Jeff Stelling discusses Soccer Saturday’s role during coronavirus pandemic

George Sessions, PA
·5-min read

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

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

Sport across the globe was halted, including the Premier League and English Football League, and Soccer Saturday was placed on an unexpected sabbatical.

“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,” Stelling, speaking as part of the Sky Bet Fan Hope Survey, told the PA news agency.

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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 on Soccer Saturday.

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.

Manchester City beat Burnley 5-0 in November
Manchester City beat Burnley 5-0 in November (Laurence Griffiths/PA)

“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 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 incredible 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.

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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.

Liverpool v West Bromwich Albion – Premier League – Anfield
A small number of fans were allowed in to some Premier League games in December but it was short-lived (Nick Potts/PA)

Recently 1,168 Premier League supporters aged 18 or over were surveyed by YouGov in partnership with Sky Bet about how optimistic they were about the rest of the campaign for a Fan Hope Survey.

While Manchester City continue to lead the way in the division, 44 per cent of Manchester United fans have not given up hope they can win the title.

Rival Liverpool supporters, meanwhile, retain faith in Jurgen Klopp with more than three quarters (76 per cent) laying the blame at the feet of the players and not the manager for this below-par season.

With West Brom facing an instant return to the Sky Bet Championship, pessimism is rife at the Hawthorns with their fans scoring a mere 1.94 on a scale of 1-10 of how optimistic they feel.

But there is positivity in the game that a limited amount of supporters will be able to return for the final two games of this 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.”