“It’s been a difficult few weeks because it would be like I’ve lost the entire midfield just before the start of the season,” Jeff Stelling says as, in a deserted pub in Winchester, I compare him to a football manager. The usual giddy optimism of a new season is missing for Stelling as he starts his 22ndyear of hosting a bizarre but cherished Saturday afternoon programme in which he barks out scores across the English and Scottish leagues while four former footballers in the Sky studio watch games on television monitors we cannot see. A seemingly ludicrous concept has worked seamlessly ever since Stelling helped launch Soccer Saturday in 1998 – four years after he joined Sky’s Sports Saturday programme.
This Saturday will not be the same. Three of Stelling’s four closest colleagues have been axed from the show and the 65-year-old host, whose good cheer and smooth professionalism provide the bedrock on which Soccer Saturday has built its popularity, still seems hurt and perplexed. Phil Thompson, Charlie Nicholas and Matt Le Tissier were told last month they were no longer wanted by Sky.
“They have become my best friends,” Stelling says. “Tommo rang me first on a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago. He said the head of football had asked for a meeting at lunchtime and a meeting with Charlie an hour later. Just before midday my phone rang and it was Tiss. I said: ‘Hello Tiss, how’re you doing?’ He said: ‘I was doing OK until I was sacked.’ That was a real shock. Matt is much younger than the other guys and I was very taken aback. But, as soon as Matt told me he’d been sacked, I knew what was coming.
“It hit Matt the hardest because that was out of the blue. He’s 51 and a legendary figure. If you go down the south coast, Le God is his nickname. Well, not if you go to Portsmouth. They have a different nickname for him there. Matt has a nice wit about him. He is very well researched and took delight in having better stats than me.”
Did Stelling talk to his bosses? “I discussed it with Gary Hughes [Sky’s head of football]. I talked about the fact the three had gone at the same time just before the start of the season and the difficulties that presented. I didn’t say: ‘Why have you sacked Le Tissier? Why did you sack Tommo and Charlie?’ I didn’t go through the ins and outs because what other people think won’t sound great. I’m an employee and I do what they tell me. If I don’t like it, my alternative is to leave.”
Stelling is so obviously the lynchpin of Soccer Saturday that fans of the programme were quick to note his unhappiness on Twitter. Did he consider his position at Sky? “It would be honest to say that. Yes, of course. Whether I want to effectively start again is another question. We’ve done it with the first team we had – Bestie [George Best], Marshy [Rodney Marsh], Frank [McLintock] and Clive [Allen] and then we built another team [with his three sacked friends and Paul Merson]. I’m 65. I’ve had a fantastic run.”
The presenter pauses. “I don’t feel ready to retire, but do I want to start all over again with a diminished product? So I did think about [resigning] but all three urged me not to do anything silly. I’ve also talked to people at Sky and part of the job is to make sure it’s not a diminished product and it’s fun and lively even in a Carabao Cup week. We did a show and once we got into the games you can’t help but enjoy it. It was a short show from 2.30pm to 5pm and I got messages from Charlie and Tommo saying: ‘We’re watching. Have a good show, mate, just be professional.’ So that’s what I did last Saturday, that’s what I’ll do this Saturday and we’ll see what happens.”
Stelling is aware it will take time to develop chemistry with his new colleagues. “It does. Or it might never develop. You just don’t know. So I’m apprehensive. The show is different anyway, because of Covid, in that we only have two people in the studio with me and three elsewhere. That changes the dynamics. The comfort is that Merse is still in the studio with me. Tim Sherwood will be with us. Tony Pulis is going to be in, as will Clinton Morrison who has done lots of shows, and Glen Johnson. So there will be five as opposed to four. But that’s by no means, as I understand it, a permanent lineup.”
How does Merson feel about the changes? “I think Merse felt the other three brought the best out of him. He was extremely comfortable in their company. I just said: ‘Merse, get your head down and carry on doing what you do.’ Hopefully, in years to come, he will establish the same relationship with people who take the boys’ places.”
Did Sky feel that there were too many old white men on Soccer Saturday? “I’m not privy to their decisions. Their view is it was the right time for change. On this occasion I couldn’t influence anything.”
It seems poignant that Stelling’s new book I’ve Got Mail: The Soccer Saturday Letters should be published now. He includes letters he has received over the past 40 years – from one which had no address on the envelope but just said “Jeff Stelling – Shit” to more recent correspondence where a fan of Soccer Saturday asked him for a £10,000 loan because “you seem such an amazing chap”. The most powerful letter was written by a young woman who had been clinically depressed at 15.
“About 10 years ago I got a letter without an address. It started with this young woman saying, ‘Gosh, this is a difficult letter to write. I know the middle and the end but I don’t how to begin.’ She explained that, as a troubled young girl, she’d been in the throes of depression and contemplating suicide. One day, in the depths of her misery, she came into the lounge and her brother was watching Soccer Saturday. She heard me belting out scores at a ridiculous pace, telling bad gags and having a dig at the panellists. I’m not sure she was into football then but she is now. That first day she saw Soccer Saturday she thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be an achievement if I was around this time next week to see this guy again blurting out his scores at the speed of light?’ It became a weekly battle to make it to Saturday. She said every time she got to Saturday it was like she’d scored a goal.
“As the weeks went by, with the appointment with me on a Saturday afternoon, she could suddenly see a ray of hope at the end of this tunnel of darkness. She was writing to say that, in a weird way, I’d helped save her life without knowing it.
“I knew nothing more about her until six months ago when there was a message on Twitter. It was not aimed at me but to the general public from this young lady who related, while talking about mental health, the letter she had sent to me. I had referred to it once and on the day she discovered I’d received the letter, and what I felt about it, she was sitting in a clinic about to have an examination for breast cancer. She was in this cold waiting room, nervous as hell, and she picked up a magazine and there was the story. She said it was like I was there again.”
Stelling stresses how much football is opening up to women and changing for the better. Women are emerging as adept pundits and Sue Smith has appeared occasionally in the Soccer Saturday studio. But Stelling admits it is hard for any woman to appear on his panel. “Oh God, yes. The response on social media is horrendous. Whether it be Sue Smith or Alex Scott the criticism is horrendous and totally unjustified. When we had Soccer Specials, some of the women who’d come in had been very reluctant. They knew what the response would be, regardless of how good they were. There’s this blinkered idea – ‘It’s a woman, what can she know about football?’
“Twenty years ago I was also sceptical. But my view has changed and obviously we’ve had very good reporters like Michelle Owen, Bianca Westwood and Jacqui Oatley. They’re really experienced. When Sue came in it took her a while to grow in confidence. But she’s terrific value now and done brilliantly. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t feature more.”
Will Stelling be at Soccer Saturday in five years? “No. There comes a time for everyone when it’s right to stop. I don’t feel it’s my right time at the moment. If I wasn’t at Soccer Saturday I’d be looking to do something else. I’ve got two boys, aged 22 and 20, and a daughter of 17. I don’t know what sort of job they’re going to get in this coronavirus-ravaged age. So I feel a responsibility to carry on while I’m earning enough to support them.
“And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. I love the Saturday afternoons. I don’t enjoy everything that goes on around it as much. I don’t just mean what’s happened to the guys. I mean the research sitting at a laptop all Wednesday and Thursday. But you have to do it. Think of Jelleyman [in one of Stelling’s most memorable moments on Soccer Saturday he said, ‘Gareth Jelleyman has been sent off. Let’s hope he hasn’t thrown a wobbly!’] My research told that me Jelleyman had never been sent off. That kind of stat excites me. Then, on the day he finally got a red card I delivered the line.
“But the first four weeks of a new season are always difficult because there are so many transfers. Last week I said: ‘Bolton have signed 16 new players.’ Neil Mellor, our reporter at Bolton, said: ‘It’s 17, Jeff. They signed another one this morning.’ Lots of clubs are like that at lower levels. Fifteen out, 15 in.
“But I always have an eye for little curiosities. Swindon have just signed three players called Smith: Tyler Smith, Jonny Smith, somebody else Smith. They’ve already got Sam Smith on their books. Stirling Albion once had four players called Smith. Chris Smith, Gordon Smith, Darren Smith and Darren L Smith. When they were relegated, I said: ‘Heaven knows they’re miserable now.’”
Stelling is far too charming to appear miserable but has this past week been the most difficult of his career? “No. The most difficult week was when George [Best] died and we had a show on the Saturday. There’ll be plenty of opportunities for Tommo, Charlie and Le Tiss so it pales into insignificance in comparison to George. But it will still be difficult. It’s the cliche. It’s the start of a new journey and we’ve just got to see where it takes us.”
Jeff Stelling’s I’ve Got Mail: The Soccer Saturday Letters is published by Headline