Adrian Chiles: Stelling stars as the devil in football's car-crash television

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The Independent Football

Most television programmes begin with a proposal. A proposal, in television, is a piece of paper that, if it's lucky, gets to the controller's desk. It is then, in 99.9 per cent of cases, rolled up into a neat little ball and thrown into the circular file commonly known as a waste-paper basket. Sometimes a proposal will be considered so ludicrous that with a snort of derision it will be read aloud. Executives all over the primary-coloured open plan office will look up over their trendy little square spectacles and smile knowingly as they shake their heads in wonder at the stupidity of those who suggest programme ideas.

Most television programmes begin with a proposal. A proposal, in television, is a piece of paper that, if it's lucky, gets to the controller's desk. It is then, in 99.9 per cent of cases, rolled up into a neat little ball and thrown into the circular file commonly known as a waste-paper basket. Sometimes a proposal will be considered so ludicrous that with a snort of derision it will be read aloud. Executives all over the primary-coloured open plan office will look up over their trendy little square spectacles and smile knowingly as they shake their heads in wonder at the stupidity of those who suggest programme ideas.

This must surely have been the scene when the proposal was read for a programme featuring former footballers watching football matches on monitors which - and here's the really hilarious bit - the viewers could only see the backs of. How they laughed.

With Soccer Saturday on Sky, it actually wasn't quite like that. There was no proposal as such - like all the best programmes it simply evolved, into the riot of laughter, tension and terror that it now is. The other week a friend of mine couldn't make it to a West Brom game so, he said, he'd have to "go through death by Jeff Stelling instead - that man's in my dreams and in my nightmares". I knew what he meant.

If you monitored my heart-rate during a match at The Hawthorns and compared it to a graph of my heart rate watching the game unfold on Soccer Saturday, you'd find the same jagged edges. In case you haven't seen the show, Jeff is the presenter. As news of goals flashes up on the screen he conjures up improbably detailed facts about the scorer, whom you've invariably never heard of: "That's X's fourth goal in five away games for Y since joining on loan from Z."

With him in the studio are a handful of former players and managers, all of whom are watching a Premiership match on a monitor. As Jeff talks, there are often noises off-camera which suggest an orgy of some kind is taking place. This is the pundits reacting to something they've seen on their screens. Rodney Marsh does a passable impression of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. The noises he makes can only be described as ejaculations. And, as Jeff puts it, "Rodney Marsh was the first one ever to produce an ejaculation on the show. It used to happen only for goals but now he'll let one out for a throw-in if it's within 20 yards of the penalty area."

Jeff is these pundits' ringmaster and he succeeds in creating an atmosphere that mirrors most football fans' attitude to the game: deadly serious but at the same time, to a certain extent, sending it up - always aware that it is, despite all evidence to the contrary, only a game. But the tension that's created can be quite unbearable. It's car-crash television - you can't take your eyes off it. He's a devil for milking the moment for all it's worth, toying with your hopes and fears.

Classically, he'll be taking in a telephone report on some lower division game when he breaks in to announce: "We're going to Old Trafford. It was 1-0 when we last there," he says neutrally. Pause. "... But it's not any more. There's a goal. But to who?" By this time, desperate to hear the best or worst, you're gnawing at the coffee table in agony. The delivery is verging on am-dram but it's just the right side of camp and tears you apart.

The skill of the pundits is not to be underestimated either. "It's not as easy as they make it look," Jeff says. "They have to talk about instants which happened a moment ago without taking their eyes off the game. It's hard." Not everyone cuts the mustard. Many are called but few are chosen to appear regularly. The only one who Jeff thinks is big enough to admit he couldn't cope is Paul Hart, then at Forest: "We got a fax from him saying, 'Great show. Really enjoyed it. Sorry I was so crap'."

As for the statistics he seems to have at his disposal, Jeff does as much research as he can: "I can cover the more straightforward facts like Arsenal having no clean sheet in the last 11 but I couldn't possibly know everything."

That might be true but in a football trivia contest I'd back him against anybody except, possibly, the man in the shadows who whispers statistical sweet nothings into Jeff's ear in his moments of need. That man is one Dave Todd whose full-time job it is, Tuesday to Saturday, to assimilate every conceivable football fact and figure to pass on to Jeff come show-time. "My memory doesn't remember anything useful in day-to-day life," Dave says, "but football stuff just seems to stick."

Here's how it works: Tony Bedeau scores for Torquay. The moment the news hits the Sky screen Dave is using his computer and/or one of his dozen Rothmans yearbooks to establish that this is Mr Bedeau's first goal since 29 November last year. The message is passed to Jeff and it is broadcast.

"But how quickly can you get that information?" I ask, "what's your turnaround time from hearing of the goal to getting hold of this stuff?"

"Let me see," Dave wonders, "about six to seven seconds I would have thought." Now that's what I call a researcher.

In conversation with Jeff, though, you quickly realise that the minutiae of the game are coursing through his veins: "Any big mistakes?"

"Kenny Deuchar of Gretna. I got into trouble for mispronouncing his name."

"Tut, tut. Very careless. Would never happen at the BBC I can promise you." But Jeff's off and away, enthusing about the guy: "Interesting chap. He's a doctor - can't play every week. Scored five on Saturday."

I like to think I could have a bash at presenting most programmes, but you wouldn't catch me anywhere near Soccer Saturday. As for the other big Sky Sports star, Richard Keys, doesn't Jeff ever go up to him, offer to swap shows and tell him he doesn't know he's born introducing live matches?

"I'd love to, but I don't see him very often. When we do cross paths he always looks very dapper and fresh and there's me frazzled and knackered. But there's nothing I'd rather do than my show."

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