So there I was, blogging away for Football Fancast in my dressing gown, when I received an email summoning me to the holy land of football radio, the talkSPORT offices in London, to meet the living demi-god of football punditry himself – the ever-dapper ringmaster of Soccer Saturday, Jeff Stelling.
The task? Well, the Carlsberg Fan Squad has teamed up with talkSPORT to launch a competition to find The People’s Pundit. Fans are being asked to showcase their punditry skills in a video entry by swapping the terraces, pub or sofa for the chance to win their big break on talkSPORT.
That’s right folks; in a refreshing change from the Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United punditry mafia elite, racketeering their way onto every BBC, BT, ITV and Sky Sports panel for the last twenty-odd years, Carlsberg and talkSPORT are giving you the chance to have your say on the beautiful game regularly on national radio.
Keep your eyes peeled for their van touring football grounds up and down the country or alternatively, send in an application online.
I was recruited as half-guinea-pig-half-fact-gatherer, to probe the Soccer Saturday host for his punditry tips before attempting the challenge of commentating over a famous goal, Robbie Blake’s legendary strike against Manchester United, myself.
Jeff, being the lovely man he is, would then provide me with feedback, which felt a bit like doing three kick-ups in front of Cristiano Ronaldo and asking what he thought.
Nevertheless, I found myself face to face with the legendary Stelling, in front of a TV screen and a very snazzy microphone, ready to quiz him on his punditry tips in the hope that it would give myself and the fellow participants an upper hand in the competition.
First things first Jeff, what does it take to be a top pundit? What are the key characteristics?
I think it takes a lot of different characteristics. Most of the big pundits now, obviously, are former players. They know the game inside-out and back to front. But what we’re looking for is a people’s pundit – a chance for a fan to have their say. Because one of the biggest irritations for me is when people or ex-players say “how do you know, you’ve never even played the game” and I think well, I’ve watched the game for a long time, probably longer than they have. And there will be a lot of people out there who also know the game inside-out. So I think it’s most important to have a bit of belief in yourself, a bit of belief that your opinions are as valid as the next guy – even if the next guy is an ex-international footballer.
And what was it that inspired you to become a pundit – a love of football, a love of public speaking, a mix of the two, or something else all together?
Well I’ve loved football since I was a kid but I couldn’t play very well – I was a Sunday morning footballer. So if you can’t play, the next best thing I suppose is talking about it. I think I’m better at talking than playing – I hope so anyway!
Clive Tyldesley remembers being obsessed with recording himself on cassette as a child. Were you the same?
Yes, and that’s why I’m more a presenter than a commentator – because I was hopeless, really. And it wasn’t just football. I did some horse racing commentary as well, which is an absolute living nightmare. So I took the soft option and became a football presenter, working with the pundits and talking football.
Who‘s the best in the business right now? Who should our contestants look to emulate?
It’s a really hard question because there are so many fantastic pundits out there. Obviously Gary Neville is the most recent to come to fore and he’s surprised people in that he’s so unbiased, he sees things other people don’t see and he’s got a great way of describing them.
But I look at Soccer Saturday people, the likes of Phil Thompson who describes things with enormous passion, which shows his love for the game – I think that’s absolutely brilliant. Paul Merson is as honest as the day is long, so if you ask him a question he’ll give you an absolutely honest answer. And if it offends anybody, so be it! But one thing I can say certainly is that he’d never offend anybody with any intent or malice – it’s just an honest opinion. There are lots of others like Danny Murphy, who’s another great newcomer to the game because he talks in a language that people understand and never gets carried away. I think he’s a great addition to the ranks of punditry.
Should we be hiding our regional twangs or using them to our advantage?
No, no no – there’s no need to hide them. When I started in broadcasting many years ago, there were virtually no regional accents at all, it was always a BBC accent – bit of the old cut-glass accent -but that doesn’t matter a jot anymore. If you look at pundits you’ve got all sorts of different accents; on Soccer Saturday, we’ve got Charlie Nicholas who’s obviously Scottish, Tommo’s got a slight scouse twang there and Merse has got a different accent as well. Champions League, Graeme Souness is another Scottish representative. At TalkSport you’ve got Colin Murray, in terms of presenters, and it’s that lovely Northern Ireland accent. So it just doesn’t matter. Don’t hide it, because nothing sounds worse than somebody attempting to put on a plumy voice.
Perhaps the hardest skill our participants will have to master is the rhythm of their voices. Is this something commentators, presenters, and pundits tend to pick up naturally?
I think it comes naturally. Certainly on Soccer Saturday, the pace, the tempo of your delivery increases as the afternoon goes on. You’re working towards a crescendo so it’s important not to peak at 3.05 for example. You don’t want to be going ballistic 3.05 because there’s nowhere to go at 4.55 when a few last minute goals go in. So pace yourself but I think for most people – that pace, that judgement of tempo – will come naturally.
So are there any professional techniques you could share to help participants maximise the use of their voices?
Not so much technique but I think the best thing is to be pretty concise, because the last thing you want is to be still talking about an incident when the game has moved on. So you’ve got to ‘package’ your comments, if you like, so that it doesn’t overrun too much.
But the biggest thing is to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Be different! Let’s hear a different viewpoint than maybe the general one would be. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only one that believes that as long as you tell people that’s how you see it. If it’s different, so much the better.
And I suppose a balance must be found between imaginative language and phrases viewers will be familiar with. Are there any words or clichés participants should avoid using?
Try and keep away from the clichés. We don’t want to hear a game of two halves and that sort of stuff. Be yourself is the answer – use the sort of language if you were talking to mate in the bar. I think that’s the best way to do it.
Do you have a vocal routine to loosen your voice up pre-Soccer Saturday as singers or actors might? Perhaps a strict diet plan?
No no no no no no. None of that. Special diet plan? Let’s see… Matt Le Tissier eats two or three cartons of chips during every afternoon and Paul Merson likes devouring Jelly Babies.
The voice in some respects is not the most important thing, anyway. Information is the most important thing – getting that right. If you’re going to say Matt Smith has scored x number of goals in x number of games, you’d better get it right! Nine in five, before the weekend. You’d better get it right because every Bristol City fan knows how many goals he’s scored, so if you get it wrong, you immediately lose credibility in their eyes. So it’s not so much the voice, it’s what the voice says.
When we interviewed you in December, you said it takes you around 20-25 hours to prepare for Soccer Saturday. Do commentators and pundits put in the same amount of work?
No, it wouldn’t take them that long to prepare, but they know which games they’re doing in advance, so the big thing is that they still have to put in some work. They have to know a bit about the history of the fixture, know who’s been in good form who’s been in rotten form, maybe if player A used to play for club B and what sort of record he has, so you still have to work at it. You can’t just expect to sit down in a seat with no preparation and do a good job because it’s not going to happen. I always say, the most important thing is preparation, preparation and a bit more preparation.
And something you’ll know a fair bit about from working live in the Sky Sports studio; what should you do if it all goes wrong? Say Chris Karama falls asleep.
Well, on Soccer Saturday, if it all goes wrong you have a bit of fun with it – Cammy’s a classic case in point. If something goes wrong when Cammy’s on we all have a bit of a laugh and generally speaking, I think that’s the best way to treat it. At the end of the day, we are talking about football punditry, not something more significant than that, and we shouldn’t forget that although football is a way of life and a livelihood for a lot of people, it is meant to be entertainment; it’s meant to be sport, so try and make things as entertaining as possible, even when things go wrong.
At the start of last season, for example, our Vidiprinter broke down on the first day of the season and I asked one of our guys behind the scenes if he could give me a spanner, the idea being that I was going to do a Basil Fawty and beat the Vidiprinter to death with the spanner. You’ve just got to enjoy it!
We’d love to hear your punditry take on the FA Cup’s third round. As fans, should we be pleased with the performances of the lower leagues or disappointed that the Premier League’s top sides won’t be in the latter stages?
Well, take nothing away from the lower league sides, particularly Bradford City – they did absolutely brilliantly in coming back from two nil down against Chelsea. It’s probably the greatest FA Cup performance of my lifetime, or certainly up there in the top two or three. And Middlesbrough didn’t surprise me a great deal in that they went to Manchester City and won; I’m not sure what City were really thinking about coming back a day late from Abu Dhabi and they paid the price for what some will see as arrogance.
But some of the great finals have been when you’ve got a lesser-fancied side reaching the final and that’s what may well happen this season. With the top three of the Premier League all out, it’s a great opportunity for a lower league side or a lesser-fancied club to reach the final and well, it’s what makes it a bit different isn’t it!
So a victory for the FA Cup, overall?
A victory in a lot of respects for the FA Cup but it’s still got some way to go. Although there were some fantastic crowds – a sell-out at St. Mary’s and nearly 30,000 at St. Andrew’s for example – you have to look at some of the other games where the FA Cup didn’t quite take off. Blackburn got just 6,000 people to watch a game against Premier League opposition so I still think there’s a lot of work to be done for the FA Cup. I still think there are some changes that need making, but it did show there’s life in the old dog yet.
And finally, who are you backing to win it now?
You’ve got to say Arsenal are favourites now, but so much depends on the draw. Arsenal might get Manchester United in the next round for example; they might get West Ham who nobody would want at the moment. The smart money, this time, has got to be on Arsenal. But if you wanted somebody a little bit different, West Ham could be a very, very decent bet.
So armed with Jeff’s insider knowledge and his disarming demeanour leaving me rather relaxed, I took to the microphone…
Jeff seemed impressed, albeit rather confident that I wouldn’t be overshadowing him in punditry circles any time soon. I guess it’s back to blogging away in my dressing gown…for now.
If Carlsberg did pundits…. They’d probably be fans like you. The Carlsberg Fan Squad and talkSPORT have joined forces to give one fan their big break on national radio. Head toThePeoplesPundit.co.uk to enter now. #PeoplesPundit.