Jeff Stelling on… Arsenal’s Thierry Henry, Chelsea’s title chances, banter and being ‘The Chopper’

We’ve been scoring interviews like Sergio Aguero does goals at Football Fancast recently, but this just might be our greatest scoop yet. Whilst Chris Waddle, Ray Parlour and Jaydon Gibbs, brother of Arsenal’s Kieran, to name a few, were all insightful and entertaining, there is only one Jeff Stelling.

A living legend amongst British football fans for his blend of intellect and banter as host of Soccer Saturday, we jumped at the chance to get to know the man at centre-stage every Saturday afternoon, courtesy of Carlsberg’s Christmas Campaign, which will see Jeff address the nation at midday on Boxing Day on CarlsbergFanSquad.co.uk.

Having now served as the charming ring-master of Sky Sports’ Saturday coverage for two decades and their Champions League productions since 2011, not to mention presenting Countdown for three years on the side, Stelling’s popularity amongst the British public is now a given.

But it’s been acknowledged in more official terms too; he’s won five consecutive Sports Broadcaster of the Year awards and earlier this month was announced as Britain’s most popular pundit by a Carlsberg poll, winning a monolithic 24% of the vote despite not actually being a pundit at all. In your opinion Jeff, why are the public and the critics so receptive to you?

Well, you’ve got to take all these things with a pinch of salt haven’t you? I guess I’m just a football fan who’s got lucky and got the dream job where I can watch football with my mates on Saturday afternoon and get paid for doing it. So we have a bit of fun with it and treat it seriously when it needs to be treated seriously.

And also the fact I’m no threat; everybody knows I’m a Hartlepool fan. If I was a Manchester United fan the chances are that Manchester City and Liverpool fans would hate me. If I was a Spurs then Arsenal fans would hate me. But look, I’m a Hartlepool fan so I’m no threat to anybody. I think that’s probably it – I’m just a football fan, and a fan of a team that poses no immediate threat.

Of course, the popularity of Soccer Saturday, Stelling’s weekly score-line coverage of all the Saturday afternoon action in the company of his cheekily opinionated punditry team, Matt Le Tissier, Paul Merson, Charlie Nicholas and Phil Thompson, is a significant factor too. On the surface, it’s just five friends having an entertaining chat about football whilst onomatopoeically reacting to live in-game events – but there must be more to it than that. Does more work go into the humour side of things than meets the eye?

Well, you’re right in the first instance that it’s just five mates together – a footballing version of Loose Women if you like – just chatting through stuff, albeit the other four having a bit more expertise than me. On the humour side, it comes from mostly events during games and things you can’t plan for, like Paul Merson’s mispronunciations. For instance, at the weekend he called Esteban Cambiasso ‘Cameronaesi’, so that became a running gag over the course of the afternoon.

But some of the jokes, the odd one-liner, yes. Sometimes you look hard for them, the corny lines. There’s a guy at Chesterfield for example, Sam Clucas – when Chesterfield go behind and he scores, it’s a can of Clucasade! I waited and waited and waited for that to come up, until he actually scored. So some of it, of course it’s pre-planned, but most of it’s off the cuff because of the nature of the show .

Are there any pundits you’ve struggled to build that sort of rapport with over the years?

Not really because if there’s anybody you didn’t build a rapport with, they just didn’t survive. The Saturday team is well – it’s exactly that, a team! You’ve got to fit in. Just as a football team can’t get by without a goalkeeper, a centre-half or a striker, we couldn’t get by with somebody who firstly wasn’t very perceptive and secondly didn’t feel a part of the team or wasn’t a team player. Some of the boys will say to you that it’s the nearest thing you can get to recreating a dressing room situation and that helps once they’ve retired from the game. That’s the way I see it really – and if your face doesn’t fit, you just don’t last.

If you were trapped on a desert island with one of the team, who would you choose?

Kirsty Gallagher! Does that count?

We like your thinking Jeff but it’s got to be one of the lads.

I don’t know, god help me – whoever’s the best boat builder, I guess! Six hours on a Saturday is great fun. Six days, six weeks or six months? Not so sure. I couldn’t pick any of them, honestly. They’re all good boys but by the end of Saturday we’ve all have quite enough. As much as we all get on brilliantly and we’re all best mates, we’re happy to call it quits on Saturday evening.

Along with chairing the studio banter, Stelling provides an incredible amount of statistical knowledge to flesh out the scores on-screen, giving them added meaning. How long does it take to absorb all that information for any given show?

It’s like the old cliché about painting the forth bridge, it never ends really. As soon as one show is finished I watch Football First, Match of the Day and Goals on Sunday and I sit there with my notepad jotting stuff down. On Saturday afternoon I only get see bits and pieces of games, I never to see the whole thing, so I make as many notes as I can and that goes on throughout the week until Thursday and Friday. Thursday is the main day where I’m doing stats and I’ll tend to do that between nine and six, and then Friday I’m going through websites and newspapers, catching anything I might have missed. So It’s probably somewhere between 20-25 hours for every show in terms of my individual prep.

Stelling wasn’t always the face of Sky Sports. Despite rarely mentioning it in the studio, he was once a regular footballer, albeit at amateur level, on the tough streets of Hartlepool. I understand you were known as ‘The Chopper’. Would you care to elaborate?

Well, I was a Sunday morning footballer and  – as with most players at any level – as the years rolled on I was gradually moved further and further back. I started off as a No.10 type, then I went into midfield and then I went to full-back.

And as what limited pace you’ve got disappears, there’s not much you’ve got left to resort to but hacking people down. In my day, it was a case of more often than not you could get away with it too – so I guess that’s where it came from. Hey – Sunday morning in Hartlepool particularly, you had to be able to stand up for yourself. You learn a lot about survival on those Sunday mornings.

Do the Sky Sports team ever have a kick-about? Perhaps in the Sky car park?

Not really, because they’ve all been through long careers. Tommo and Charlie particularly, they were in an era where you’d play regardless of how fit you were. You’d be in the starting Xi week after week and that takes its toll. Our major sporting contests these days would be on the golf course rather than the football pitch.

The story of the week, at least in punditry circles, is that former Arsenal and Barcelona striker Thierry Henry, the joint-fourth all-time goalscorer in Premier League history, has joined the Sky Sports family after hanging up his boots at New York Red Bulls. Has he got what it takes to become a top pundit?

Yes, definitely. I’ve worked with him a couple of times already for the Champions League and he just has this aura about him. If you didn’t know he was a successful guy, you immediately get that feel. Not because he’s arrogant or anything like that but he has this magic about him as a person, let alone as a player.

Again, he’s wonderfully articulate and measured. He’s got everything it takes to be a top pundit and from a Sky perspective, I know other channels would have loved him so I’m delighted we’ve got him.

Do you think his expertise in foreign leagues offers something a little different?

I don’t know if that matters when you’ve played the game at the highest level, as all our boys have. Whether it be the Champions League guys or Gary Neville,  Jamie Carragher or Jamie Redknapp, even if they haven’t played out of England, they’ve all played international football for their country. My view is that if you’re going to criticise somebody or have the right to criticise others you’ve got to have done it yourself – you’ve got to be able to show your medals. Everybody at Sky Sports can and Thierry certainly falls into that category as well.

As host, Stelling remains ever-impartial in the studio, but this interview is a rare opportunity to gain an insight into his opinions on the current season. Who are you backing for the Premier League title?

It’s not very original but I think Chelsea will win it now, with Manchester City in close pursuit – they’re the two best defensive sides. I don’t mean they play defensive football, but they can defend when required. I’m not sure too many other Premier League sides can do the same and that will be the big difference.

How about the Champions League – can you see an English side winning it this year?

I think Chelsea have a very good chance. Obviously they’ve got PSG in the next round who are no pushovers by any means, but they beat them twelve months ago and I think Chelsea are much stronger than they were twelve months ago and PSG are weaker than they were twelve months ago – so I think they’ll get through that. They’ve got quality in every area of the field, they’ve got good back-up and they’ve got Jose Mourinho. So it’s a combination of events. Nobody’s going to want to play Chelsea, that is for sure. Given the right draw, the right circumstances and bit of luck along the way – you always need that – there’s no reason why Chelsea shouldn’t win it.

And it’s not been the best of starts to the season for your beloved Hartlepool, currently bottom of League Two. Are you envisaging better times ahead?

I am. On Tuesday we had a takeover at the club; we’ve got new owners as of Wednesday, we’ve got a new manager as of Wednesday, we will have some new players as of January and we’ve got five months left – we’ve got time to save ourselves. There’s something like 78 points to play for so if we can get 39 of those we’ll just about be ok.

Which brings us onto the small issue of Football Fancast’s world-famous segment, Fantasy Five-Aside. It’s caused Chris Waddle and Ray Parlour a few problems in the past, so it’s rather fortuitous Stelling’s a little more switched on.

So the first player – the best pundit you’ve ever worked with?

Oh, that is so hard. Let’s just say Gary Neville.

And the best pundit you haven’t worked with?

Alan Hansen.

Your footballing role model growing up?

A bloke you’ll never have heard of. He’s called Frank Casper, as in the friendly ghost, and he was a striker at Burnley.

Of course we’ve heard of Frank Casper Jeff, the Clarets’ star centre-forward from 1967 to 1976! Somebody playing now you think would make a great pundit when they retire?

Didier Drogba

And finally, any goalkeeper.

Any goalkeeper?

Yes Jeff, Football Fancast is famed for its liberal views on goalkeeper selection.

Peter Schmeichel

Thanks Jeff, you’ve been even more delightful than we expected, as if that’s possible.

If Carlsberg did Christmas speeches…. Head to CarlsbergFanSquad.co.uk at midday on Boxing Day to watch Jeff Stelling’s ultimate review of the year. Follow @CarlsbergFooty for Barclays Premier League ticket giveaways and more from the Carlsberg Fan Squad.

 


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