An afternoon in with Jeff

A man sits at a desk. Dominating that desk, paper. Surrounding his feet, scrunched up paper. He clutches the hair behind each temple and slowly twists it to form a tricorne. If he smoked, he’d be doing so in a furiously repetitive manner. If he drank, he would be necking back whisky. Whisky and coffee. Whisky, coffee, cigarettes and writer’s block.

Time passes and the twelfth hour strikes. Inspiration came eventually and now a sharply-suited man wearing a yellow polka-dot tie reels it off in a jovial fashion.

This is how I imagine the gags and puns fired out by Jeff Stelling on Sky’s Gillette Soccer Saturday to be created. And this will never change, regardless of a book about the show co-written by Stelling, detailing long hours the presenter has spent perusing newspapers in a motorway service station on the M3.

As that very book suggests, Soccer Saturday is a guilty pleasure. Guilty because you aren’t at a game. Guilty because you’re not listening to a game. Guilty because you are watching five blokes watching games that, as a supporter of a Football League club, you often couldn’t care less about. Yet, somehow, Soccer Saturday remains a great show for all those who love the Football League.

The buildup is, admittedly, barren. Each Premier League game is covered in great detail, with references to the previous weekend’s action, highlights of midweek European games and Cup outings. Thank the lord for 3pm.

In fact, thank the lord for 2.50pm and two features on non-league clubs from Kent, Hythe Town and Dover Athletic, both of which have reached the FA Cup First Round Proper.  When Jeff wishes the pair well, you know he means it because of his love for Hartlepool United and understanding of the importance of covering teams the length and breadth of three countries.

It is this Football League connection which amplifies Soccer Saturday’s resonance with supporters of clubs outside the top flight. When he commiserates about a late goal flying in against a particularly troubled team, perhaps struggling towards the foot of League Two, we know it is in empathy as well as sympathy.

The statistics are also top notch. It would be easy to take them for granted but it is almost impossible not to appreciate the hard yards Jeff puts in during the week in order to know, for example, that Josh McQuoid’s early brace in the first five minutes of Bournemouth’s home game with Tranmere represent his sixth and seventh goals of the season.

Bournemouth are three up within seven minutes (and win 5-3), Carlisle three up within twelve (and win 6-0) and there seem to be goals everywhere, including four in the first ten minutes in the Championship. More importantly, Jeff relays a heartfelt goodwill message to the peerless radio presenter Danny Baker, who recently announced that he is battling cancer, following Millwall’s opener at Doncaster (only for the London club to lose 2-1). From one superb broadcaster who understands the Football League to another.

“And there’s been a goal at…” I grew up with “and there’s been a goal at…” Sometimes it was exhilarating. Sometimes it was exasperating. Some football fans, particularly regular attendees, go a whole lifetime without hearing “and there’s been a goal at…” Every football fan should hear it at least once in their team’s favour, whether on Soccer Saturday or on Radio 5. That feeling of tense anticipation is almost incomparable.

The most interesting story of the first half hour is Dover’s two-goal lead at Gillingham (the score remains the same at full time). You can read exactly why here. It also seems remarkable that six of the ten away sides in the Championship take the lead within that initial thirty minutes. There appeared to be far more goals than normal due to FA Cup First Round day. So many that someone with the surname Nutter (Gillingham defender John) managed to get sent off without being ridiculed.

The most surprising thing about Soccer Saturday is not that it’s enthralling. Anything involving football is. The most surprising thing is how incredibly exhausting it can be. If only the viewers could donate oxygen to Jeff for that frantic last ten minutes or so. Jeff doesn’t lose his cool. Not even when Hartlepool’s very own Ritchie Humphreys is sent off in the dying minutes.

It all went a bit crazy from there. Manchester United’s customary late winner. Lincoln actually scored a goal. And won a game. Southampton scored went from 0-0 to 2-0 in injury time. Norwich’s Andrew Crofts both scored an injury-time equaliser against Burnley and received an injury-time red card.

I couldn’t go through it every week. Back to the safety of the stadium for me next Saturday. But Jeff can and what a job the old boy does. Hats off.

The Seventy Two
The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.

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