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Hartlepool fan who made Premier show his own

Sport | Published:

It shouldn’t work. A TV programme which asks us to sit on our sofas to watch other people sat in a studio watching football matches on our behalf. No goals for us to see, no chances to show, no action to replay. Just a bunch of pundits looking at monitors. It simply shouldn’t be good telly . . . but it is.

Soccer Saturday is a huge success story for Sky Sports with millions of us tuning in through the season to find out how our team is doing, where they are in the league now and whether Chris Kamara will get the score the right way round this week.

The glue that holds it all together, presenter Jeff Stelling, provides the banter, the quick wit, the fascinating stats and a clear passion for the game. And that was certainly all on show as he entertained a crowd of 180 at the L’Horizon Hotel on Friday as the guest speaker at Jersey football’s end-of-season awards, sponsored by Jacksons.

Stelling (63) has hosted Soccer Saturday for two decades now, and admits not everyone was convinced that the format would work when it was initially put forward. ‘When I first got the job presenting it there was not a queue around the block, put it that way,’ he said in an interview with the JEP ahead of the ceremony.

‘It just sounded daft, it sounded like it couldn’t possibly work. I think we felt we’d done well to get through a season or two and for it still to be going. Gradually it caught people’s imagination with the help of people like Rodney Marsh and George Best, and it gradually became the beast that it is today.

‘It’s been a fantastic life for me, and to be honest I love doing it as much today as I did on the first day.’

Stelling has travelled the world reporting on football, but this was his first visit to Jersey. It comes just days before the World Cup kicks off in Russia, with England taking a young, energetic but somewhat inexperienced side at international level. While many of us are still dreaming of the Three Lions lifting the famous trophy, there has certainly been less media and public hype about the squad’s chances than in tournaments gone by.

‘England couldn’t be in better shape but we always have to have a sense of realism,’ added Stelling. ‘It’s interesting, I can’t remember seeing a single flag of St George hanging from any house and we’re only days away. Maybe it’s a sign of the way expectation has changed.

‘I think Gareth Southgate’s done a fantastic job, he’s left absolutely nothing to chance, and the team has been on really good form. It was probably a ‘shadow squad’ that played Costa Rica but two or three of them made a real statement about their potential of being in that starting line-up against Tunisia and no one more so that Marcus Rashford, who was fantastic.’

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The international game will be the focus for the next month in Russia, but Stelling knows the other end of professional football all too well. He’s a long-suffering Hartlepool United supporter, and believes his career has benefited from following a lower-level side.

‘It’s always helped me in terms of my work that I am a Hartlepool fan because if I was a Manchester United fan, or a Liverpool fan, or a Chelsea fan or a Spurs fan it would leave me open to all sorts of potential criticism,’ he said.

‘Because I’m a fan of little old Hartlepool nobody minds too much. We [smaller clubs] do get overlooked but I suppose that’s the same in any business, the big film stars for instance earn the big bucks.’

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