Johnny’s letter this week, Jeff, is literally to Jeff, Jeff. That’ll be Jeff Stelling then, Jeff.
Why the love?
For someone who hasn’t worked on terrestrial TV in a football capacity, it’s all the more impressive that he has become a veritable doyen of football broadcasting. While he’s presented plenty of live football, his great contribution to our lives is as presenter of Soccer Saturday where he has now racked up 23 years as an arch pundit ringmaster and information-overload-deliverer extraordinaire.
Born and brought up on a Hartlepool council estate, like many of us, he ran away from life on steel river (OK it’s not on the Tees but you get my Chris Rea drift).
But like many of us who are keen to keep their roots close to their heart, regardless of where they live, or where life has taken them, he is still a big Pools fan. The rise and fall of his emotions depending on their scoreline is part of every week’s entertainment.
Once, in a sharp retort to some bitterness from Richard Keys, post-sacking, he stated: “Some football presenters are so deluded. No fan watches a game for the presenter. They watch it for the football!!”
That was typical Jeff. Knowing his place in the scheme of things. No over-vaunted ego.
Although many feel the fine town of Hartlepool is not part of Teesside, he nonetheless became a hero to all Teessiders with his pro-Middlesbrough rant. We all punched the air when this happened.
Has done loads of great work for Prostate Cancer UK, walking marathons amongst other ventures.
He’s a presenter who straddles two distinct generations. He started in the old school, man-in-suit-and-tie of local news and local radio. That was where he got his start in such august broadcasting institutions as Radio Tees and later Radio 2’s Sports Report. And now he’s part of the modern ‘personality’ TV where you’re meant to entertain, and cajole others into doing likewise.
It is to his massive credit that he neither seems like a sulphurous crabby old bloke who thinks the game and the glory days have gone, nor like some auld fella who is pretending to be young and down with the kids. There is a lovely self-deprecating quality to his work and he does a good raised eyebrow to express exasperation at some of the more fatuous and shallow aspects of modern football.
We all know he gets it. Gets football. Gets that it’s not about money and commercialism but about people, communities and civic pride. It is about the smallness of life, not the grandstanding. And all of that that oozes from his every pour and that’s why he is loved.
Jeff’s brilliance is a skill that is perhaps unique to him. Try talking while listening to someone in your ear telling you it’s Port Vale’s third own goal this season, while being aware of developments in several games on a screen, not being distracted by Merse eating food out of a box, and then picking the right moment to disseminate what you’ve been told, even though you are now being told about a hat-trick at Peterhead. And do that for six hours straight. It. Is. Impossible. He must be exhausted afterwards. I have no idea how he does it.
But that’s Jeff’s gig every Saturday.
An absolute pro, the whole show revolves around his ability to be across all of the action in any league, no matter where, no matter how big, or how small and to react to all of it with the same degree of enthusiasm, knowing that to someone, even the most obscure, poorly attended game is the big game of their day.
Over the years he’s developed an innate sense of how far to push a joke, or how much joking around is enough and always manages to pull it back under control before it all falls apart. And he also has the tight-but-loose ability to busk it and not worry when things go wrong that all classy broadcasters have. He seems constitutionally unable to freeze.
He manages to josh, jape and banter with ‘the boys’ and not for a minute do we feel that it’s not genuine. And indeed, maybe it is. Who knows? But in every job, we all have to tolerate or indulge co-workers that we would be happy never to have to see again and I can’t see why it would be any different in broadcasting. But there is never a hint of this with Jeff. And although he plays the knowing schoolmaster to the rowdy pupils sent to him for detention, not for a moment do we feel this isn’t a brilliant thing for him to do and that he doesn’t love every minute of it.
Phil Wye, who is Head of External Relations of Prostate UK and who used to be a producer at 5 Live, Match of the Day, A Question of Sport and Sky Sports, got in touch with me to offer this view of our man.
“Jeff studies for his craft, puts the prep in, understands the game, speaks authoritatively, knows how to get the best out of those alongside him, and always with a twinkle in his eye. For years there’s been the Saturday afternoon football staple of around-the-grounds scores and updates on the telly – nobody has mastered that as an anchor quite like he has on Sky’s Soccer Saturday. Jeff delivers the armchair TV fan’s version of football comfort food. Because when he’s not there, it’s like your favourite meal has been chalked off the menu.”
That says it very well.
Clearly influenced at an early age by men’s outfitter, John Collier (“the window to watch”), which offered smart but not overly fashionable clothes at reasonable prices and whose Hartlepool factory was the very last, in what was once a huge business, to close in the late 70s.
Dresses like a well-paid dad. No concession to fancy or fussy. Jackets are dark, shirts plain and ties simple. Clothing tailored to obfuscate any hint of a much joked about bulky girth.
After international breaks, he usually returns with a radioactive tan which suggests he has holidayed, not in Dubai, but in Hartlepool nuclear power station.
What the people say
It was noticeable from all the comments I got on Twitter about Jeff that many expressed love of the same qualities. There is general amazement at how he does the job, and enjoyment of his down-to-earth self deprecation. He is such a regular fixture in our lives. It’s amazing to think that if you’re under 25, you’ve no recollection of football on the TV without him.
‘Stream-of-consciousness – style continuous information-sharing with the audience, incredibly difficult and requires lots of research but made to look easy. All whilst being a day-carer for the likes of Merse and Thommo, and all with a nod and smile and huge enthusiasm.’
‘Makes a very difficult job look incredibly easy. His attention to detail and memory is impeccable. You know Sky are scared about who to replace him with. Not sure anyone can make it look as easy as he does.’
‘Great at what he does and makes what must be absolute chaos look easy. He’s also quick with a pun which is great. I think being a Hartlepool fan rather than a big team makes him more endearing.’
‘The Richie Benaud of football – albeit about a million times louder than Benaud. So good at what he does we have forgotten (not that you can blame him for it) the mess that was initially FNF. Also safe to say the best Countdown host since the death of Richard Whiteley.’
‘He attended a few Irish Gaelic football games this year. Showed the same level of wonder, preparation and attention to detail as he does for football. A fantastic broadcaster and seems like a very sound bloke.’
‘With apologies to James Richardson, the best presenter on TV. James gets to deal with quality, whereas Jeff has to try and pull sense out of Merse and Phil Thompson.’
‘A kind of orange Richard Whiteley on Benzedrine. He has single-handedly turned 2 hours of blokes talking about watching football into a high art form. Occasionally a little bit PFM but essentially a good egg whose boundless enthusiasm is impossible not to like.’
‘Truly awesome at his job. The sheer amount of data he has to process on the fly is handled brilliantly and with high energy and fun, as well as managing the personalities on his panel and out and about round the grounds. All done on live TV. Iconic.’
‘When the studio had a fire alarm and had to put a Tony Pulis interview on repeat, Jeff came back on air with a fire hat on and some of the local firefighters behind him. Classic.’
‘Celebrates a Rochdale goal the same way he celebrates a Real Madrid goal, I really like that he has no hierarchy of teams/leagues each is as important as the other.’
‘Hard to put into 1 tweet what Jeff has done to put Hartlepool (town and club) back on the map. His enthusiasm is infectious whilst his despair at results & club misfortune is felt by even non-poolies. The work for prostate cancer is amazing. He makes me proud to be a Hartlepudlian.’
‘The inimitable conductor behind the chaotic footballing orchestra that is Sky Sports Saturday. Made the bonkers idea of watching other men on TV watching football you can’t see on other TVs seem not only palatable but a real joy, an art form even. So passionate too. Iconic.’
‘Credit to him, he’s the single most important reason why SS is the behemoth it is. For a Hartlepool fan, sad to see he’s bought into the ‘17th in Prem better than trophy’ vibe, but he’s superb at his role and a huge asset to Sky.’
‘One of a kind. Inimitable, instantly likeable personality and style, and he has to put up with some next level PFM’ing while he’s doing it which surely deserves some kind of special medal or something.’
‘The look on his face when his beloved Hartlepool go one down, followed by chuckling from his PFM pundits. You got to love him for that alone really.’
‘His ability to genuinely wind up the guests on the panel as well, Charlie Nicholas being the victim on more than one occasion.’
‘The Saturday afternoon Don and ringmaster in chief, keeping his trained circus performers in check to ensure an entertaining flow of information on all of the football.’
‘His rant about Middlesbrough has to be up there with one of the greatest moments ever on Soccer Saturday.’
‘So good at his job, he makes you want to watch a show that involves Paul Merson talking for four hours.’
‘His noises about retirement said all you need to know. Beloved by so many who watch the show, will be a loss when he calls it a day. Like Martin Tyler, not tainted by associations of others over his time. And wonderful charity work too. Legendary.’
‘Game-changer and icon. Legendary. We must acknowledge this while he’s still about because he is all those things. It’d be a shame if we didn’t appreciate him properly now until he’s not around any more.’
‘An absolute master of his trade. Up there with Lynam and I can think of no higher praise.’
Earlier this year there were rumours of an imminent retirement, which he quickly scoffed at. No-one can take his place on Soccer Saturday. When he eventually quits they should kill the programme in his honour. It is a job he all but created, molded and defined.
Still only 62, he’s got a lot of years in him yet. However, it would be great to see him branch out into more wide-ranging projects. The documentary with Kammy, ‘Journey To Croker’, about the GAA was excellent and hopefully will be the first of many. He’s such a charming and engaging TV presence, it’s a shame he doesn’t get out of the SS studio more.
I shall leave you with more from Phil Wye who worked with Jeff in his charity work
“Across the past two summers, ‘Jeff’s March for Men’ has seen him lead 25 walking marathons & he’s helped participants to raise over £800,000 for better diagnosis, better treatment, & better support for men with prostate cancer. At no point did he stagger, but that amount really is staggering.
“He’s a strong man, with a strong will. You probably have to be pretty tough to be able to conquer walking 400 miles in 15 days as he did this summer. He always looks a million dollars too! I know this, because we trawled through over a fortnight’s footage trying to dig out a shot of him wincing or struggling – & we found nothing of the sort!”
Well, they make them tough in Hartlepool. Happy Christmas, Jeff.