Last Saturday Jeff Stelling began his 24th season at the helm of Sky Sports’ much-loved live updates show, Soccer Saturday. And the devoted Hartlepool fan kicked off with a jibe at his new rivals, BT Sport Score, for missing the start of the English league season.
Q: You had a little pop at your new rivals on BT Sport last weekend (Jeff pointed out on air that Sport Score doesn’t begin until today)?
Oh, it was gentle. I regard the Football League as a huge part of football. And if you’re going to do a football show, you have to start when the Football League starts.
Q: Any changes to Soccer Saturday to counter the competition? Not tempted to shake up the dream team?
No. I don’t mean to sound complacent, but if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. And I don’t think it’s broke. The figures we’ve had in the last few years have just got better and better.
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of competition and I wouldn’t be complacent about that. And I’ll be interested to see what kind of product they put out.
But at the end of the day, we’ll carry on to the best of our ability and hopefully in the manner we’ve done it over the years, which, I think, is taking the football seriously but doing it with a smile on our face as well, because it’s meant to be entertainment.
Q: Favourite goal reaction during your time on the show?
It wasn’t actually Soccer Saturday, it was a Soccer Special, and most people were watching the other side, but it was Merse on the Manchester City v QPR game.
When City scored, we all remember Martin’s (Tyler) ‘Aguero’, but Merse was going: ‘They’re piling on top of each other, they’re giving each other love bites’.
He is different class, because you never know what turn of phrase or expression he’s going to come up with. He makes me laugh out loud, sometimes intentionally.
Q: Were you surprised how good Merson turned out for the show, how natural he is on TV?
When Merse did his first three or four months, at the end of the season my boss called me for a briefing and he said “Merson, we can’t have him”.
He said, “how can he possibly be a pundit when he can’t express himself, when he hasn’t got the language to do it?” I said, I think, that people warm to him, because he speaks the language of people out on the street a lot of the time, and people empathise with him.
And over the years, we’ve seen that. He’s got a great sense of humour. But he can express himself. Maybe not in the Queen’s English, but boy can he make you know what he means and he does it perfectly. And he is a joy to work with.
Q: And Chris Kamara? Unbelievable colleague? Even if he can’t tell you when someone’s been sent off?
The great thing about Kammy is he doesn’t realise how funny he is. It is unintentional a lot of the time. He’s a big friend of mine. But you can have fun with him. He’s at West Ham last season and we went across to him and he couldn’t hear. And the producer said, don’t go to him, we’ve lost the connection.
So I immediately threw to him again and he still couldn’t hear. And by now the others had cottoned on. And I went to him again just to make it another Kamara moment. The funny thing about Kammy is, despite the fact he’s got that side to him, he knows the game back to front and upside down.
A lot of managers will come to Kammy for advice, for information. He is so knowledgeable. Sometimes, we make him out to be a figure of fun, but in fact, he has a really bright football brain. Best of both worlds really.
Q: The current Soccer Saturday team of Merson, Matt Le Tissier, Phil Thompson and Charlie Nicholas has great chemistry. Was that difficult to achieve?
We’ve tried people in the past who’ve come in, they might be big names, and might be quite eloquent, but if there isn’t a chemistry they don’t necessarily get in. But whether you go to the BBC or BT or wherever, it is difficult to find new pundits who played at a certain level.
Q: There’s a lot involved. As David Brent might put it, you’re part sports journalist, part entertainer.
You’ve got to be ready for anything. We had a fire alarm last year and we were out of the building for 45 minutes. So they put on an interview with Tony Pulis again and again and again.
And you come back, with the fireman’s hat on, saying ‘Now to West Brom and Tony Pulis’. Daft things. I’m lucky, over the years, that Sky have been willing to give me a bit of latitude.
Q: Sky once attracted a certain reputation of being anxious to talk up the quality of games and the league, to sell subscriptions or whatever. But none of the Soccer Saturday pundits could be accused of that.
Unlike the common perception, even in the early days, that Sky would say to us ‘don’t talk that game down’, there was never any of that.
I’m sure everyone agreed at that stage that Sky could make a nil-nil sound like the greatest game in the world. But there was never any pressure on us and there isn’t now. Football fans are not daft. They know a bad game when they’ve seen one.
Q: The logistics of spitting out all those stats on demand every Saturday; how much is you, how much is autocue, how much is the producer?
The great joy is the unpredictability. You prepare for everything. Autocue could never cope with the speed because you don’t know who’s going to score.
I’ve got page after page of stats, handwritten. I colour code them all but couldn’t tell you what the colours stand for. We’ve got one statistician.
And the way the balance works, if someone’s got his 19th goal of the season or his third hat-trick in six weeks, I should know that. But if a full-back for a Scottish first division side scores for the first time in 341 games, you can’t know it, so Trevor Simmons, our stats man, he’ll be beavering through to tell me that as quickly as he can. The truly spectacular stats, a lot of the time, come from him.
But if someone hasn’t scored for 250 games, I’ll pick a few out every week and note them down and hope that one week I’m the lottery winner and it’ll come in.
Q: What’s been the most significant change to the show over the years?
Well, my boss, who was then managing director of Sky Sports, Vic Wakeling, said “what if during the commercial breaks we left the Vidiprinter there?”
If you’re an advertiser, you know the time people go for a coffee or whatever is during those commercial breaks. If we leave that there, more chance people stay with us, the advertisers should be delighted. And it was a stroke of genius. You never miss a thing.
Q: Big change this season is Friday Night Football with your old colleague from Countdown, Rachel Riley, joining you. A lighter approach?
We’ll be getting away from the absolute in-depth analysis. It’ll be just a little bit different. Monday Night Football is great.
Carra and Gary Neville will often tell me things I don’t know. But sometimes you want something different. So that’s what we’ll do on a Friday night. There will still be analysis but it won’t be in the same sort of depth. And the whole thing will be done with a softer, more humourous touch.
Q: There have been sceptics, accusing you of dumbing down...
It’s not going to be comedy show. But you’re right. It’s finding a balance. Keeping everyone happy. The star of the show will still be the game. But around that we want to make it a little bit different.
There will be more humorous elements. Kammy’s going to be working on it, for a start. And Tubes from Soccer AM will be doing some pieces. Hopefully, we’ll get it right from the start, but if we don’t then you can tip the scales one way or the other.
Q: Have you time for a life away from football?
I play golf really badly. But my three kids are still at home. The oldest is 17. That takes your mind off things. We live in the country and we’ve three dogs so I take the dogs out for a couple of hours a day.
I run a lot because I think that’s good thinking time. But during the season, you can’t afford to have your mind taken off it too much. You’ve got to try and watch everything you possibly can and read everything you possibly can or you get left behind.
But in the summer, you get your head in a couple of books. That’s how I chill out.
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