Gillette Soccer Saturday

Saturday, January 20, 2001 by

Given the hand wringing, wailing and general gnashing of teeth over Sky Sports plundering of traditional televised sporting events from ITV and (especially) BBC, it is refreshingly ironic that their flagship programme, Gillette Soccer Saturday, centres solely on football. With the demise of World of Sport and the reduction of Grandstand to a cruel parody of its former self, the battle for the hearts and minds of committed Saturday afternoon sports viewers has been fought for, and won, by Sky.

The title alone, with inclusion of the sponsors’ name and that damned word “soccer”, screams tastelessness and a haughty disdain for the sport it purports to represent. Yet this is a programme which worships at the altar of the national game and pays homage with due respect and reverence. This show has quietly moved with graceful stealth to the position of being, arguably, the prototype and template by which future sports programmes should be made. It is, by far, the best sports show on television – terrestrial or satellite. This is due in no small part to the anchor, Jeff Stelling.

Stelling holds the show together with consummate ease and through him everything flows and ebbs. Clearly, this is a man who relishes the technical aspects of live television and his clear mastery of them is a delight to behold. Normally a six hour show (today’s was truncated by the Watford versus Fulham match – a wonderful game showcasing Fulham’s mastery of the division under the influence of Tigana) this is no mean feat. As the goals, bookings, sending-offs and incidents fly in, Steeling coolly relates the events to the viewer with the aid of the constant on-screen video-printer. His ability to jump back and forth between several matches and interrelate the happenings to the panel and the viewers is crucial to the flow of the show.

Although the tempo is dictated by the day’s play, the inevitability of a rapid staccato scoring burst ensures several prolonged and frenzied periods of activity. However, these bouts are controlled madness and Stelling plays it in the style of Cool Hand Luke rather than Corporal Jones. This is an unruffled, elegant approach never seen on Grandstand. Well, maybe Dougie Donnelly manages it during the World Indoor Bowls Championship but that’s about the nearest anyone on the Beeb approaches the ice cold coolness and panache displayed by Stelling.

My own personal feelings towards the vexatious subject of talking heads are well known, and will pass into OTT lore I’m sure (I don’t like ‘em). However, on Soccer Saturday the panel is perhaps the jewel in the crown. The gravitas added to the show by Marsh, McLintock and Best cannot be overestimated and their inherent ability to talk common sense underpins every conversation. The banter between these three is not just that of sagacious wise men, but sagacious wise men steeped in the culture of football, who rarely fail to cut to the heart of the matter and who call a spade a bloody spade. Contrast this to the anodyne performance of Ray Stubbs and the intellectually anorexic Mark Lawreneson and you can see why in pubs and clubs the country over that Football Focus is regarded as being dead in the water. It really is about time someone done the decent thing and claimed the body.

Mistakes do sometimes occur. I mean, what on earth possessed them to put a camera and microphone on Barry Fry during the recent Chelsea/Peterborough cup tie? Cue a flying visit to the livewire Fry and we were rewarded with a barrel of abuse in the style of a Tourette’s victim flying from Bazza’s mouth. Mind you, the hilarity at home was patently shared with Stelling and the panel to whom we were quickly returned. Needless to say, there were no more visits to Barry.

Another redeeming factor is the accurate factual information constantly given out during the course of the show. Clearly there is an impressive degree of research carried out prior to, and during, the show and respect should duly be paid to those who so diligently and excellently carry it out. Football Focus‘ recent attempts to ask pub-style questions at the head of the programme (“Name the three Premiership strikers who have scored hat tricks for three different Premiership clubs?” for example) is a poor derivative copied from Stelling’s seemingly freehand style. Focus should concentrate on repairing its broad brushstrokes rather than imitate intricate detail.

Ultimately, the fundamental joy of Soccer Saturday is that the six hours pass by so quickly. This is a testament to the production team. With so much happening, control is everything and control is never lost. There is as much occurring behind the cameras as there is in front and, with Stelling providing a veritable rock around which to anchor the show, from this maelstrom is created a thoroughly riveting and utterly professional show. In football speak, at the end of the day we’re over the moon with Soccer Saturday.


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