Soccer Saturday – should be filed under rubbish, but somehow it isn’t

I am drawn towards rubbish on the television. It draws me in like the most skilful of hypnotists, as if I am subconsciously punishing myself for something I did in a past life. Maybe I just like to watch television without engaging my brain. Whilst Seasons 3-6 of The Sopranos sits in its wrapper under my television, I get home and watch Two and a Half Men. I need help.

And that brings me onto Soccer Saturday. On the surface it too should be filed under rubbish. But somehow it isn’t.

The programme starts well before most matches, with footage from the week and pre-match discussions, which are essentially Sunday-Supplement-lite (if such a thing is possible). Ill-informed, generalised, sweeping statements are the order of the day, and in two hours, you’ll hear little of any use, and will have learnt nothing. Just three idiots and Matt Le Tissier discussing each premiership team in turn. Command of the English language is discouraged in panellists.

Ah yes, the panellists. Even thinking about them has me shaking my head.

Phil Thompson has enough chips on his shoulder to feed Eamonn Holmes for a week*, Thompson lives a Life On Mars existence where he is trapped in the 1980s when Liverpool were good, struggling constantly with the possibility that there might be better teams out there. In Jeff Stelling’s autobiography (available in all good bookstores), he is keen not to court controversy, but even he admits that Thompson has a ridiculous bias, which sometimes go too far. The net effect of this is that anything he says that is even remotely linked to Liverpool is of no importance whatsoever, as he cannot be taken seriously.

(* I would like to point out that this is not true, that Eamonn Holmes does not eat a lot of chips, exercises regularly, and is in excellent condition).

Paul Merson is the man depriving a village of its idiot. Having failed to get to grips with the English language, he simply resorts to making up words, and sometimes whole sentences, whilst his level of analysis can be compared to that of the Daily Star covering a new tax credit system.

Charlie Nicholas thinks he is chief panellist, whose views are what everyone has tuned in to hear. He has to speak over everyone, and loves shouting “Chance! Chance!” when Jeff Stelling is talking, as 30 seconds off screen is 30 seconds too long for champagne Charlie. Most of what he says is pointless drivel and speculation. A lucrative career at The Sun awaits. I’m sure you can never have too many “big opinions”.

Matt Le Tissier used to play for Southampton, and eats a lot.

What astonishes me most is how Jeff Stelling keeps his temper in control, as the panellists compete to shout the loudest in the background like a bunch of needy schoolchildren. As mentioned already, Nicholas is the king of the attention seekers. Look at me! Look at me!

There are some logical reasons for watching the programme, which essentially consists of watching four men watch football. The first one of course is Stelling, a true legend. He is the glue that holds the programme together – without him it is nothing. When he lost his sound last week, the four panellists had to between them give continuous commentary on their games until the problem was sorted. It was like watching Shane McGowan tackling opera.

It’s the little things with Jeff that makes the programme work – the random stats, the corny jokes that few could get away with (but he does), his professional presentation, the humour he shows and the calm head on the calm shoulders and calm torso. I bet he has really nice shoes too. As GQ magazine said, the key is “Jeff’s masterful handling of the football results”. Supporting a “small” team helps too – no big match bias ensues.

The second is that a vidiprinter for 90 minutes can be quite interesting when you have a couple of small accumulators on. Suddenly a second goal for Barnet against Macclesfield is met with a clenched fist and a little jog round my living room. And the producers eventually got their way with the advertisers – the vidiprinter stays on when they cut to a break.

And it certainly beats the old days – I once followed a City game via Ceefax.

There’s fun to be had outside the studio, and Sky’s own care in the community scheme – the match reporters around the grounds. A Murdoch-funded care home for ex-players, it is a master class in how not to report football matches. Two take centre stage.

Chris Kamara, for whom everything is unbelievable – any goal, a throw in, a light shower, a subtle change in the wind direction – unbelievable! Chris is known to struggle in spotting red cards.

Dean Windass resembles a two year old speaking his first words. It seems strange for Sky to give Windass a commentator’s job just as he is learning to communicate. Last week, watching him desperately try to say the rather simple sentence “it was an easy tap in at the far post” was more painful than watching Paul Merson on Mastermind tackling his chosen subject of “the metaphysical poets”.

Scott Minto, Alan McInally, Paul Walsh, John Salako and others fare better, and McInally and Walsh for example have occasionally wandered into the studio, but it is staggering how football is deprived of proper analysis, when cricket, rugby, motor racing and the like get such expert coverage. These people have been there and done it, yet seem to have so little (of relevance) to say. And yet it seems a deliberate policy by those in charge of Soccer Saturday, the Sunday Supplement et al, and it seems to work. The BBC have a similar programme, ITV tried to master it with The Goal Rush, but still I, and many others, tune in to Jeff and co. every week. They’re doing something right.

Written By Howard Hockin