Evening Standard

This Friday evening, five men, four of them ex-footballers, will gather at the bar of the Kensington Marriott. One of the group, who has played for Scotland, will have flown in from Glasgow, another, who has lifted the European Cup and played for England, will have come down from Manchester.

But while their talk may echo that of many football fans up and down the land as they look forward to the start of the Premier League season, this conversation will carry greater weight and resonate much further.

Playing the joker: Jeff Stelling is perfect for getting the best out of the panel on a show, which for all the insight, has plenty of banter

For this is no ordinary bar-room chat but serious preparation for a Saturday afternoon show whose success is both unexpected and quite remarkable.

By rights it should not work on television. Four ex-players watch matches on TVs and their oohs and aahs draw attention to the fact something has happened in their game, which they then tell the audience about. Despite the viewers themselves not seeing any of the action, Gillette Soccer Saturday has become such a must watch-show for football fans that, from this season, it will be broadcast in high definition.

Nobody is more surprised by its success than Jeff Stelling, its presenter and the only non-footballer in this group, which consists of Phil Thompson, Charlie Nicholas, Matt Le Tissier and Paul Merson. When the programme started 13 years ago, Sky was not even sure how it should be presented. There was talk of having two hosts before Vic Wakeling, then head of Sky Sports, was convinced by Stelling there should only be one and he should be it.

Stelling, 55, confesses that the programme was born out of necessity — a Saturday afternoon football show which cannot show any live action — for all Sky’s proud boasts of being the home of football.

“At that time on a Saturday we cannot even show a blade of grass, let alone any live shots from the matches. People often say it would be nice to see the goals as they go in. But we cannot. Indeed we have to make sure that, when we go to our reporters at the ground, we position them in front of the cameras so that no part of the ground can be seen.”

All this makes Stelling’s role crucial. “My job is to get the footballers to air the sort of views the punters want. If I criticised Steven Gerrard, what weight can it carry? As an amateur player I was known as the chopper. But if Phil Thompson, who like Gerrard has lifted the European Cup and is Liverpool through and through, does then that makes it different.”

Former players can often be reluctant to be too critical of other footballers but Stelling has never had any problems getting Thompson to speak out. “Phil is the most opinionated man on football I have ever met. That man could start a fight in a phone box. He is passionate and not afraid to express an opinion.”

Thompson’s allegiance to the Liverpool cause comes shining through when he’s in the Sky studios — just have a look on YouTube at his reaction to John Arne Riise’s injury-time own goal against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League semi-final.

Stelling says: “If Liverpool are losing 4-0 to Fulham, Thompson could still be expected to see some good in Liverpool. So now we do not ask our four experts to comment on matches which involve their former teams, making them act more as neutral observers.”

As a Hartlepool fan, Stelling has no Premier League allegiance and that makes him an ideal neutral presenter when the panel are discussing the day’s major issues, which tend to affect the top-flight.

When I put this to him he said in mock indignation, “What, Hartlepool will be in the Premier League in two seasons,” but then he laughed and added, “You are absolutely right.

“People often come up to me at service stations and say, Come on tell us which is your real team.’ But supporting Hartlepool, and not say Manchester United or one of the other big clubs, does mean people cannot easily accuse me of bias.”

Stelling can use also his Hartlepool links as a comic interlude to enhance what he calls his role “as ring master” making sure his football stars produce the right lines.

Over the years he has developed his relationship with his stars to bring the best out in them. “So,” says Stelling, “Matt Le Tissier has not changed since his playing days when he seemed so laid-back that he gave the impression that he would rather be anywhere than on a football field. Matt will spend five days on a golf course and, if possible, all seven. But, if a player misses a penalty, then Matt is the person to talk to. He only missed one penalty and that was saved by Mark Crossley of Nottingham Forest. He can comment on players without being malicious.”

But, if Le Tissier has not changed, Charlie Nicholas has, “Charlie”, says Stelling “may have had the reputation of champagne Charlie, a blonde under each arm in his playing days. But, since he retired he has become a very shrewd businessman investing in property and with grown up children.

This comes out in the way he assesses a game.”

Stelling is not afraid to provoke his stars, playing on their little idiosyncrasies. Paul Merson, as Stelling says, has a “relaxed grasp of the English language”. Last season, Stelling read an interview with Roy Hodgson in this paper in which the then Fulham boss spoke of his love for French movies starring Gerard Depardieu.

As a result, Stelling decided to quiz Merson about France and so asked him about views on the game expressed in the French sport daily paper L’Equipe. “Paul did not know the country the paper was from, let alone what had been said. It was as if I had asked him a question about Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity.”

In many ways Chris Kamara, whose unique take on the role of match reporter has won him an army of fans, has helped Stelling define the charm of the programme not only by what he says but what he omits to say.

“Chris knows he is not a footballing great,” admits Stelling. “He was a journeyman footballer but he is very knowledgeable, people talk to him and his reports reflect his personality. So, when Jon Harley scored for Fulham, Chris started by saying he had shot from 30 yards, then he said no 40 yards and ended up saying it was 50 yards. I could not resist responding, Well Chris what you want to say was he scored from outside the ground.’ Chris joined in the laughter that followed.

“Chris always takes these things very well. Last season, for instance, as I went to him for a report, I knew a red card had been given but Chris missed that. I had to point it out and we had a good laugh over it. But, underneath all that, he takes his football very seriously.”

For Stelling such banter between him and his football experts makes the show. “It is a show which goes on for six hours and it is only people talking so part of the trick is to show that we are all human.”

However, beneath the froth of the banter and laughter, is a rigorous attention to detail.

Stelling devotes much of the week to his homework, gathering those little nuggets about teams and players that he sprinkles during the show, like for instance Bristol City having not lost their opening day fixture for 10 seasons, a titbit that came in very useful last Saturday when they began their Championship campaign by crashing at home 3-0 to Millwall.

“I learned the need for preparation from Peter Bromley when I worked at the BBC. He used to prepare the most meticulous race card and I spend much of the week writing in long hand facts and figures that might come in useful during the show.”

But he reflects that the show is an updated television version of what LBC, one of the first broadcasters Stelling worked for, used to do.

He says: “In those days LBC did not have any rights and had telephone reports from various grounds. In contrast the BBC, which had all the rights, broadcasted a second-half commentary. If you had no interest in the two teams involved, you switched off. Since then I have always thought that, for a Saturday afternoon programme to work, you must make it varied and interesting.

“People are always dipping in and out, they have different interests and you must make sure you have something interesting for everybody.”

Stelling confesses that to heighten the interest, he may occasionally mislead his public. “Let’s say we are about go to Upton Park. West Ham are losing 1-0. They need to draw to make sure they do not sink further into the relegation battle. I know a goal has been scored at Upton Park and it has not gone to the Hammers. But as I take the viewers to the ground I do not reveal that. I say West Ham need to score, a goal has been scored, now let us see whether West Ham have done it. Yes it is not quite open and honest but it is prolonging the suspense and this is show business.”

His fellow journalists have long accepted that this penchant for show business is combined with shrewd journalism, a recognition reflected in the fact that, for five successive years, he has been voted sports broadcaster of the year, the sort of winning run any Premier League club would covet.


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