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Jeff Stelling makes heartbreaking announcement live on Sky Sports

Jeff Stelling makes a heartbreaking announcement live on Sky Sports, confirming that he is stepping down at Soccer Saturday host.

Jeff made his announcement live on air during this weekend’s Soccer Saturday – the Sky Sports show he has helped make a fixture for football fans in the UK for over 25 years as its award-winning presenter.

He currently presents Gillette Soccer Saturday for Sky Sports and hosted their coverage of the Champions League between 2011 and 2015.

“I have come to the incredibly difficult decision that this will be my last season,” said Jeff.

“This is my decision – there has been no pressure. Sky have been absolutely brilliant with me, as they always have been.

“I am not intending to retire but it is time to let somebody else have a go at what is the best job in the world.”

The announcement was met with a standing ovation from the Soccer Saturday pundits.

Jeff has been a big part of Saturday afternoon football for decades, exciting football fans up and down the country. Jeff’s unique broadcasting ability, passion for the game and humour has made Soccer Saturday an unmissable fixture for fans and has won him a multitude of awards.

Jonathan Licht, the Managing Director of Sky Sports, added: “Jeff is a true broadcasting legend and has been a big part of Sky Sports’ growth and popularity over the last 30 years. Jeff’s pure passion and dedication to the game has set him apart and made Soccer Saturday a fixture for millions of fans every Saturday afternoon. The goals, the laughs, the red cards and the missed red cards have helped create one of the most popular TV shows in sport and Jeff has been the centrepiece of that.

“Jeff will be sorely missed, but we are delighted that he will leading the team through to the end of the season. There will rightly be many tributes to Jeff, and Sky Sports will be giving him the great send off in May that his remarkable and enduring contribution deserves.”

MORE ON JEFF STELLING:

In 1994, Stelling became presenter of Sports Saturday, which became Gillette Soccer Saturday in 1998, hosting a programme lasting up to six hours of football discussion and live reports on the afternoon’s games with a panel of pundits including Frank McLintock, Chris Kamara, Rodney Marsh and the late George Best. Much of the programme’s popularity is put down to Stelling.

At the start of the 2005–06 Premiership football season, Stelling replaced Ian Payne as the host of Sky Sports’ Ford Monday Night Football programme. However, Stelling’s appointment coincided with a new, shorter format of the programme, with Stelling presenting the show live from the ground of that evening’s game. Previously, the show had been presented from a studio, and had featured some coverage of the prior weekend’s games. Moreover, in previous years on Monday nights without a live game, a Monday Night Football Special would be broadcast, which included only the analysis from the weekend’s games. This appears to have been dropped from the 2005–06 season, indicating that Stelling’s appointment is to a smaller role than that held by his predecessors.

In 2011, Stelling replaced the departed Richard Keys as the main presenter of Sky’s live Champions League coverage and hosted between 2011 and 2015.

On the 21st of November 2008, it was reported that Stelling had been confirmed as the new host of the Channel 4 game show Countdown following the departure of Des O’Connor. He had reportedly also been approached for the role following the death of long-time host Richard Whiteley, but the role was given to former fellow sports presenter Des Lynam instead. Stelling began recording Countdown in December 2008, with the show’s new assistant Rachel Riley, and started broadcasting in January 2009. He also appears during an episode of The IT Crowd in the same role. However, it was announced on the 25th of May 2011 that Stelling would be stepping down as presenter of Countdown at the end of the year, after three years at the helm, to concentrate on football, including his new Champions League role. He was replaced by Nick Hewer, and fast forward to today, it’s Anne Robinson.

In August 2016, Stelling presented a new 10-part daytime game show for ITV called Alphabetical. The show returned for a second series of 20 episodes in October 2017.

Stelling appears as himself in a number of episodes of the football comedy TV series Ted Lasso.

Jeff Stelling said in September 2020 over questions of his future at Sky: “It’s been a difficult few weeks because it would be like I’ve lost the entire midfield just before the start of the season.”

“They have become my best friends,” Stelling says. “Tommo rang me first on a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago. He said the head of football had asked for a meeting at lunchtime and a meeting with Charlie an hour later. Just before midday my phone rang and it was Tiss. I said: ‘Hello Tiss, how’re you doing?’ He said: ‘I was doing OK until I was sacked.’ That was a real shock. Matt is much younger than the other guys and I was very taken aback. But, as soon as Matt told me he’d been sacked, I knew what was coming.

“It hit Matt the hardest because that was out of the blue. He’s 51 and a legendary figure. If you go down the south coast, Le God is his nickname. Well, not if you go to Portsmouth. They have a different nickname for him there. Matt has a nice wit about him. He is very well researched and took delight in having better stats than me.”

Did Stelling talk to his bosses? “I discussed it with Gary Hughes [Sky’s head of football]. I talked about the fact the three had gone at the same time just before the start of the season and the difficulties that presented. I didn’t say: ‘Why have you sacked Le Tissier? Why did you sack Tommo and Charlie?’ I didn’t go through the ins and outs because what other people think won’t sound great. I’m an employee and I do what they tell me. If I don’t like it, my alternative is to leave.”

Jeff Stelling with (left to right) Matt Le Tissier, Paul Merson, Phil Thompson and Charlie Nicholas in 2012.
Jeff Stelling makes heartbreaking announcement live on Sky Sports

Stelling is so obviously the lynchpin of Soccer Saturday that fans of the programme were quick to note his unhappiness on Twitter. Did he consider his position at Sky? “It would be honest to say that. Yes, of course. Whether I want to effectively start again is another question. We’ve done it with the first team we had – Bestie [George Best], Marshy [Rodney Marsh], Frank [McLintock] and Clive [Allen] and then we built another team [with his three sacked friends and Paul Merson]. I’m 65. I’ve had a fantastic run.

“I don’t feel ready to retire, but do I want to start all over again with a diminished product? So I did think about [resigning] but all three urged me not to do anything silly. I’ve also talked to people at Sky and part of the job is to make sure it’s not a diminished product and it’s fun and lively even in a Carabao Cup week. We did a show and once we got into the games you can’t help but enjoy it. It was a short show from 2.30pm to 5pm and I got messages from Charlie and Tommo saying: ‘We’re watching. Have a good show, mate, just be professional.’ So that’s what I did last Saturday, that’s what I’ll do this Saturday and we’ll see what happens.”

Stelling was aware it would take time to develop chemistry with his new colleagues. “It does. Or it might never develop. You just don’t know. So I’m apprehensive. The show is different anyway, because of Covid, in that we only have two people in the studio with me and three elsewhere. That changes the dynamics. The comfort is that Merse is still in the studio with me. Tim Sherwood will be with us. Tony Pulis is going to be in, as will Clinton Morrison who has done lots of shows, and Glen Johnson. So there will be five as opposed to four. But that’s by no means, as I understand it, a permanent lineup.”

How does Merson feel about the changes? “I think Merse felt the other three brought the best out of him. He was extremely comfortable in their company. I just said: ‘Merse, get your head down and carry on doing what you do.’ Hopefully, in years to come, he will establish the same relationship with people who take the boys’ places.”

Did Sky feel that there were too many old white men on Soccer Saturday? “I’m not privy to their decisions. Their view is it was the right time for change. On this occasion I couldn’t influence anything.”

It seems poignant that Stelling’s new book I’ve Got Mail: The Soccer Saturday Letters was published recently. He included letters he has received over the past 40 years – from one which had no address on the envelope but just said “Jeff Stelling – Shit” to more recent correspondence where a fan of Soccer Saturday asked him for a £10,000 loan because “you seem such an amazing chap”. The most powerful letter was written by a young woman who had been clinically depressed at 15.

“About 10 years ago I got a letter without an address. It started with this young woman saying, ‘Gosh, this is a difficult letter to write. I know the middle and the end but I don’t how to begin.’ She explained that, as a troubled young girl, she’d been in the throes of depression and contemplating suicide. One day, in the depths of her misery, she came into the lounge and her brother was watching Soccer Saturday. She heard me belting out scores at a ridiculous pace, telling bad gags and having a dig at the panellists. I’m not sure she was into football then but she is now. That first day she saw Soccer Saturday she thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be an achievement if I was around this time next week to see this guy again blurting out his scores at the speed of light?’ It became a weekly battle to make it to Saturday. She said every time she got to Saturday it was like she’d scored a goal.

“As the weeks went by, with the appointment with me on a Saturday afternoon, she could suddenly see a ray of hope at the end of this tunnel of darkness. She was writing to say that, in a weird way, I’d helped save her life without knowing it.

“I knew nothing more about her until six months ago when there was a message on Twitter. It was not aimed at me but to the general public from this young lady who related, while talking about mental health, the letter she had sent to me. I had referred to it once and on the day she discovered I’d received the letter, and what I felt about it, she was sitting in a clinic about to have an examination for breast cancer. She was in this cold waiting room, nervous as hell, and she picked up a magazine and there was the story. She said it was like I was there again.”

Stelling stressed how much football has opened up to women and changing for the better. Women are emerging as adept pundits and Sue Smith has appeared occasionally in the Soccer Saturday studio. But Stelling admits it is hard for any woman to appear on his panel. “Oh God, yes. The response on social media is horrendous. Whether it be Sue Smith or Alex Scott the criticism is horrendous and totally unjustified. When we had Soccer Specials, some of the women who’d come in had been very reluctant. They knew what the response would be, regardless of how good they were. There’s this blinkered idea – ‘It’s a woman, what can she know about football?’

“Twenty years ago I was also sceptical. But my view has changed and obviously we’ve had very good reporters like Michelle Owen, Bianca Westwood and Jacqui Oatley. They’re really experienced. When Sue came in it took her a while to grow in confidence. But she’s terrific value now and done brilliantly. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t feature more.”

In September 2020, Stelling was asked whether be at Soccer Saturday in five years? “No. There comes a time for everyone when it’s right to stop. I don’t feel it’s my right time at the moment. If I wasn’t at Soccer Saturday I’d be looking to do something else. I’ve got two boys, aged 22 and 20, and a daughter of 17. I don’t know what sort of job they’re going to get in this coronavirus-ravaged age. So I feel a responsibility to carry on while I’m earning enough to support them.

“And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. I love the Saturday afternoons. I don’t enjoy everything that goes on around it as much. I don’t just mean what’s happened to the guys. I mean the research sitting at a laptop all Wednesday and Thursday. But you have to do it. Think of Jelleyman [in one of Stelling’s most memorable moments on Soccer Saturday he said, ‘Gareth Jelleyman has been sent off. Let’s hope he hasn’t thrown a wobbly!’] My research told that me Jelleyman had never been sent off. That kind of stat excites me. Then, on the day he finally got a red card I delivered the line.

“But the first four weeks of a new season are always difficult because there are so many transfers. Last week I said: ‘Bolton have signed 16 new players.’ Neil Mellor, our reporter at Bolton, said: ‘It’s 17, Jeff. They signed another one this morning.’ Lots of clubs are like that at lower levels. Fifteen out, 15 in.

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