate’s wedding and on the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and I love those ceremonial events,” he added. “I like a bit of variety and I’m not sure I could actually cover football all of the time, strange though that may seem. Much as I love football, having that variety does keep me fresh. I do Olympic sports as well, which I really enjoy doing. Covering something completely different does make you think about the way you do your day job. But commentary is pretty basic really. It’s just a case of ‘say what you see’.”
Maybe. But John Murray says it in a way few others can. And whether he’s in Moscow or Milan, he will always say it with a proud Northumbrian twang.