Jeff Stelling: From Hartlepool to the Bernabeu

First published in Sport The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

"THAT mad programme on Sky where everyone is watching football on tellies you can't see. Honestly, that's the weirdest show I've ever seen and both my husband and my eldest son are riveted to it.''

So said then rock wife Patsy Kensit, as her other half Liam Gallagher had his Saturday afternoons sorted.

It describes Soccer Saturday off to a tee. It's a crazy idea. Viewers see no action, all they get is four ex-professionals reacting to the action as they watch the game in the studio.

Yet it's mesmerising, smoothly, effortlessly and passionately held together by Jeff Stelling, one of Hartlepool and the North-East's finest exports.

Others have tried to emulate it. None have managed and the programme is entrenched into the mindset of football fans and players.

"The show itself is unique,'' reflected the anchorman, back in his home town on Wednesday for An Evening With Jeff Stelling. "It's surprised everybody, me included really.

"So far it has taken on all comers - the Beeb have a show behind the red button, ITV did the Goal Rush for a while and I'm sure BT come up with something when they get their share of football next season. I'd like to think we have flourished and it will continue.

"While football continues at three o'clock on a Saturday, I'd like to think there's a place for us.

Stelling doesn't hide his love for his home club. It's become part of the fabric of the show - he hums the Sweeney theme when Antony Sweeney scores, and famously had a James Brown dancing doll for when their former striker was on target.

He was even caught off-guard swearing and cursing on camera when Pools conceded at Barnet in 2007.

"It's all off-the-cuff,'' he said. "I do feel bad sometimes celebrating Pools' goals when the opposition fans are looking on, but I'd like to think they understand.

"If it was a Premier League side I wouldn't be able to do it. It's Hartlepool United so it's more acceptable, people understand. I get asked who my Premier League team is, I'm neutral, I've not got one.''

But there's more to Stelling's bow than cheering Pools and keeping his panel in check each weekend. He's been host of Countdown, horse racing, snooker and darts.

Now he's part of the Champions League coverage on Sky Sports. It's a role that takes him to the best stadiums to see the best players - and accompanied by, who he feels, are the finest pundits.

"I was in Madrid last week. Soccer Saturday is my first love, but the chance to go to the Bernabeu, be pitchside hosting the coverage... It's a cliche, but I look around thinking 'I'm a council house boy from Hartlepool','' he admitted.

"We don't all get the chance to do that at Real Madrid v Manchester United. It's fantastic.

"We have a good bunch of lads out there. Everyone knows Graeme Souness from his Middlesbrough days, Peter Schmeichel and Jamie Redknapp - all good men.

"Sometimes you have to pinch yourself.

"Souey is my dream pundit. We call him The Godfather - he was it on the pitch and off it as well. He's not afraid to say what he thinks, a fearsome reputation but when he talks you listen. You want him in the trenches with you every day.''

Of late it's another Sky expert who has taken punditry to a new level.

Gary Neville was hardly the most popular footballer outside Manchester during his playing days. Now the hour he spends from 7pm each Monday evening on Sky Sports is essential viewing.

He puts the Match of the Day experts to shame with his sharp analysis and insight. He points out the sort of things the normal football fan won't always be aware of.

It does come naturally to Neville, but it's also down to some stout research.

"Gary Neville has surprised everyone with how he has adapted to the role,'' admitted Stelling.

"He had a reputation at Old Trafford of being the shop steward, being a difficult character and all that. But he is so thorough in his work and research and preparation.

"He puts everything into it and I don't think people realise that. He has so much knowledge of the game and gives such an informed insight.

"He offers a bit more than others - people want that. He was, of course, very pro-Manchester United all his career, but even the most staunch Liverpool supporter would see how unscrupulously fair in how he comes across.

"And he's the same with the team here at Sky as well. If there's anything going on afterwards, a beer or two, Gary will always be there and putting his hand in his pocket. There's nothing stand-offish about him, he's a really good lad.

"Remember he's part of the England coaching team as well and it doesn't faze him. There's not been many people who have pointed the finger at him for what he's doing as a pundit, he's earned so much respect in the game and throughout the football world.

"He will be straight, honest and opinionated. People might not like what he says about it, but they will respect what he said.''

Stelling doesn't see much of Pools. Even though they are at home next week the night before his event, he's got other family commitments.

But there's nothing he doesn't know about the club and he revealed he had a role in the process of recruiting John Hughes as manager last November.

"I don't know John as such, I talk to Russ Green a lot and did before he was appointed,'' he admitted. "Russ was impressed by him and wanted to know who I knew who knew him.

"So I spoke to John Collins at Livingston who he was with, Charlie Nicholas knows him well, Ian Dowie, and nobody had a bad word to say. They all said he was a terrific operator, hard-worker and a very good man manager.

"He can lift players and he has got them into shape. I was pleased he got the job, and he has a reputation for playing good football, developing the young players.

"All he needs is time and it's no secret that he's pretty much been told in advance that what he has to work with is what he's got.''

This June, Stelling will be joining Craig Hignett and others in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for the Finlay Cooper Fund, the children's charity set up by Boro stalwart Colin Cooper following the death of his young son.

By the time he is out to scale the near 6000 meter climb to the summit, his Hartlepool United will have had a mountain of their own to conquer: avoiding relegation to League Two.

"Can we do it?'' he asked. "It's a big one isn't it? It's the hope that kills you they say and a month ago there was no hope.

"If you get some momentum by whatever means - last-gasp goals, deflected ones like Luke James' shot, then you never know. The next two games - Scunthorpe and Crewe - are massive.

"It's five unbeaten and there's some momentum.

"Scoring so late against Orient was great for everyone - it's contrast to what was happening at the start of the season. There's a change in attitude, change in confidence and change in belief as well.

"And, from speaking to people at the club, they feel this could be the greatest of great escapes.''

Tickets for An Evening With Jeff Stelling, when he will be interviewed by Mark Clemmit before taking questions from the audience, on Wednesday, February 27 are £12 and available from the Hartlepool Town Hall box office on 01429 890000.

"We did something similar at Teesside University and you never know what to expect,'' said Stelling. "Life and times, steps to where I am now. Most of it is humour about Soccer Saturday and the panel, the things you don't see. Me swearing on air and getting into trouble for it... and then questions about anything. It's a relaxed, fun night.''

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