Soccer Saturday - a history lesson

Published: Monday, 07 September 2020

I’m in quarantine so this could be a long one. There isn’t much else to do. It’s a great system mind you. I was Covid tested at the airport when I arrived back in Qatar - which took 5 minutes. Immediately I was on my way and the negative result came within 24 hours. Now I lock down for 7 days. What’s not to like Boris? Or is it too simple a system for a shambles of a Tory Govt that’s stumbled from one disaster to the next during Covid?

Anyway. New season predictions will follow later in the week. I know how much you like them! In the meantime let’s discuss Sky’s Soccer Saturday. It’s a brilliant show. It’s been the best of its type for more than 20 years. But it was tired and very predictable when it ended it’s run last season. It needed shaking up.

Sky have been heavily criticised for making changes - but I’d say they’ve come five years too late. Everything changes. It’s only natural. Thommo, Charlie and Le Tiss have done their bit - and in their pomp they were terrific. But it really was time to go time. My only surprise is that Sky didn’t change it all - Merse and Stelling included. Why not?

Is it nose-ist to mention Thommo’s beak? Phil eventually started taking the piss out of himself about his nose - but that wasn’t always the case. He didn’t find it very funny when Robbie Fowler lashed a ball at him - and mentioned the size of it - as they argued one day at Melwood. Thompson was collecting other balls from behind the net as the one Robbie hit nearly smashed into his face! That nose also got me banned as a young radio reporter. 😂.

Ray Clemence was interviewing Kenny Dalglish for his show in the canteen at Anfield. Clem hated interviewing Kenny. He was always nervous. Half way through Thommo came in and stuck his finger up Kenny’s nose. Clem described the scene so as to explain why his interviewee had been temporarily put off. ‘Phil Thompson has just come in and put his finger up Kenny’s nose’, he said. Quick as a flash Kenny retorted ‘aye - he could pick his own with a boxing glove on’. Brilliant. Thommo looked at me and said ‘if you run that you’re banned’. I ran it. 😂😂

Charlie was always a regular on Andy’s golf trips at the end of every season. Andy would pay for everything - flights, accommodation, food, drinks - the lot. I like Charlie but I was disappointed that he didn’t think to call Andy when we left Sky. The silence was deafening. But he wasn’t alone.

And Le Tiss scored one of (sorry Matt, there’s been so many more) my favourite ever goals - the first v Newcastle at The Dell - up, over and round - then tuck it past Mike Hooper. Not many goals have had me out of my seat, but that one did.

So I know the boys well and I can only thank them for what they put in during the time that we all worked together.

Were I still in the U.K. I can’t imagine I’d still be fronting matches for Sky. I’ve said many times - the changes that were made were to be expected - but it was the manner in which we left Sky that was wrong. They sacked Andy.  I quit. Then they set about trying to destroy us.  But that’s for another time. I remember my friend in make-up, Jill Shaylor, saying many times ‘I really don’t know what they’ll do when you’re gone. They rely on you for everything’. My reply was always the same ‘It’ll be fine Jill. No-one is irreplaceable’.

So I have to admit to a little surprise that Jeff Stelling threw his toys out of the pram when the process of change started on Soccer Saturday. He’s older than me. Jobs aren’t easy to come by in our business right now - let alone at our age. Resign? Don’t be so daft. That was never going to happen. And trust me Jeff, the programme will go on anyway.

Soccer Saturday has evolved very nicely from its inception - when Paul Dempsey was the host and the guests were Clive Allen, Frank McLintock and Alan Brazil. The first producer was a friend of mine - Mark Schofield. Reluctant producer I should add.

Mark spent his early tv years at the BBC and played a big part in getting Grandstand to air on a weekly basis. My time at the Beeb was limited to a spell as a stats man - and I wasn’t a very good one! Poor Bob Wilson - to this day I’m not sure I ever really helped him out. I was his ‘mistakes’ man on Football Focus. Find the error - that was my job. What a nice guy by the way. Bob has been a life long friend - a rare beast that’s always thinking about how he can help others.

Anyway - I digress. I told you this could be a long one. I’ve made two cups of tea while tapping away! 

Mark got the job of ‘shaping’ our new Saturday results show because of his experience at the BBC, but he wasn’t happy. He actually said to me ‘we really shouldn’t be going up against Grandstand - it’s an institution’. I said ‘Mark, that’s exactly why we should be going up against it. Our long term aim should be to take it down’.

His first format was never going to work. Those of a certain generation will remember that Grandstand would take phone inserts from reporters at stadiums, but the guys were often in front of cameras at the end of the match. They did this by watching the first half before jumping in a taxi and relying on information about the second-half from someone like me, who would call the studio. They’d work the detail into a 40 second in-vision report.

This was the way Mark worked the early shows. He’d have the guys in the studio - send them behind a screen to do phone reports during the game -and have them back in their seats on the final whistle. Why? I told him ‘leave the guys where they are. Keep them in vision  We know they’re in the studio - we’ve seen them at five to three and at five past you’re trying to pretend they’re at a game’. His turn - ‘why?’ he said. ‘Because it’s daft’ I replied. Mark didn’t get time to make that change - he left us soon after.

So I put the same idea to his successor, Andrew ‘Buzz’ Hornet. He looked at me blankly and asked the same question Mark had. ‘I don’t know’, I said. ‘Who knows? It could create a really good atmosphere’. That’s literally how it happened, but success has many fathers - only failure is a bastard. The rest is history - and Buzz went on to describe himself in many future job interviews as the ‘greatest producer of his generation’.

Faces continued to change. George Best was drafted in. So was Rodney Marsh. To be fair to our former Head of Sport, Vic Wakeling, always said George would have a job with us until he died. He did. And he was great value. So was Rodney.

Vic’s deputy, Andy Melvin, wanted me to host the show on an occasion when Stelling had taken more time off. Jeff had a habit of doing that a lot in those days. We didn’t holiday in the football season and he had to come into line to keep his job.  Vic blocked it ‘I’m not having you fill in for anybody’ he told me. I wasn’t sure whether I was flattered! I’d have loved a go at it. You couldn’t really get it wrong. The stats guys are the real heroes. Sir David Frost wouldn’t ever wear an ear piece - but he’d have been sunk presenting that show without one!

So Soccer Saturday has evolved. It will continue to do so like everything else. It did end up taking down Grandstand - but not before giants like Peter Dimmock, David Coleman. Frank Bough and Des Lynam had all come and gone. It’s what happens. It has to happen. I wouldn’t be making too many more noises about resigning if I were the current host. Rich men don’t talk about doing deals - they announce them when they’re done. Never talk about resigning - unless you intend to.