As we approach the end of season run-in, Soccer Saturday’s Jeff Stelling reveals the secret behind his statistical supremacy and why his love of the Football League knows no bounds.
For over 20 years, Jeff Stelling has been dazzling Soccer Saturday audiences with obscure facts, expert coverage and – let’s face it – dad jokes.
For a football show that doesn’t broadcast the kick of a single ball, it a formula that’s kept viewers entertained since 1994. Many have put the show’s success down to the relationship between Stelling and his regular panellists – Paul Merson, Matt Le Tissier, Charlie Nicholas and co.
But it turns out the show’s success also relies, in part, on another of Stelling’s great friendships - with the show’s stats man, Trevor Simmons.
“He’s become a really good friend through the years as we work so closely together,” says Jeff. “He will provide me with packs of statistics. It’s my job to study them and decide what I want to take out of them.
“He will expect me to know how many goals Charlie Austin has scored for QPR, or how many games it is since Aston Villa managed to score in the Premier League. He would expect me to know the basic things.
“He will be beavering away in the background and if a full-back who hasn’t scored in 440 games in a 15 year career suddenly scores, it’s his job to make sure he pops up with that statistic. It’s teamwork.”
And, in case you were wondering, the bond between Jeff and the rest of the panel isn’t just for the cameras.
“The Soccer Saturday panel are a great bunch,” he adds. “You can see from the rapport between them on screen what they are like. What you see is what you get. Quite literally you are seeing real people and real friends.
“You have to have chemistry on a show like Soccer Saturday. You have all got to get on with each other – and we all do.
“The boys all know how far they can go. Yes in some ways it’s like a teacher with unruly pupils, but it is like a teacher with pupils who you know are good kids and they know how far to push it.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend Saturday afternoons. I watch football with my mates and I get paid for it! The only addition would be with a pint of beer or a glass of wine.”
Yes, Stelling, it seems, has been keeping friendships alive long before Men United made it fashionable.
That’s a great feeling, to have on a good day four or five thousand friends
“What defines a real friendship is that it stands the test of time. My best friends have been my best friends for 20, 30 and in one case 40 years. And even if I don’t see them, I can talk to them about absolutely anything.
“How often do I get to see my pals? Not as often as they get to see me! I don’t get to see them too often these days unless it’s down the golf course or maybe down the club.
“True friendship is when you’ve not seen your best mate for six months, nine months, a year, as it might be in my case. But I know that when he rings I’m always going to take his call. I know I can talk about absolutely anything, his family, he’s a Chelsea fan, so the latest Chelsea news, how Hartlepool are doing.”
While Jeff’s best mate’s Chelsea team look odd on favourites to win the Premier League, Jeff’s beloved Hartlepool United are dangling precariously close to League 2’s relegation zone. But despite a tough few years, his love for his boyhood club, and his fellow Pools fans remains as strong as ever.
“I see faces at Victoria Park that I’ve known for years. The great thing is because they see me so often they all feel like I’m a friend. Even though I cant put a name to their faces. But that’s a great feeling, to have on a good day four or five thousand friends because that’s what they are.
“Last season the wheels threatened to come off a bit and this season they have. Financially they are on their uppers but we are not unusual.
“If we end up going down to the Conference at least in this day and age there is always a route back. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, I’ll still be shouting for them.
And no wonder he’s so keen to stay in the division – he’s a Football League fanatic.
“Sometimes we underestimate the Football League. Attendances there outstrip Premier League attendances. The difference now between the top of the Championship and the bottom of the Premier League is negligible really.
“I see a lot of lower league football and the standard is fantastic. There is a different feeling at those Football League games as well. There is a real camaraderie between the clubs and the sets of fans.
“Yes, of course they want their team to beat your team but they understand your passion. In my case they understand my passion for Hartlepool United. They may be Rochdale supporters but they know what I’m feeling. I love the Football League, it’s fantastic.”
Kevin Webber, who lives with advanced prostate cancer, tells us his extraordinary story of marathon running while undergoing chemotherapy, and how he now plans to compete in the epic, trans-Sarahan Marathon Des Sables in April.