I have to say that, on Saturday afternoons, I usually have better things to do. If I’m not at a match, I’ll be found in a pub, or out shopping in Brighton somewhere. Saturday afternoons aren’t much of a time for sitting around doing nothing, in my household. This week, however, was different. Hamstrung by the cost of a holiday, though, I had to eschew the joys of the FA Cup Preliminary Round yesterday and opted instead to spend the afternoon in the surreal company of Jeff Stelling and Sky’s “Soccer Saturday”. It’s not, I have to say, a completely satisfactory arrangement. I don’t like the creeping feeling that you get watching it, that something of critical importance is going on elsewhere, and the sense of helplessness that comes with it. I’m not amused by the fact that I am sitting at home, watching men watch football matches and telling me what is happening. It strikes me that this is a pretty neat metaphor for the modern game – this week, I can’t afford to go to a match, so I am reduced to the people that broadcast it telling me what is happening.
Stelling, the host, is pretty difficult to fault. The words “consummate professional” spring immediately to mind. He growls like a recently awoken tiger and purrs like a contented walrus. He is enjoying his job, and he wants to share that enjoyment with the rest of us. The puns that have sealed his “cult” reputation (though I do find myself wondering how much of this have been propagated by the Sky Sports marketing department) may be thin on the ground, and he may have been asked to cut down on the references to his home town team Hartlepool United (their 4-1 thrashing of Oldham Athletic barely warrants a mention and, when it does, it’s largely to point out what a disappointing start this must have been for Oldham’s new – and recently released from prison – striker, Lee Hughes), but he manages to carry the programme along on his own, buoyed by ebullience and his own enthusiasm for his job. It’s a good job that he does because, frankly, the array of ex-pros sitting around him carry the gravitas and personality of a box of cornflakes. Sitting across the studio from Stelling are Phil Thompson (formerly of Liverpool), Matt Le Tissier and Charlie Nicholas, watching a Premiership match each. Every five minutes or so, a stifled shout or gurgling noise comes from behind Stelling as something happens in one of these matches, but the assembled “experts” seldom offer anything more than we can tell ourselves from, well, looking at the scores. So, Liverpool “completely outclassed Derby in every department”, did they, Matt? Thanks for that, but I’d kind of guessed as much from the fact that they won 6-0. This is about as good as it gets – at 3-1 up away to Fulham, Phil Thompson was purring over Spurs, but he made no mention of their brittle self-confidence and, well, you know what happened next.
The programme certainly has depth in its coverage. It brings updates of all the goals in the Premiership, Football League, Conference Premier, Scottish Leagues and the Welsh Premier League, and also brings half-time and full-time scores from the Conference North and South, and the Isthmian, Southern and Northern Premier Leagues. For the supporter of the lower league club, though, this presents a real problem. A score update at half-time revealed that St Albans were goal-less, and it took until nearly five to five before the news filtered through of their inevitable 1-0 home defeat. However, it was a fairly eventful afternoon across the board – the late Fulham equalizer against Spurs brought forth a strangely aroused-sounding squawk from Thompson, followed by a post-coitally incoherent description of the free-kick that levelled things up at Craven Cottage – so there was plenty going on elsewhere, with a flurry of excitement as the late goals and full-time scores coming through, followed by slightly more relaxed results service and review of the afternoon’s proceedings.
It’s difficult to say whether “Soccer Saturday” is either a good or a bad programme. It does its job adequately, though I continue to believe that there must be more insightful and articulate former players that could be hired to report on the afternoon’s proceedings. It does, however, have to be said that it will never be a satisfactory programme to watch. By ten past three, I wanted more than anything to be at a match (any match) and, whilst this might not be Sky’s intention, it is certainly an indication that they are doing something right.