‘It is desperate for a football fan not to have that anticipation of entering a ground … without it, life loses some of its sparkle’ – Jeff Stelling

Jeff Stelling is proud of the part Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday show has played since the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK.

By Simon Carter
Friday, 12th March 2021, 8:24 am
All but a handful of Pompey home games in the past 12 months have been played without supporters present at Fratton Park. Picture: PinPep Media / Joe Pepler
All but a handful of Pompey home games in the past 12 months have been played without supporters present at Fratton Park. Picture: PinPep Media / Joe Pepler

It was 12 months ago the experienced presenter was informed the popular programme would not broadcast as planned on Saturday, March 14.

Sport across the globe was halted, including the Premier League and English Football League - though matches in the National League, Wessex League and Hampshire Premier League still took place.

But with no professional action, Soccer Saturday was placed on an unexpected sabbatical.

Jeff Stelling

‘I was sitting in a bar in Portugal when I found out there wouldn’t be a show that weekend, but no one had any idea how long it would go on for at that stage,’ said Stelling, speaking as part of the Sky Bet Fan Hope Survey.

A week earlier, supporters had filled stadiums up and down the country with Stelling and the crew providing the usual mixture of laughs and analysis.

Eventually football did return and so did the show after a 15-week absence on June 20. But with fans not allowed into grounds and normality a long way off, Stelling was acutely aware of his role.

The 65-year-old added: ‘You wanted to lift people. The country had been at a really low ebb and you are conscious to try and be upbeat and bring a bit of joy to people’s lives.

‘It wasn’t always easy! It is hard to bring joy to a Burnley fan when they are losing 5-0 to Manchester City, but we tried to have some fun.

‘People couldn’t go to football so we were in a privileged position to bring some sort of service and entertainment. They weren’t the sort of shows we were used to delivering but they were the best we could manage under extremely strange circumstances.’

Stelling, who lives in Winchester, had presented Soccer Saturday since 1994 but this was uncharted territory for the Hartlepool fan, with social distancing rules still in place and a limit on the number of studio guests allowed.

With the Sky Studios ‘deserted’ and filled with an ‘eerie silence’, it was far from the usual bustling environment.

‘It was incredibly strange and difficult to be brutally honest,’ Stelling admitted. ‘You’d walk into the offices and absolutely no one was there.

‘But from my point of view it was both a privilege and a relief to be able to do it. I had been sitting, twiddling my thumbs and there are only so many walks in the country you can do and I had done them all!

‘I was one of those who was lucky enough to be able to go back to work and have some sort of focus.’

While rules changed and the goalposts were at times moved by the Government during the autumn months, football was able to continue after the conclusion of the 2019-20 season and Soccer Saturday had adjusted to its new normal by the start of the current campaign.

Stelling said: ‘We developed a system where we could have three people in the studio with me. It might not sound like much but it makes a big difference to have three people to bounce off.

‘By then we were able to put people in remote studios at Glasgow and Wilmslow. It still wasn’t Soccer Saturday as we know it, it still isn’t, but it was one step closer to it.

‘By then we had realised by virtue of what happened at the end of the previous lockdown just how significant sport and football in particular was to the nation and how important it could be to people’s mental health, to give them something to focus on and enjoy.’

Fans were briefly able to return to some stadiums late in 2020 before another lockdown was imposed, but the current Government roadmap for lifting restrictions would see grounds full again by the start of next season.

There is also a chance that a limited amount of supporters will be able to return for the final two games of the current Premier League season.

Stelling added: ‘It is desperate for a football fan not to be able to go along and have that sense of anticipation and the butterflies as you go into the ground.

‘It is a way of life and without it, life loses some of its sparkle so fans can’t be back soon enough.’