It was a Saturday afternoon that sent shockwaves through the football world â€“ all before the 3 pm games had even kicked off.
When Jeff Stelling announced he was stepping down from Soccer Saturday my immediate reaction was immense sadness. Itâ€™s the end of an era and Saturdayâ€™s will never be the same again as of the 22/23 season. Weâ€™ll be sure to enjoy the remaining 7 months of bad puns and incredible statistics but there are 25 years worth of memories to think about. Why do I hold Stelling in such high regard?
For many football fans, Soccer Saturday has been a companion between 12 pm and 6 pm for many years. Whilst there has been a revolving cast of panellists over the years, Jeff has been the constant. My love affair with the show dates back to around 1998 when I first got hooked, previously settling for Ceefax or the 15 minutes of Final Score Grandstand would afford. There was always a great rapport between host and guest, something which has sadly drifted in recent years which weâ€™ll come onto later.
Iâ€™m a self-confessed Stelling fanboy as well. Iâ€™ve got three of his books and a Soccer Saturday DVD staring at me from the bookshelf. I watched Countdown as a student when he was the host and count him as one of the six celebrity guests I would absolutely invite to a dinner party when that question is inevitably posed. To me, he has the best job in the world, and I worry anybody else will be able to do it.
I like Julian Warren, who is presumably favourite to take over having done the midweek version for years and also subbed for Jeff on various Saturdayâ€™s. He doesnâ€™t have the gravitas of Stelling though and Sky have made the mistake of replacing the established guard of Charlie Nicholas, Phil Thompson and Matt Le Tissier with younger pundits. Although they have played the modern game they have the notable disadvantage that they havenâ€™t been a pundit very long and frankly, nobody cares what Darren Bent or Michael Dawson have to say. Yet. They need years in the pundit game to command that sort of respect and whether you agreed with Charlie or Thommo (weâ€™ll leave Le Tissier out of this argument for obvious reasons) you canâ€™t deny theyâ€™ve been there and done it, even if it was years ago. Iâ€™m not overly sure why they were replaced as the new generation clearly werenâ€™t ready for the role. It would have made more sense to phase them out maybe one at a time but if itâ€™s an age thing, the new pundits have not offered anything in the way of modern thinking. If anything, itâ€™s worse as they have been in the game more recently and are therefore more likely to have worked with this manager or that player and wonâ€™t give a fair opinion. I understand they want to protect their friends but then there is no point in them being there when their job is to give an opinion.
The writing was on the wall once those three departed and Jeff said as much at the time. Iâ€™m pleased heâ€™s been allowed to go on his own terms and I thought it was interesting that he said he isnâ€™t retiring yet. From reading his autobiography thereâ€™s a lot that goes into Soccer Saturday â€“ hours of preparation during the week plus any travel time, an overnight stay and so on. Without his good mates there to join in the appeal has probably lessened. Old stagers McInally, Dowie and even Kammy seem to be on the way out too, with Tony Cottee another to have recently have been released. I think there will always be merit in having somebody at the grounds reporting but I imagine it is cheaper to hire a journalist to do so rather than an ex-footballer. Everything in the modern world is about cutting costs – except for the customer.
Despite the lack of chemistry with those around him (this isnâ€™t a knock on the new pundits, it just takes time to develop) it doesnâ€™t seem Jeff had lost his enthusiasm for the job. There were still stats galore, bad puns and terrible masking of celebrating Hartlepool goals. Granted we were never likely to reach the glory years of the singing James Brown doll but the show was still very watchable. Somebody is going to have very big shoes to fill â€“ metaphorically, at least.
I do wonder if a position hosting BTâ€™s Champions League coverage would be considered. Gary Lineker stepped away from this season and Jake Humphrey is a fine presenter but heâ€™s not a â€œnameâ€ like Lineker. If BT are purchased by another broadcaster, as is rumoured, it would be a statement signing. He did of course lead Skyâ€™s Champions League coverage following the departure of Richard Keys so itâ€™s not an alien concept. Whether he would ever consider doing a rival show like BT Sport Score or BBCâ€™s Final Score is another matter and I personally doubt it, without having any insight other than a hunch on the matter.
For me, itâ€™s going to take some getting used to. Iâ€™ve spent Saturdays with Jeff and the boys at my parentsâ€™ house, in my dodgy student flats, in the first house I owned and now with my son. Iâ€™ve played the Soccer Saturday drinking game and survived and Iâ€™ve been in a pub where everybody in there raised a glass when Jeff was on the screen. Students, eh?
I didnâ€™t always agree with him or his mates but he always stood up for the North East where he is clearly very proud to be from. From 3 pm on a Saturday, you knew what was going on in the length and breadth of the country whilst marvelling at the stats pulled out of seemingly nowhere. No away wins in 6, the first time this player has scored since 2017, never lost when leading at halftime in the Premier Leagueâ€¦I could go on. How did he know? Was he being fed lines? The fact that it was so quick and seamless as goals were flying in on the vidiprinter is what made the show so impressive.
The saying is â€œthe show must go onâ€ but fundamentally it doesnâ€™t have to. Whoever takes over has got to hit the ground running or Soccer Saturday might not be around too much longer. Letâ€™s enjoy it whilst we can. Good luck in whatever is next Jeff and thank you for the memories.