A new era begins today on Countdown, the programme that launched Channel 4 more than 26 years ago, as the presenter’s chair is filled by a man who is rarely happier than when cavorting around a studio with a James Brown puppet, telling his audience “I feel good!”
Jeff Stelling will be presiding over the mid-afternoon ritual that involves random selection of vowels and consonants, their re-arrangement into words of multiple syllables and the solving of conundrums ahead of the infuriating jingle which signifies that the famous clock hand has completed its journey.
Countdown regulars who do not know Stelling will be relieved to hear he has a way with words. For more than a decade he has been delighting viewers of Sky’s football show Soccer Saturday with quips based on the names of teams, referees and players. “There’s only one Enoch Showunmi, thank God for that”, he’ll observe of the Leeds striker. A goal by Bolton’s Kevin Nolan will be accompanied by the thought “His sisters will be pleased”, and if the Congolese player Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu finds the net for Sheffield Wednesday, Stelling will dryly remark “Local boy makes good”.
A victory for one obscurely named Welsh non-league side provoked him to say “They’ll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight”, a gentle parody of the great rugby commentator Bill McLaren.
Stelling’s exclamation after the sending off of a Mansfield Town player in the 2005-2006 season, “Jellyman’s thrown a wobbly”, gives its name to a Harper Collins book due out in May, telling the story of how he has created an alternative match day experience for fans unable to actually attend a game.
The man who must now fill the shoes of previous Countdown presenters Des O’Connor, Des Lynam, and – most importantly of all – the original host Richard Whiteley, has the square-jawed, coiffed and suited-booted appearance of an American news anchor. Indeed he started his career as a news reporter on his home town newspaper, the Hartlepool Mail. This is the biggest challenge of his career.
Since Whiteley’s death in 2005, Channel 4 has struggled to find the right presenting mix for what is now one of the longest-running game shows in the world.
Carol Vorderman, the glamorous mathematician who had hosted the programme with Whiteley since its inception, left last year following a salary row. So Stelling is being teamed up with Rachel Riley, 22, an Oxford maths graduate. “It was essential from Channel 4’s viewpoint that there should be some chemistry,” says Stelling. “So before my appointment was rubber stamped they wanted to see us working together. I’m not sure how much chemistry there was but there was sufficient, shall we say, for them to think that this could work. She’s a fantastically nice girl and is going to be A) very good at her job and B) very popular, especially amongst the male population.”
Already the new team has made 15 shows, though that’s just a toe in the ocean of the 225 editions that must be made this year. Stelling is humble about why he was chosen for the job. “English and maths O-levels….I don’t know… I would guess I’ve been around for a while, so I have broadcasting experience and can handle live shows. I’ve got a sense of humour and I hope they would like to see a little humour in the show. I think they would also like a little more energy than perhaps it has had, and obviously they see that in Soccer Saturday. Above all I’d like to think they think I’m professional.”
He is hoping for recognition from student viewers, many of whom regard Soccer Saturday as cult television. Countdown’s credentials among the varsity audience are also impeccable.
Stelling says it’s “very comforting” that he will enjoy that familiarity, while conceding that others among the Channel 4 mid-afternoon audience will have no notion of who he is. “There will be a percentage who will think ‘Who the hell is he?’ I’m absolutely certain that will be the case,” he says. “There will be some people for whom Richard Whiteley will always be irreplaceable and I understand that because he was an absolute icon in terms of this programme. He was different because he was so natural and prone to little gaffes that made him all the more loveable. I would never try and directly replicate Richard Whiteley.”
Although he wants to bring humour and “more energy” to Countdown, Stelling knows he will not be surrounded by the coterie of ex-international footballers with whom he works on Soccer Saturday. Not only do Matt Le Tissier, Paul Merson, Phil Thomp
son and Charlie Nicholas cackle and groan at Stelling’s gags, they also provide him with a wealth of material. “Countdown will obviously be less frenetic than Soccer Saturday, a little quieter, a little more controlled. But in a way there has got to be an element of Soccer Saturday there because what you see of me is what you get. The opinions you hear are all the opinions you would hear from me in the bar on a Friday night. On Countdown you are going to see the same sort of person – because that’s me basically.”
Despite his considerable Channel 4 workload he says he never thought of giving up his football job. “No, because it’s the love of my life. You can see how much fun it is, it’s not like real work.”
A lot of people make such statements in interviews about their jobs, but in Stelling’s case it’s probably true. When I get to the Sky Sports offices his laughter is booming out from the green room where he is talking football with a group of former West Ham players for an edition of Time of Our Lives, a new nostalgia series he is presenting. The previous day Stelling had been watching Manchester United beat Southampton in the FA Cup, hanging out with Sir Bobby Charlton.
Does he spend his whole life talking about football? “Doesn’t everyone,” he responds, looking a bit surprised.
What else is he interested in? “Crikey! ‘Not much’ is the answer. Erm. I’m an old rocker, and a bit of a golfer when I get the chance. If the guys were here we’d be talking about all sorts of stuff, like exotic holidays. I’m a big horse racing fan, I will have a little dabble here and there.”
You get the impression that Stelling doesn’t worry too much about life. He has a similar confidence to Des Lynam, whom Stelling described in these pages four years ago as “the best ringmaster in the business…the bloke who I aspire to be as good as”.
He agrees that it’s odd that he has followed Lynam from sports broadcasting to Countdown. “Yes, curious isn’t it? He’s my hero. I’ve met him on a number of occasions and he’s always very supportive. He’s never given me any career advice but I remember bumping into him in the street once and he said ‘I always thought you’d make something’, and then added wistfully, ‘but then you went to Sky’. He was just gently taking the mickey.”
Taking the mickey is something Stelling likes to do each Saturday to his footballing colleagues, many of whom have become friends away from the television studio. Though they nickname him “Chopper” for his limited abilities as a Sunday morning full back, Stelling says he has never been made to feel like an outsider for not having played professionally. “There’s never been a dividing line between me the non-footballer and them the footballers. Although they sometimes ridicule my opinions, most of the time they respect them.”
This is probably in part due to Stelling’s meticulous research, done until recently in a service station on the M3, close to his home in Alresford, Hampshire. The service station offered somewhere “bright, warm and with copious amounts of coffee”, where he could glean trivia from the sports pages without being disturbed by his three young children. Now his kids have started school he does his research from home.
He clearly has a great affection for his fellow presenters on Soccer Saturday. Le Tiss is “very acerbic” and always ready with an opinion. Merse is “the soul of the show” and has “a wonderful way of describing things, without being terribly articulate”. Thomo has done it all in the game and though “he could start an argument in a phone box”, is one of Stelling’s closest friends. Charlie, once considered a playboy, is “rock solid in every respect” and has “really good contacts in the game”. Then there is the ebullient Chris “Kammy” Kamara, who invariably begins his pitch-side reports by screaming “Unbelievable Jeff!”
As he holds court in the studio, Stelling flicks between screens showing the big games, listening for squawks of excitement from his panellists as indicators that a goalmouth incident has occurred. On television he looks like a big guy, though in real life he isn’t. “How are you Jeff? I thought you were taller,” says ex-Celtic star Bobby Lennox, as he arrives to make another edition of Time of Our Lives. “Have you got a high stool?”
Stelling, who worked at Radio Tees and BBC radio before finding his niche in sports television, was lucky enough to get in at the beginning of Sky’s football coverage. “In retrospect I was in pole position and had established myself on one of the flagship programmes. Nowadays that would be a hell of a lot more difficult because the competition is so much stiffer,” he says.
His humility chimes with a willingness to speak up for the smaller football clubs, and to remain loyal to his home town team. James Brown is also the name of a prolific goalscorer for Hartlepool United, hence Stelling’s use of a puppet of the soul singer, given to him by a Hartlepool fan when he went home to attend a charity event.
When Hartlepool lose he gets “downhearted” but not for long. “One thing the fans have got to remember, and it is hard sometimes, is that it is only a game, it’s an entertainment form. And at the end of a Saturday afternoon what’s happened on that football pitch isn’t going to change the life of any fan, not really.”
To some diehards that might sound like a cop out, but the new presenter of Countdown is determined to enjoy himself. Taking the job with Channel 4 is not a calculated attempt to broaden his television profile, he says. “I’m just in a very fortunate situation, y’know, to do things which I love doing and be paid for them. Like Soccer Saturday I think Countdown is going to be a lot of fun. That’s the main thing.”
Time of Our Lives is on Mondays at 10pm, Sky Sports 1