Exclusive Interview: Jeff Stelling – Sky Sports & Countdown!

Adam Crafton 23 November 2012

The star of Gillette Soccer Saturday, Jeff Stelling, talks exclusively to Adam Crafton about the secrets of the show’s success, working with George Best, Chris Kamara and his true love: Hartlepool United…

Jeff, Gillette Soccer Saturday is four ex-footballers sitting in a studio describing matches we can’t see, while yourself, a Hartlepool fan, gives us the latest scores from around the country. In theory, it shouldn’t really work….

You’re right. It shouldn’t work. But when it started, there wasn’t an alternative. People would have to spend Saturday afternoons, if they weren’t at a game, watching Ceefax and waiting for pages to flick over and reveal their team’s latest score. It was becoming a desperately tedious routine during those days. So we came up with an alternative, provided a service and gave people their scores much more quickly than they had ever had them before.

You joined Soccer Saturday in 1994; did you ever envisage that it could be so successful?

No. It was impossible to predict the success that it has been. Even when the show started to become really popular and develop ‘cult status’, there was always the threat that one of the BBC or ITV would take it on and copy the format. They have both tried that, but thankfully, both of the copies turned out inferior to the real thing and hopefully, we are for keeps now. I remember seeing Brian Barwick, just after he had finished as head of ITV Sport. And he said to me: “There was a Saturday afternoon where there was no football on TV so I walked down the high street and went into ‘Currys’ and every telly had your bloody face on it! Every bloody football ground I went to, even though we at the ITV had a show, it would be your sodding programme showing!”

The panel has evolved quite a lot over the years. In the early days, you had George Best on the panel. Can you give us any anecdotes about George?

In all seriousness, Besty was fantastic to work with and he remains the greatest player that I have seen in my lifetime but reliability was not his forte! We would tell his wife to put him in a cab on the Saturday morning and tell the driver to go straight to Sky and not go anywhere else. But George had this real charm about him and he would soon be chatting to the taxi driver and he’d always say, ‘Oooh, I’ve got something I need to pick up from the Sydney Arms in Chelsea’ and the taxi driver would take him there. But what he had to pick up from the Sydney Arms was a pint or three of beer! Consequently, we decided that we couldn’t have an empty chair so we were the first and, to my knowledge, the only show to have a substitute on standby! We would have someone Nigel Spackman relatively close, waiting in the offing until 1130am, for a 12pm start to the show, to see whether George turned up or not. One Saturday morning, there was a story on the front of the Daily Mail reporting that Besty had gone out in London and returned to his hotel with, let’s say, two ‘Ladies of the Night’ – and consequently, George has fallen asleep and they have nicked £2,000 out of his trouser pocket. Obviously, he wasn’t on the show the next day – so I opened the show by saying, “George is not with us today, he’s not feeling too grand!”

Haha! The panel now consists of Matt Le Tissier, Phil Thompson, Charlie Nicholas and Paul Merson, who is particularly entertaining to watch!

Yes, Merse is the linguist on the panel! But I’ll tell you, my boss wasn’t sure about him after his first few times on the show. I remember after he had been on for a little while, I had an end-of-season debrief with the Managing Director of Sky Sports, who said – “I’m really not sure about Paul Merson. How can we have someone describing football matches who cannot articulate and speak clear English?” Many years later, my then boss retired and at his retirement bash he said, “One mistake that I almost made was sacking Paul Merson – that would have been one of THE biggest mistakes”.

What do you think it is that makes Merse so likeable?

The thing about Merse is that people can relate to him. He’s got a great sense of humour, but he also has this vulnerability about him – because he can’t pronounce some words and he has had his problems in the past with all sorts of demons – and people just see a human side to him, much in the way they did with Besty. What he does have is a good knowledge of football, he has played the game at the top level and in lower divisions and he was a fabulously gifted player.

What about Matt Le Tissier, Jeff, is he really as laid-back as he comes across?

Oh, absolutely! Matt’s idea of a wonderful life is to play golf five days a week, be on Soccer Saturday on the Saturday and then if Southampton have a Sunday match, to go to that. That is his idea of paradise. He is the most laid-back man you have ever met. The great thing about Le Tiss, and indeed all the panellists, is that you have to earn the right to criticise and I think they have all done that. Ok, Matt may not have won any medals but everybody knew that he was one of the most talented players that we have ever seen.

Let’s talk about another key figure on the show – Chris Kamara – there have been so many memorable moments with him, especially when Kammy failed to spot that Anthony Van Den Borre had been sent off when covering a game at Portsmouth. The clip on YouTube went viral with almost 600,000 views!

Yes, that’s right. “Chris, there’s been a red card at Fratton Park, tell us about it Chris!” – Kammy replies, (Jeff puts on his best, and very good Chris Kamara impression) “Jeff, I haven’t seen it, what’s happened?” “Well, our information is that Anthony Vanden Borre has two yellow cards and has been sent off”. And Kammy says, “Well, I saw him go off Jeff but I thought they were bringing a sub on!” Anyway, it was cutting edge reporting! He has a great balance because fans love him for his comical side but they, as well as people inside football, recognise that he does know his football inside out too, as you can see on his programme Goals On Sunday.

He certainly is a character. Is there anyone else that you would dream of having on the show as a panellist?

Erm, let me think. There are certain people who would make a great panellist – Jamie Redknapp would. And Harry Redknapp – I know he does a bit with Match of The Day but Harry has a lovely sense of humour and he has worked with the panel before and he knows all the boys. Of course, there would then be the biggest names like Mourinho or Sir Alex but, as much as I admire them, I think they may be just a tad overpowering for us!

How do you remember all these stats that you reel off, how long do you spend learning them?

It’s like any other job – the secret is in the preparation. If you prepare well, then you have a chance. I write them all down by hand, which helps them stick in the mind. But some are stats that go on and on – Manchester United have never lost a Premier League game at Old Trafford when they have been ahead at half-time, for example. Some, I have in mind for a long time and then I miss the damn thing! Last week for instance – Norwich have not kept consecutive away clean sheets in the Premier League since 2004 – and they drew at Reading last week to put an end to that stat, and I was looking back over the show and said “Bollocks – I missed it!” So after all that time I’d remembered it, and now I’ve missed it and it will never come round again!

One thing you have made little secret of on Soccer Saturday is your true love: Hartlepool United. Just 8 points from your opening 19 games, and you are 10 points adrift at the bottom of League 1…… It’s not been a very encouraging start to the season, has it, Jeff?

Uchh, a masterful understatement. Horrendous. Going back years and years, we had a reputation for being the worst team ever in the Football League but I thought those days were behind us. We had pretty high hopes for this season, as well.

But you now have a new manager in John Hughes and your Chief Executive said that Sven Goran Eriksson applied!

I heard! I think Sven would be talking about completely different types of money – and let’s not forget, Sven has had a go at managing at that level, and it didn’t end well at Notts County! You need someone who is ambitious and who has a good knowledge of players who play at that level. Hughes did well at Falkirk and got Hibernian into Europe, developing good, young players. I knew that he was going to go on the shortlist so I have been asking a lot of people about him, and nobody has a bad word to say. I’m hopeful, but it is a pretty bleak task. We will need two or three wins back-to-back very quickly.

One of the iconic images on Soccer Saturday came when Hartlepool player, James Brown, would score and you would bring out a singing toy figure of the American singer James Brown and the whole panel would sing ‘I Feel Good’. But he’s now left the club to join Gateshead! Is the singing doll moving on, too?

The doll has been put up for auction – it is on EBay! The Mayor of Hartlepool is auctioning it off for various charities. It is a shame for James Brown (the footballer) as he is a great talent but he could never stay fit and he was one of Hartlepool’s highest earning players. It is a shame for the show because on the rare occasions that the doll came out, it was always great fun!

You also now present the live Champions League football on Sky – do you enjoy that as much as Soccer Saturday?

Yeah, I love it. To do a game live in the San Siro, the Bernabeau or the Camp Nou is an incredible experience. Communication is difficult because it is hard to hear when we are stood pitch side and it is tough to hear yourself think but I have been to some of the best grounds and the best games, which I have really enjoyed. I love working with ‘The Godfather’ – Graeme Sounness – and all that clan.

Talking of pundits, what did you think of the decision to have Gary Neville on Sky and how do you think he is doing?

I thought it was a massive coup for Sky. To get somebody who was an England international and Manchester United legend and utterly contemporary on board was absolutely brilliant. Also everyone knew that with Gary’s reputation as a ‘shop steward’, that he would be opinionated, which he certainly is. But I don’t think anyone foresaw that he would be as fantastic as he has turned out to be. He’s been brilliant, perceptive, balanced and he offers something different. He’s a perfectionist, too. Trust me, I work with him. If he has seen an incident, he will watch it 10 times before he makes his mind up.

Carlos Tevez wrote in his column in the The Sun last week that, as the England assistant manager, Gary shouldn’t be a pundit on Sky as well…

Yeah, I saw. What on earth has that sort of thing got to do with Carlos Tevez? I mean, seriously, an Argentinean displaying his concern about a conflict of interests in the England camp! I don’t think there is a problem with it at all. It just means Gary gets to see an awful lot of games, a hell a lot of players and for me, he has a major role to play with England. Roy Hodgson would not have him if he felt there was a conflict of interests and I have certainly not seen any evidence of this at all.

You also presented Countdown for three years, would you like to present different types of shows in the future?

There is just so little time to do other things. Countdown was great and I did it for three years but it was incredibly time-consuming and tiring as well with the travelling and trying to make it work alongside my Sky commitments was difficult. When I then started to present the Champions League as well as Soccer Saturday, it became impossible to do Countdown. I would be perfectly happy and would enjoy the possibility of doing something different but only if it was in addition to doing what I do now, not instead of it.

Matt Le Tissier came on to Countdown while you were presenting, but which of the Soccer Saturday panellists would do the worst on Countdown?

The worst would definitely, definitely be Merse! You need to be able to spell to go on Countdown!

Adam Crafton