Inside Soccer Saturday

There are four of them, former pros all, each with his own look, his own character, his own skills. And then there’s the boss, TV’s coolest anchorman. Their mission: to watch football for those of us who (for contractual reasons) can’t. To transmit the excitement, the drama, the comedy and the pathos of match day from the set of Sky’s cult hit, Soccer Saturday. Esquire goes behind the scenes of TV’s unlikeliest phenomenon

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They’ve already begun when they spill out of the silver people carrier that drops them off at the security gates of Sky TV’s compound in Osterley, west London on this cool, bright autumn morning – gabbing, jousting, nattering about today’s fixtures and who’s plumping for which teams in the small-change accumulator they run between them during the show.

It’s the Soccer Saturday panel: four men who share between them 91 international caps, 11 top-flight league titles and three European Cups. Here is Liverpool’s combative Phil Thompson with his Sam the Eagle profile and a black shirt/black tie combo that is very “football pundit”. Here’s equable, towering Matt Le Tissier of Southampton with his Judge Dredd chin; and Celtic’s Charlie Nicholas, the Bono mullet of his Eighties champagne years now replaced by a spiky bleach-blond crop; and big friendly Paul Merson of Arsenal, Villa and Portsmouth, a soppy, baggy-faced bulldog in human form. The man who holds it all together, anchorman Jeff Stelling, is already in the building, mulling over the reputed 17 hours of research he carries out for each six-hour show. Jeff gets in early.

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These are old soldiers and this afternoon they will again render to the nation the highest service that a player of their vintage can, to wit: shouting and bawling at television monitors that the viewers can’t see in a symphony of “OH!” and “NO!” and “GOAL!” and “WHAAT?” Soccer Saturday began in the early Nineties as a straightforward rolling news and results service; an answer to the conundrum of how you cover football when from 3pm to the final whistle you’re contractually forbidden from showing even a blade of grass. The thing it evolved into has been described as a televised pub argument, a radio show with pictures, soccer’s own high-volume Last of the Summer Wine and the best way to watch football on television bar none.

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The caper is as follows. Every Saturday, the four panellists don headphones and each watches a Premier League fixture so you don’t have to (because you can’t), their faces and yelps a more faithful reflection of the match’s ebb and flow than any diagram could ever be. Stelling, the unflappable ringmaster, dispenses score updates and statistics all laced with familiar “Jeff-isms” – literary references, tortuous puns, facts so bizarre that they simply have to be true – and gives special attention to his beloved Hartlepool United FC. The panellists are supposed to be objective, but sometimes they cannot help themselves. They take defeat personally, they revel in victory and, most of all, they take the piss out of one another. “Basically,” the laconic Le Tissier will explain to me later, “the whole appeal of the programme is looking at Thommo’s face when Liverpool lose.”

The result is a programme which makes Match of the Day look painfully timid and staid. Soccer Saturday shows you that the people inside football are pretty much the same as you. They scream and shout. They think a TV monitor is a two-way communication device and that the players and referee can hear what they’re saying. They are trapped in the eternal fan’s struggle between believing what they see (it’s a penalty) and listening to the raging illogical voice of their heart (it’s never a penalty). Soccer Saturday gives banter – the wit and comradely repartee that used to bond men together, now dragged in the mud by Twitter trolls and UniLad simpletons – its good name back. It covers football the way people watch it.

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An hour before show time, Stelling and his four-man panel are scattered amid the PC terminals of the newspaper-strewn Sky Sports office, fiddling with iPhones and boning up on team news. This being football, everyone is known exclusively as Tiss or Thommo or Charlie or Merse – and Jeff is, of course, Jeff. A steady back-and-forth of mild insults fills the air as they each bring up games that the others have called wrong in past weeks. They all meet every Friday for a drink to discuss tomorrow’s show, although the four ex-pros long sussed out the Machiavellian Stelling’s hidden agenda of sounding out their opinions; the better to trapdoor them the next day on live TV. Watch closely – you can see him doing it.

“When you come out of football, you lose that camaraderie,” Phil Thompson says. “Being on the panel gives it back. It’s very much dressing-room banter, pub humour, and I think that’s why we appeal to this cult following. People can relate. You see modern-day footballers with big houses and big cars living the celebrity lifestyle, but we’re a bit more normal. We’re down to earth and we like a wind-up, but the lads are all experienced and they know what they’re talking about, so we have serious debate. That’s what makes the show so good. And you need a great anchorman to manage all that. I’m not kidding you, Jeff Stelling is the best in the world.”

An hour later, they settle into that famous, streamlined red and blue desk that resembles a giant iPod dock. It looks rock solid on TV, a spaceship for travelling into the footballing future, but when I attempt to stand on it during an ad break, the whole panel and floor staff shout “Nooo!”, for the Soccer Saturday command module is actually made out of bits of wood. Behind the desk, where you can’t see, it’s covered in scraps of paper, sandwich boxes, plastic tea cups, sweet wrappers and crisp packets. “Whenever you can’t see our panellists on-screen,” a mildly disgusted Stelling will tell me later, “I can assure you they’re stuffing their faces.”
Merse, Thommo, Tiss and Charlie continue their stream of chatter so seamlessly that I barely notice that the show has started; a pre-game aperitif before Everton take on Manchester City in the lunchtime fixture. During a commercial break, Tiss reads out a tweet – “I’ve just watched 15 mins of Football Focus and I can’t take any more” – and everyone guffaws. In team news, Burton Albion have got a 50-year-old goalie on the bench. “He’s almost old enough to be on our panel,” Stelling says. Then food is ordered.

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“Can I have chips with ketchup, please?” Tiss says.

“Did you get curry?” Merse asks.

Jeff catches my eye. “All athletes, you see.”

“Ten seconds,” says someone. Tiss stuffs a final chip into his mouth and is back in character within seconds. Headphones on and eyes down for the 3pm kick-offs, the panel look like a straighter version of Kraftwerk. The sudden surprised cries of “OH GOD” and “AW WHAT A SAVE!” and “WHAT YOU DOIN’, YOU IDIOT” start to fill the air. Suárez scores for Liverpool against Crystal Palace and, off-camera, Thommo does a little dance. Jeff gets to report a goal for the mighty Hartlepool. Steven Gerrard scores a penalty and Thommo – who has clocked me as a fellow Liverpool supporter – gleefully flashes three fingers at me like an Iron Curtain dictator. The high-pitched sound of Tiss murmuring “Oh oh, keep going!” as Sunderland attack is strangely erotic, but Jeff keeps shouting “I’M SORRY, I HAVE TO INTERRUPT…”

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He is a machine. He rattles out scores, summaries, crisp assessments, factoids, praise, approbation, bizarre coincidences, and he never seems to breathe. His voice is the relentless voice of footballing fate: rapid, insistent, implacable, sometimes cruel and unjust or plainly insane, but never wrong. It all matters equally to Jeff: the current 0–0 between Gala Fairydean and Clyde (which ends up 0–3 to Clyde), or the Premier League pummelling that Liverpool are now meting out to Crystal Palace. His voice sounds the way you want football to sound: free from cliché and accidental Partridgeism, a blast from the North East that tells you everything is happening and it’s all happening right now. He pronounces Rob Ramshaw scoring for Gateshead with the same relish as the name of Luis Suárez, because it is football that he loves as well as Hartlepool and sometimes it seems like he can conjure up its magic, charm its spirits and propitiate its household gods, keep it all alive by the plosive power of his own rhetoric.

The day ends with Liverpool at the top of the league and Thommo’s fist in the air. I’ve never enjoyed not watching football more.

Jeff Stelling claims he’s “no culture vulture” . But his Jeff-isms – a mix of educated gags and terrible puns – are as much a part of Soccer Saturday’s appeal as Merse’s malapropisms or Thommo’s comic fits of rage. A Jeff-ism points out the absurdity of the soccer universe. “The ref has thrown the book at Scott Fitzgerald,” he’ll say, or “a decent performance from Barrow, in fairness”, or “Guy Branston has got himself into a pickle.” Stelling titled one of his books Jelleyman’s Thrown a Wobbly after the manner in which he described a red card for Gareth Jelleyman, then of Mansfield Town. Jeff loves words; little wonder he presented Countdown for a few years.

Today, Ross Hannah scores for Grimsby Town. “His sisters will be  pleased,” Stelling notes, an observation that goes right over the panel’s heads. Sometimes the gods of football will give him an open goal. “Last season, Hartley and Poole both scored for Hartlepool,” he tells me afterwards in the deserted Sky Sports offices. “Oh joy! You see it coming and you think, ‘Oh, thank you, Lord!’”

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Stelling first started following football when his late sister took him to see Hartlepool as a kid – his father, a steelworker, didn’t enjoy it. It was character-building. “I became a fanatic,” he says. “You had to be, to follow Hartlepool.” He developed a fascination with newspapers, too. On his school careers day the headmaster told him: “You don’t really want to be a journalist do you, Stelling? All that peering into people’s lives where you’re not wanted?”

“You’ve clearly never read the Hartlepool Mail,” thought Stelling.

He began as a trainee news reporter on the local paper, soon taking on sports reporting for the paper’s late-night green edition. As a kid, he had written to the paper’s letters page and frequently won “star letter”. It was only when he started on the Mail that he learned that his were the only letters they got. “There was never another target for me but journalism,” he says.

He moved to sports reporting at Radio Tees, bagging his first commentary when the chief sports reporter fell ill for Leeds United vs Middlesbrough. Here, Stelling learned a lesson in attention to detail when he doorstepped Brian Clough on a visit to Middlesbrough, secured a dynamite interview, then returned to the office to discover he’d forgotten to put any tape in the recorder. “As far as the office was concerned,” he says, “Cloughie refused to speak to me.”

From local radio, he moved to TV-am – “the worst place I’ve ever worked, I hated it” – where the producers were so ignorant of sport that they thought Stelling could get them a Derby runner and its rider into the studio on the very morning of the race. A priceless thoroughbred shunted up in a props elevator? Not likely. Out of sheer boredom, he left to join the quixotic TV launch British Satellite Broadcasting – “Yes, I had a Squarial [BSB’s diamond-shaped satellite dish]. I thought they’d be collector’s items” – but the station’s legendary profligacy did not touch the sports department. Rupert Murdoch steamrollered them in short order and BSB merged with Sky much as a cloud of krill merges with a humpback whale.

Stelling has been at Sky since 1992, and at Soccer Saturday since 1994, slowly earning a reputation for wit and serene dependability. The panel can be a handful – “I’m trying to do the half-time scores but all you can hear is the crackle of sandwiches being opened, the rustle of sweets, the deafening racket of Merse physically eating them… they’re like a bunch of schoolchildren” – yet he has affection for them, too. Merson speaks from the heart, Thompson’s passion is irreplaceable, Charlie Nicholas is an eloquent character (“Never mind Champagne Charlie, he’s Ovaltine Charlie these days”) and Le Tissier is so calm as to be almost Zen. “You need that balance. They can’t all be wailing banshees like Thommo. They’re a good mix. They’re among my best mates, actually.”

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George Best was also a Soccer Saturday panellist until 2004, when his fight with drink became a losing battle and he left the show. Stelling still looks sad when recalling his old colleague, who could on Soccer Saturday show the best of a footballing self that could no longer make itself known elsewhere. “We never saw the drinking side of his life,” he says. “But there were some difficult times. He didn’t always turn up. He was given more leeway than anybody else would be given here or on any other TV station. My old boss Vic Wakeling [former managing director of Sky Sports] said that Bestie basically had a job for life.”
The picture he paints of Best is painful to hear: a man more famous than anyone should be, desperate to lead a normal life but incapable of stepping out of the door without being mobbed. “I think he viewed coming here as his sanctuary. Even when he was really ill in the Cromwell Hospital — dying, really — I never thought that he wouldn’t come out. The Saturday after he died was the saddest programme I’ve ever done, and probably ever will do. The boys loved him.”

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He wonders sometimes how Soccer Saturday will continue, not in the immediate years to come but in the further future. Will they be able to find articulate panellists of the necessary robust character from a generation of footballers who were raised on greater rewards and fancier lifestyles? “We’re incredibly lucky as a company to get people of the calibre of Jamie Redknapp, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher,” he says, “because they’re not easy to find. I think Soccer Saturday has been instrumental in making players want to go into media, actually, because in most cases now they don’t need to do it.”

In the meantime, there is simply the job of keeping the show on the air, and managing to keep all the voices – producer, director, stats man, floor manager, jabbering panel – from overwhelming the impervious guarantee of presentational perfection that is Robert Jeffrey Stelling. The only thing he can’t handle is when the vidiprinter results ticker breaks down. The last time it did, someone tweeted him: “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”

“I mean, what can I do?” he says. “I’m just a talking head.” But he isn’t, and he surely knows it.

“Sunderland have not won at Swansea since 1963... Oh what a night!” It’s two weeks later, and I’m back at Soccer Saturday and the Jeff-isms are in full flight.

For no reason at all, Jeff will decide to refer to West Ham’s manager as Sam Aller-DI-ché, lending the lugubrious long-ball man an aura of European sophistication. Jeff will introduce “top four Southampton at mid-table Manchester United” and Tiss’s face will light up like a child’s at Christmas. As Liverpool squander a chance to defeat 10-man Newcastle and Thommo fumes, Merse will single me out at the back of the studio for mocking laughter. I am honour-bound to flick him the Vs, which only makes him laugh harder.

Jeff will remain unperturbed as the former Arsenal midfielder tosses sweets up in the air and tries to catch them in his mouth while the anchor nervelessly reads the latest results. Southampton will hold on to draw 1–1 with Manchester United and Tiss’s face will light up still further as he walks away with this week’s pot. The 10 men of Hartlepool score against Plymouth and Jeff reels off the player’s name – “Luuuuuke James!” — as if it’s Real Madrid vs Barcelona. The panel all laugh at him.

And the Soccer Saturday chaps keep on nattering because the football will never run out. It maintains you in that exalted state of grace before adulthood, and who wouldn’t cherish that? When we shout at the screen, the people inside the TV hear what we say as if it is the very Voice of God. Keep yelling and they will hear you beseeching, berating, bawling your most earnest desires across the astral plane. Was it not Sir Alf Ramsey himself who once said…

“I’M SORRY, I’VE GOT TO INTERRUPT…”

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