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Jeff Stelling is back – and the world is a better place for it

Jeff Stelling, the sports television presenter who currently presents Gillette Soccer Saturday for Sky Sports, poses for a portrait at the Westgate pub near his home in Winchester on September 7th, 2020 in Hampshire, England
Jeff Stelling, the sports television presenter who currently presents Gillette Soccer Saturday for Sky Sports, poses for a portrait at the Westgate pub near his home in Winchester on September 7th, 2020 in Hampshire, England

Jeff Stelling made a remarkable career from telling us about football we could not see. As host of Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday for a quarter of a century he became as comforting a presence as the shipping forecast. Even more remarkably, he did not seem keen to strive for more.

There were some stints fronting live football and hosting the gameshows Countdown and Alphabetical. Otherwise Stelling was content to be master of his craft until the end of last season. We do not know why he chose to finish with Soccer Saturday. Perhaps he could read Sky Sports’ direction of travel towards youth or perhaps he had simply run out of smalltalk with Alan McInally. What we do know is it was not to retire, as Stelling returned across two formats this week. It is wonderful to have him back.

New gig number one is Mondays and Tuesdays on TalkSport where he has diversified into breakfast. “A very good morning to you,” he said in the pre-dawn darkness on Monday. “I cannot believe I’m saying this to you but it’s three minutes past six.”

Anyone tuning in this early needs a gentle start, and co-host Ally McCoist played ball with a slightly tedious account of his journey into the studio. There were promising signs of chemistry between the pair, Stelling had switched to “Coisty” midway through his first show, but both are such professionals they could make a long car ride with Keir Starmer seem jolly and freewheeling. McCoist especially is such a resiliently upbeat presence he could shrug off a stag do-level hangover before you could say “Premier Inn breakfast buffet”.

Stelling’s growly register, once deployed to announce Fleetwood taking a crucial 2-0 lead at Peterborough, was called upon at unusual times, such as during an I’m A Celebrity recap or the many ads read for the used car retailer that sponsors the show. TalkSport has mastered a sort of neutered laddy tone, heavy on the laughs but unthreatening, too, and Stelling immediately seems a perfect fit. Radio like this is all about energy, and finding it in unpromising situations. That was there whether Stelling and McCoist were chatting about Newcastle’s injury crisis with Les Ferdinand, the merits of Genesis among themselves, or acting with Succession’s Brian Cox.

On Wednesday night Stelling returned to our screens, transgressively standing rather than sitting behind our desk to introduce Every Game Every Goal from the Amazon Prime lair. Here was the long-wished for dream – Soccer Saturday with the actual goals rather than Paul Merson shouting about them.

A low-octane hour of build-up gave way to Sky-esque scores, stats and news framing live action with Stelling and friends stuck into the bottom right corner, sometimes chatting, sometimes offering inoffensive commentary.

Plenty of promise in that format, but some teething issues, too. Awkwardly, Stelling announced the first goal of the evening at Selhurst Park but Tim Sherwood had finished describing it long before it made its way onto the main screen. Watching its first night left you feeling you had not seen enough of the game nor of the presenters.

Back on TalkSport on Tuesday, the weekend’s football talking points were still being attacked with a relentless familiarity to anyone who has listened to American sports radio. Occasionally it would be good for the guests to be interrogated with the same ferocity. YouTuber Mark Goldbridge repeated the allegation that half the Manchester United squad were not trying. When pressed to name names by Stelling, Goldbridge filibustered and instead named those he thought were doing the best. This is the YouTube economy in action, saying something outrageous for the sake of an enticing thumbnail image with little supporting substance.

Anyway, that is a diversion. Although perhaps not entirely. Much of TalkSport’s success is in understanding video, now the dominant currency of online media. This is why Simon Jordan is still a part of the footballing landscape 13 years since flaming out at Crystal Palace. This, you sense, is where Stelling might struggle.

Fellow traveller Jim White has moved seamlessly from Sky into a role as TalkSport’s chief winder-upper. That seems a bit crass for Stelling, clearly an accomplished radio presenter but one who may not go in for the confected fury that seems to chime most reliably with social media. For now it is enough to enjoy his re-entry to our lives. Few broadcasters are better company.

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