An overnight success after 25 years

RON AITKEN, in The Independent on Sunday, interviews Sky Sport’s Jeff Stelling, pictured left, who has been acclaimed by members of the SJA as the Sports Broadcaster of the Year for a third time earlier this week

For the vast majority of us, visits to Britain’s motorway service stations are undertaken in vain search of a decent meal or the urgent need of a toilet break. But Jeff Stelling, the incomparable ringmaster of Sky’s six-hour live televised slog, Soccer Saturday, enjoys a strange, lingering love affair with the southbound Winchester M3 service station, a place where he spends every Thursday of his working week sipping coffee, bombarded by muzak and, he claims, utterly at peace while he plunges into research for his Saturday show.

Stelling has been travelling there from his Alresford home for eight years now to get away from his three beloved sons. “They couldn’t understand my need to sit down and work and have papers scattered around,” he explained over a white latte (no sugar). “So I started to look for somewhere to go, and here it’s warm and there’s coffee on tap. Also it’s very quiet as service areas go. The kids have grown up a bit now, they’re nine, eight and four, but it’s become a ritual really. I used to go to the northbound services but I come to the southbound now. A bit of variety. Isn’t that sad?” He grins.

Stelling, a thorough professional who started in journalism on his hometown paper, the Hartlepool Mail, and progressed through a variety of radio and television jobs, says it has taken him “25 years to become an overnight success”.

This is a claim which fails to disguise the fact that Soccer Saturday is celebrating its 10th glorious year as a programme in which Stelling, without recourse to a baton, faultlessly conducts a group of distinguished former footballers who are staring into TV screens and informing us about goings-on that we can’t see. Weird, but highly effective.

Keeping his team in line and on song, while pouring forth a stream of statistics and wisecracks, is Stelling’s considerable achievement. He has described it as “like a swan, nice and calm on the surface but paddling away underneath”.

“I go through newspapers, magazines, websites, anything I can find, trying to find remote, interesting things, and some interminably dull facts as well,” he says. “You have to try to know a bit about every team and not get too many things wrong, because if you do you get absolutely bombarded. The other week I said that Ched Evans, who scored twice for Norwich, was on loan from Manchester United. Every Manchester City fan in the world wanted to tell me he belongs to their club.”

In the programme’s early days, he reveals: “When three o’clock came, we used to pack off three ex-footballers into various voice booths in the studio and pretend they were at the games. Then we decided, why not stick them in front of the cameras to see their reactions?” Thus the present format was born.

Stelling is reluctant to identify his all-time favourite four but says: “When we had Rodney Marsh, Frank McLintock, Phil Thompson and Charlie Nicholas together that was spectacular, though I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. George [Best] was lovely and quiet, Matt Le Tissier has a nice presence, a terrific sense of dry humour, and Paul Merson might not have the most expansive vocabulary in the world but he tells it how it is.”

The mention of Best prompts Stelling to the comment that “ours was the only programme that had a substitute”, it being necessary to have some famous ex-player on standby in case Best failed to turn up. “George’s then wife Alex would put him in a cab and the driver was told to take him straight to Sky but there were still occasions when he didn’t make that short trip from Surrey, so the sub was called in.

“Once we thought we were OK because we had had George in the studio since 8.30 on Saturday morning. But five minutes before we went on air somebody said ‘how much longer is George going to be?’ We had come out of make-up but instead of turning left into the studio he turned right and headed for the bar at the local rugby club. We never saw him again that day.”

Stelling has also had to deal with personality clashes. “We had David Ginola on two or three times but he and Marsh always locked horns because Rodney thought he was star of the show and felt threatened by Ginola. They used to sit back to back and Rodney would always call him Dave, while Ginola insisted ‘my name is Daveed’.”

So, all in all, the honorary degree awarded Stelling by his local Teesside University last November for services to journalism is hard-earned as well as merited. Inevitably he regularly fields letters from envious youngsters. “They want to know ‘How do I get your job?’ I tell them ‘Wait 20 years’.”

This article first appeared in The Independent on Sunday. To read the piece in full, click here.

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