Jeff Stelling was Sky Sports’ unlikely star – his departure marks the end of an era for Soccer Saturday

With no ego and the perfect balance between information and entertainment, Jeff Stelling became the face and voice of football coverage for a generation

The Wikipedia page for Winchester Services runs to four lines of text. You’ve got the location (between junctions eight and nine of the M3), the opening year (2001) and the 2008 sale by RoadChef to Moto (£9.5m). And then just like that, the good stuff: “It is here where presenter of Soccer Saturday, Jeff Stelling, does his research on the week’s football.”

Stelling started that tradition when his children were young and peace and quiet was at a premium; he has continued it since. He sits at a plastic table in a food court, with a pile of local and national newspapers and magazines and works on a stats pack. That work could easily be redundant – Soccer Saturday employ stats researchers that feed him information – but it gives Stelling a sense of ownership. It is also a deliberately old-school process in an industry pushing boundaries with analytics, data and graphics.

Soccer Saturday is the oddest concept in football broadcasting to those who do not follow the game. Fan phone-ins, highlights shows, long-form television analysis and live matches – all are self-explanatory. But watching a collection of smartly-dressed studio guests watching football and relaying the information through emotion and increasingly fevered shouts rather than live action, analysis or tactical insight; it’s a tough sell. In the middle sits the presenter who’s also the star, in itself unusual.

In an industry obsessed with change and seeking new frontiers, it is instructive that the most successful programmes – Match of the Day, Soccer Saturday, 606, Monday Night Football, Sports Report – rarely stray far from their origin story. The graphics might be updated, the guests might switch from week to week and time ages all of us, but 1995 Soccer Saturday is remarkably similar to its 2021 version. What makes football so attractive to broadcasters and investors is the inherent loyalty of the audience. Give them what they want and they won’t stop coming back.

Stelling’s brilliance is just as hard to explain as the programme’s, although it’s in no doubt. He ostensibly reads out the scores that appear on a vidiprinter below. He occasionally teases a goal that is subsequently spoiled by the typed information. In a smartphone age, with a stream of live tweets and score apps, that job is surely defunct. Yet it became appointment viewing for multiple generations, but particularly students who would open a beer, place an accumulator at impossibly high odds and then figure out what the next 10 hours would bring.

The key is not making everything too earnest and to leave your ego at the door (or, in Stelling’s case, not having one in the first place). Football is guilty of taking itself far too seriously, but Soccer Saturday blurred the lines between comedy and sport. The guests and the correspondents openly teased each other and Stelling actively encouraged – and took joy in pointing out – slip-ups and mistakes.

Stelling’s “Dad joke” persona, repeated on a weekly basis, somehow never grated. There are many YouTube compilations of his jokes, many of them curated by Sky themselves with the knowledge of what they had in their hands. Stelling even had a format: Make pun, hear the guffaws, extend the pun beyond the usual point of humour, more guffaws, quick look to camera and then exclaim “Let’s go to the Kassam Stadium”.

If the appeal of Soccer Saturday isn’t easy to explain, its success was unprecedented. The format was imitated by BT Sport and BBC Sport, but never to the same fanfare because they lacked the perfect ringmaster. Stelling became a footballing national treasure. He is the face and voice of Sky Sports’ football coverage despite appearing on a programme that doesn’t contain live sport, the epicentre of their business model.

As Stelling prepares to leave at the end of the season, his excellence creates its own issues. It’s a little like following David Attenborough on Planet Earth: you could say the same words in the same order and never hope to match up. It’s all in the timbre and the timing, but also in the warm glow that only deep-seated familiarity can bring. So you try the opposite, forging your own path and the difference itself becomes grating.

Stelling’s departure marks the end of an era for him, more than 40 per cent of his life spent in the same role. It marks the end of an era for Sky Sports, who must pick his replacement carefully and have an unenviable task in doing so. But without being too misty-eyed, it marks the end of an era for all of us who once, still sometimes or always would sit on the sofa for an afternoon with Jeff. There’s been a goal at Kenilworth Road, but who for? Nudge to the edge of your seats to find out, even though you can’t quite explain why you suddenly care so much.

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