What makes Gillette Soccer Saturday so great? This week Sports Gazette’s Matt Horsman had an exclusive interview with Jeff Stelling to try and find out the secrets behind the show’s enormous success.
For the British footballing fan, Jeff Stelling and the whole gang on Soccer Saturday have provided a myriad of laughs and one-liners that live long in the memory. Who could forget Chris Kamara’s famous ‘Unbelievable Jeff!’ or Stelling’s own ‘Gareth Jelleyman has been sent off, lets hope he hasn’t thrown a wobbly!’. The latter quip became the title of Stelling’s own autobiography which is, unsurprisingly, the perfect combination of humour and razor sharp insight that he has mastered after 23 years at the head of Britain’s most loved football talk-show.
Gillette Soccer Saturday spawned from the Sky Sports show ‘Sports Saturday’ which began in 1992, with Jeff joining in 1994 and becoming the sole presenter on the show in 1995. The name was changed in 1998 and it was in this form that the show came to dominate Saturday afternoons for the footballing masses unfortunate enough not to have a ticket for that weekend’s game.
When asked what the key to the show’s popularity was, Stelling responded: “Soccer Saturday’s success lies in the mix of information, opinion and humour along with the chemistry of the panel.
“Without the information, no-one would watch. Without the opinion, humour and chemistry fewer people would watch.”
Stelling’s reference to the chemistry of the on-screen team is crucial, and his own integral role to the gelling of the group cannot be understated. Many other broadcasters have attempted to replicate the dynamic in a bid to attract some of Soccer Saturday’s impressive viewership, but without much success as yet.
“ITV, BBC and now BT have all tried to take it on during the past two decades,” Stelling told me. “Yet viewing figures are better than ever.”
He added – with his tongue firmly in his cheek – “Of course you need an ace presenter!”. Despite Stelling’s obvious humour in this remark, it would be hard to deny that he is the main reason that viewers return in their droves every week.
I was keen to find out just how much of this on-screen control is mirrored in his involvement behind the scenes, and whether he was involved in the hiring of his former professional ‘analysts’. He informed me that his input is principally editorial and that while he doesn’t have any say in the hiring and firing, he does decide the direction of each discussion.
In an increasingly partisan footballing culture, where so few personalities transcend rivalries Stelling is part of a select few who seem to be universally popular amongst football fans. I asked him why he thought this was.
“As a Hartlepool fan, people don’t see my team as a threat. Hence most fans treat me brilliantly.
“As far as the Premier League goes I try to treat everyone evenly and consequently really hate it when people ask who I think might go down. I have my views but don’t want to share them in case I am accused of bias.
“I think there’s no question that if I supported a big club, I would alienate many other Premier League fans.”
Once we were on the subject of potential bias towards certain clubs I asked him how this translated to the ex-professional footballers who now worked as analysts in the studio. As a massive Liverpool fan I used to love watching Phil Thompson go crazy watching his old side, but Stelling explained how things have changed over the years on the show.
“None of the guests are now allowed to watch their former clubs,” he informed me. “Though it used to be compulsory.
“With the current method, we get a much fairer, more realistic view of games.”
Talking about the guest analysts, I steered my line of questioning towards asking him about the late, great George Best – who Stelling speaks so highly of in his autobiography.
“Besty was the greatest footballer I ever saw.” he began. “As a pundit he had some nice, understated observations. But of course he wasn’t known for his reliability, hence we had a substitute waiting in the wings, just in case George didn’t show up.”
Best’s off-field issues were well documented but did not detract from him being extremely popular with those working on the programme according to Stelling.
“My boss Vic Wakeling told me George had a job for life. Sadly both were cut short too soon. They say never meet your heroes, but in this case I was glad i did.”
It is this sort of admiration and endearing respect that the on-screen team have for each other that sets the show apart from its rivals. Jeff and the gang are often snapped together on the Friday night before the show enjoying a beer and reinforcing the relationships and camaraderie that translates so well to the viewer at home.
The sort of rapport that they have cannot be synthetically developed by simply bringing together footballing personalities under the guise of a talented sports journalist – there is an element of magic that Stelling plays a big part in that sets the show apart from its rivals.
After suggestions of Jeff hanging up the microphone at the end of this season were reported in publications such as the Daily Star and the Independent in the past few months, I asked him whether these had any substance to them.
“You’ll have to ask my bosses about my ‘retirement’.” he quipped. With his sense of humour never wavering, he finished by adding: “I have no plans, though they may have some for me!”.
When the time does eventually come for Stelling to walk away from the show, he has already made his mind up as to who he wants to succeed him – though concedes that he has no say in the matter.
“As far as a replacement goes, look no further than Julian Warren, who does a great job on lots of midweek shows and week-ends when there are no games in the top two divisions.”
I didn’t want to dwell on the horrible prospect of a Soccer Saturday without ‘Unbelievable Jeff’ for a second longer and instead asked him to reminisce about his favourite moments on the show.
“My favourite moment may well have been when Devante Rodney scored twice in the final game of last season for Hartlepool against Doncaster. Swiftly followed by my worst moment, when Newport scored in the 89th minute to send us down. Of course Anthony Van den Borre has to be right up there too. So too does Jelleyman….”.
In a career of hilarious on-camera moments, I quizzed him about one of my favourites – the infamous James Brown doll.
“Poor old – well not so old – James Brown was forced into premature retirement. As was the doll.”
I asked him if he had any plans for a sequel, even suggesting one for Jonathan Franks(Sinatra) before swiftly offering to get my own coat, and he replied in typical Stelling fashion.
“I quite like the Franks-Sinattra idea – that might get an outing though I suppose I really should do it My Way.”
When I ask him whether, in a career besotted with highlights, he has any regrets and I think his mind might still be on Jonathan Franks…
“Regrets? I have a few, but then again too few to mention. No I am Edith Piaf – I have no regrets. I have the best job in the world, getting paid to watch football on the telly with my mates.”
Lastly, it would only be fitting as the Sports Gazette is run by student journalists that we get some advice from the master.
“My advice would be don’t give up. We have all had rejections galore. The reward for persistence is a job in the best business in the world. And if a door opens for you make sure you take your chance, even if the opportunity is not necessarily in your favourite sphere. I started by doing snooker, pool, dog racing and sumo wrestling.”
When I ask him if he thinks he is part of a dying breed of specialist journalists in the top jobs in football in an age where more and more retired professionals are entering the media, he acknowledges the challenge.
“The number of ex-sportspeople taking presenting and reporting positions is unquestionably an issue for aspiring broadcasters. Its not just football – its pretty much every sport. I think I am one of a dying breed and was fortunate to get a toe-hold in TV when journalists rather than ex-sportsmen were considered desirable. The ability to ask the right question at the right time is an undervalued ability!”
However, he pointed to some of his colleagues in the media as living proof of the excellent work that can be achieved.
“There are still some non ex professionals who prove it can be done. Ed Chamberlin, now on ITV racing, Jim White, Colin Murray, John Inverdale, Julian Warren and Eddie Hemmings are a few who come to mind.”
“Above all,” Jeff insists, “be prepared. 95 percent of my stats never get used on Soccer Saturday. But that doesn’t stop me preparing in the same way every week for more than 20 years.”