The Football League play-offs return this week, but what do you know of their history since they started delighting us in 1987?
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers look at some of football's pundits and commentators and try to pin down what makes them good, what makes them bad, and what makes them ugly. This week, it's Jeff "Incredible Jeff" Stelling...
Favours the well-structured older man's jacket and shuns obvious fashion statements or vivid ties, perhaps because these might attract critique from football pundits who find bright colours to be a) hilarious and b) suggestion of a basic vulnerability to homosexuality. Although from Hartlepool, has absolutely no trace of a Hartlepool accent left in his tutored tones. This is a shame as we'd very much like to see him talk like the brilliant writer and broadcaster Michael Smith. http://bymichaelsmith.tumblr.com/
A new hair cut reveals a fondness for a touch of some sort of mousse or pomade. Loves a midwinter Dubai tan.
Performance of Hartlepool United. Helping Paul Merson make sense of existence. Stopping other, cleverer boys from giving Merse a wedgie.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Cool under pressure and an ability to rub along with even the least articulate members of the punditocracy. Seems to have no obvious axe to grind, his personality one of solid dependability, dedicated to letting other guests be the stars of the show. When let loose from the Soccer Saturday studio, takes an obvious pleasure at being on the biggest stages, which suggests a lack of cynicism or entitlement. In the Nou Camp on a Champions League night he cooed at being perched pitch-side on this most glorious of stages in the way you'd like to think all of us would.
The seamless way in which he weaves stats - that's his seventh quirky fact in as many sentences - and his endearingly clunky wordplay is a skill that only the most gifted live broadcaster could pull off.
No obvious weaknesses other than to tolerate, without question, the absolute guff that is exhaled by some of the top, top pundits. Either just an extremely affable man, or possessed of superhuman levels of forbearance.
Tactical genius or tactics truck?
Being the presenter, this isn't his gig at all but nonetheless, unlike some presenters, we do feel Jeff knows his stuff. Any Pools fan knows what it is like to peer into oblivion and hear it screaming back at you.
Leg squeezer geezer?
We're not sure that, as a proudly northern man from the Riviera de la Hartlepool, he would approve of any man-on-man touching, fearing it would be the sort of thing Shandy-drinking southerners might do. Would certainly be aware of where it fitted in the footballer's strangely repressed emotional landscape. That's not to say he wouldn't do it in the right environment or after drinking brandy.
Sort of. Yes. In part, especially on Soccer Saturday, his gig is to be a banterer with Matt, Merse, Thommo and Chaz. He makes this seem easy and gets away with a lot of mick-taking because of mutual affection, which is a sign of the trust and regard he's held in. However, Jeff is self-aware enough never to let this descend to the lowest common denominator, which is always a danger when Merse is present. Indeed, his relationship with the less than intellectual, literally repetitive, Jeff, literally repetitive, Jeff, ex-Arsenal legend sometimes resembles that of a care worker. When presenting big live games, he tends to default to a more presenting mode, asking questions and letting the guests show their chops - if indeed they have any.
Part of the reason for Jeff's ubiquity is being able to appeal right across the cultural and social spectrum. This means he can't be too aloof or intellectual nor too dumb. Consequently, he does dip his toe in the pool of expressive familiarity at times but it rarely becomes grating and is usually done in service to accessibility.
Why does he get gigs?
A consummate professional and a comfortingly male presence with none of the well-groomed, over-scented metrosexuality of younger types and yet none of the over-bearing Blue Stratos arrogance of those who think they invented football on TV. He combines approachable friendliness with humility in an always winning manner.
Legendary running gags and groaners have become a broadcasting institution in their own right.
Soccer Saturday has become a part of the landscape almost despite the odds, really. It is, after all, a terrible idea for a TV show on paper: get some inarticulate people to watch TV, and describe it to the people at home.
Sometimes it feels as though these are its autumn days and that the same turf is being retrodden a little too often. A refresh may be due soon. But as a presenter of live football with a side order of humour, Jeff Stelling remains peerless and the standard by which all others are and will be tested.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
See extracts from Alan's new book 'Tutenkhamen's Tracksuit: The History of Sport in 100ish Objects' here.
Check out John's new series of crime novels about life, death, sex and UEFA Cup football, here.