Yesterday I checked in online to Sky’s Soccer Saturday programme, hosted by the incomparable Jeff Stelling. It’s ages since I’ve watched it but yesterday was one of those climactic days in the season when all the final promotion, play-off and relegation issues were settled in Divisions 1 and 2. And as the tension unfolds Stelling has to keep his eyes and ears focused on a myriad of matches and scores as he keeps the viewer updated on all the various permutations and likely scenarios. I can never forget his tour-de-force performance nearly 10 years years ago when Carlisle’s goalkeeper Jimmy Glass came up to score in the dying seconds to deliver last minute salvation in the club’s unlikely fight to stay in the League. Yesterday Carlisle were once again fighting to stave off relegation (from Div 1). I couldn’t resist watching to find out if Jeff’s edge had been dulled from hosting countless editions of Countdown or whether the rapier sharp reporting style was still there.
Well I’m pleased to report that Jeff was on edge-of-the-seat form. He’s hardly aided by the muppets, or should I say collection of former players, Sky employ as expert match commentators in the studio. Paul Merson is personable but almost inarticulate – throw in a foreign name (and there are one or two overseas players playing in English football they tell me) and it’s like listening to Mike Parry reading a Polish dictionary. Phil Thompson also has problems with the native language but unlike Merson he has no personality whatsoever. Le Tissier’s delivery’s just dull and Charlie Nicholas is way too serious. The difference in quality between a skilled broadcaster like Stelling and these numpties is self-evident but still Sky persist in using them. Ah well at least they let Jeff lead.
Yesterday’s games were drawing to an exciting conclusion as Jeff slowly took control of almost total proceedings referring to his studio colleagues and roving match reporters for the briefest updates before focusing on the data piling up on the screen. I know he’s fed by a programme producer but he still manages to assimilate information whilst addressing the watching audience seemlessly and with a wry sense of humour.
As the plots unfolded we witnessed Scunthorpe secure a Div 1 play-off place over their match opponents Tranmere with a very late goal. Then Carlisle once again escaped relegation, as did Brighton and Jeff’s own team Hartlepool – despite a big defeat for which he was heavily mocked by his studio colleagues – as Northampton, who were two places clear of the relegation spots at the start of the day, got sucked down following a defeat to dirty Leeds.
In Div 2 automatic promotion was secured by Exeter (that’s successive promotions for them) and also Wycombe in the dying seconds despite losing 1-2 at home as their promotion rivals Bury could only win 1-0 and so lost out on the last auto spot on goal difference by a margin of a single goal. They’ll have the consolation of taking part in the play-offs where they’ll be joined by Shrewsbury who beat their opponents and play-off rivals Dagenham & Redbridge 2-1 in a real thriller.
It was breathless stuff – especially since I have no connections with any of these clubs – and today Jeff gets to do the whole thing again as the Championship reaches its climax with the final matches in the Division and a number of promotion, play-off and relegation issues still to be determined. In most cases the stakes are far higher plus there are some big personalities like Neil Warnock heavily involved. Throw in some critical Premiership matches and it’s mouth-watering stuff. It’s a Bank Holiday week-end and we should go out and do something but I might just get back for the final 15 minutes or so to watch the mighty Stelling give another stellar performance I hope.
ps he was bloody excellent today too – his reporting of the last seconds of Preston’s match against QPR which saw them clear the ball off their goal-line and snatch the final play-off place from Cardiff was full of excitement and tension. Brilliant stuff (even if it was Preston!)