When Saturday comes

What is it about Sky's 'Gillette Soccer Saturday' that keeps fans riveted for hours every week? Bill Borrows sits in the gallery and finds out

To say that the gallery in studio one is a blur of frenetic activity underscored by a ferocious tension would be an understatement. There are 50 screens, two banks of expensive equipment, several computers and eight extremely stressed people packed into a space the size of a caravanette. On the other side of the glass, presenter Jeff Stelling can hear what's going on through his headphones.

To say that the gallery in studio one is a blur of frenetic activity underscored by a ferocious tension would be an understatement. There are 50 screens, two banks of expensive equipment, several computers and eight extremely stressed people packed into a space the size of a caravanette. On the other side of the glass, presenter Jeff Stelling can hear what's going on through his headphones.

"Our vide-printer has gone down which is pretty fucking disastrous just before half-time."

"The Beeb is miles ahead."

"Go to a longer break."

"Fuck."

"We can't start the vide-printer until you get off it."

"Shit, we've got no scorers, just read out the scores."

"St Johnstone 0-0, Accrington 3-0..."

There has been a satellite breakdown. The scores from the Premiership and Championship, as the old First Division is now called, are covered because Sky has reporters or panellists at every game, but the other two divisions and non-league updates have to be relayed directly to Stelling from the Press Association.

He receives his countdown coming back from the break, smiles into the camera and tells the viewing public, "We have a problem with our vide-printer which we're trying to solve but, in the meantime, here are the half-time scores." He does not miss a beat.

Later he will describe the loss of the vide-printer as making him feel "like a swimmer who has lost his trunks". On a show that sells itself on providing the most up-to-date results service available you can see his point but, at the time, and at least as far as the viewers are concerned, everything is almost as it should be. There is no crisis.

When the vide-printer is eventually back online, after a period during which it spews forth results 10 minutes behind real time and in quadruplicate, everything settles back down. Normal service has been resumed.

"That's where Liam sits on Saturday afternoon," explained Patsy Kensit when she gave GQ magazine a guided tour of her Britpop mansion five years ago. As she threw open the door to his living room (and that's "his" as in "his and hers") she shook her head, looked towards the huge plasma screen and explained, "He is mesmerised by that mad programme on Sky where everyone is watching football on tellies you can't see. Honestly, that is the weirdest show I've ever seen - and both my husband and my eldest son are riveted to it."

The serial rock wife was, of course, talking about Liam Gallagher and Gillette Soccer Saturday respectively - the latter is the very next best thing to watching a game in the flesh and an unmissable part of every Saturday afternoon for those who either live on their own or might be doing so soon if they don't stop watching that bloody programme.

Apart from live football it is the biggest ratings puller in the Sky Sports firmament and, as Kensit observed, it basically involves four men in early middle age watching "football on tellies you can't see". The pitch document must have made quite interesting reading, but if you love football this is almost all you need. It is hardcore football pornography and can be accessed on Sky One from noon to 6pm every Saturday during the football season and occasionally midweek.

Jeff Stelling, a man of almost average height and equable temperament, is charged with holding the whole thing together. And it is quite a thing to hold together. There are three hours of preamble during which time four distinguished ex-professional footballers discuss the issues of the week (as producer Rob Dakin puts it, "When we choose the panellists it actually is a case of show us your medals") and, in between a handful of pre-recorded interviews, then spend 10 minutes talking about each Premiership game and predicting a result.

For the next two hours they watch live feeds and communicate what is happening to viewers who should probably be putting up shelves but have somehow found themselves seduced by the captivating blend of information and entertainment on offer. Again.

On this given Saturday, the pundits include Alan McInally, the former Aston Villa and Bayern Munich striker, "Champagne" Charlie Nicholas, "Uncle" Frank McLintock and Matthew Le Tissier. There are also four chartered accountants from Hampshire who have paid £2,500 in a charity auction just to sit in on the show. As one of them, Gordon Johnston, explains, "I watch it every week and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what happens behind the scenes."

The original format was designed by Andrew Hornet, a senior producer at Sky in the mid-1990s, who was restricted by the TV deal in terms of the footage he was permitted to show but still had six hours to fill. It began as a general sports show but, as Stelling remembers, "Football just became a bigger and bigger part of the show. Results became more important and eventually we decided to ditch everything bar the football and we hardly ever mention any other sport now. It's a football show. Bang! End of story." Soccer Saturday first broadcast at the beginning of the 1998-99 season and is approaching its 300th programme.

After a career that began in newspapers, Stelling arrived at Sky in 1990 and presented a range of live sports including snooker, darts and horse-racing. "I'd been round the houses," he says. "But I was in the right place at the right time and when the opportunity arose I thought, 'I know just the man for the job' and, thankfully, my boss agreed. It's like most things in life: you need a lot of luck."

His affability and charm are key ingredients of the show's success but they don't disarm completely. As Alan McInally says, "He's a feisty little bugger when he needs to be. He has all this information coming into his headphones and then he has to stop us laughing and giggling and make sure we shut up at the right time. He makes it look easier than it is." They all do.

Charlie Nicholas agrees. "Footballers and all sportsmen are generally very competitive but Jeff also makes you compete with him. If you say something a bit daft he'll keep at you until you've got nowhere to run, as happened with McInally when he said somebody was 'one of the most unique' and Jeff wouldn't let him get away with it. He'll remember what you said four weeks ago, let alone four minutes ago, and then quote it back to you."

"Well, I have to keep them in check," grins Stelling. "The banter is constant and things can occasionally get a bit heated. But it is like the perceived on-screen tension between myself and Rodney Marsh when he was on the show. Yes, on occasion he would frustrate and infuriate me in the same way that he would frustrate and infuriate everybody who was watching, but he would amuse me as well and we are all still mates."

It makes for entertaining television, as though the viewer has been permitted to sit in the dressing room. In-jokes fly everywhere and, on this Saturday at least, Nicholas and McInally take it in turns to wind up "Uncle Frank" and each other between shots. When they are required to speak to camera, however, a kind of professional pride kicks in and they fulfil their brief to the letter. Nicholas says, "If I'm being honest, we do bugger all and the real work is done behind the scenes by the time we sit down." But he is being unduly modest.

As the presenter says of his various sparring partners, "You have to have the ability to watch these games going on but also be able to talk to me about something that happened 30 seconds before whilst still watching what's going on in front of you. It's not the easiest thing in the world and some of them can't cope with it."

Stelling keeps the show on the road, maintains order, throws in the odd killer line and does so while people fire instructions at him through an earpiece and continually place pieces of paper in front of him. And all with an insouciant roguish charm and a few trademark pauses delivered with downward intonation for dramatic effect.

He is able to do this because, as the producer explains, "His preparation is meticulous." After phone calls to discuss what is going in the show on Monday, his week involves meetings, more phone calls and then, on a Thursday usually, a trip to a service station on the M3 near Winchester where he escapes the pressures of family life (he has two young sons aged five and six and a baby daughter) for several hours to devour the week's papers and update his notes.

"I go there because it is near my house; it's warm and I can always be guaranteed a seat," he explains. 'The staff are used to me and I rarely get bothered. It's a dream job in many respects." And either the best-kept or the worst-kept secret in British broadcasting allows himself a wry smile and raises an eyebrow.

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