Jeff Stelling is not a man to sit astride the fence. That’s apparent from the way he firmly dismisses the idea of a British football team competing at the Olympics.
“I don’t care one jot about Team GB,” he exclaimed. “I don’t believe football should be an Olympic sport, in the same way I don’t believe tennis or golf should be Olympic sports.
“The classic events like track and field and swimming, rowing, cycling, that’s what the Olympics are about. Not football. To botch together some team comprised of English, Scottish and Welsh players is absolutely non-sensical.”
The firmness of the judgement may come as a surprise to some, when heard from the mouth of the avuncular Countdown presenter, but anybody familiar with the drama and passion evoked on Soccer Saturday, the weekly live-score football programme he hosts, will be expecting opinions. And the opinions flowed.
In light of the Super Six score prediction competition the company runs, Stelling recalls the best prediction he’s ever made – and it’s rather timely.
“Six or seven years ago on the show I put forward the thought that there’d be so many foreign owners that they’d try and ring-fence their investment by suggesting there should be no relegation from or promotion to the Premier League,” he said.
“We’ve heard all about it this week and it’s no surprise to me because they’re not football fans, they are business people looking to protect their investment.
“Thankfully Richard Bevan has come out and highlighted it again this week and I think that it’s great for the game that he’s done this, as he’s got people talking about this potential outrage of a league with no promotion or relegation. It will kill the game, that is for sure.”
If that would rip apart the fabric of football, what could we do to improve it? Stelling has an idea: “Use the fourth official far more effectively! He’s there to patrol the managers’ areas and get the board out at the end of the 90 minutes. Very onerous tasks, I don’t think – it’s absolutely nonsensical!”
“There should be a monitor down there all the time that he can consult. He can give his view to the referee - it’s not undermining them. It’s not even really technology, is it? It’s watching a darn TV monitor, which is available at every Premier League game. It’s common sense more than technology.”
It’s not hard to envisage a scenario during Sunday’s Manchester derby which could benefit from the use of a video replay. It’s a match which Stelling’s looking forward to:
“This could be the first time Manchester City will be able to get over their inferiority complex. The great thing about Manchester derbies is that while some derbies can be very cagey, they tend to be expressive and exciting.”
A prediction? “As an attacking force I prefer United, but defensively City are settled and sound. I think there’ll be goals, that’s for sure – I foresee a decent scoring draw, two all perhaps,” he mused.
“A couple of seasons ago we all saw the drama at Old Trafford, that was absolutely sensational. City seemed to have it in the bag, but you learn that nothing is ever in the bag when you go to Old Trafford until the referee blows his whistle.”
Carlos Tevez is a major talking point for fans of both sides, and an issue on which both red and blue halves of Manchester are in accordance. The broadcaster believes it is up to City manager Roberto Mancini to decide what to do:
“If he feels Tevez should not play for them again and he feels his authority was undermined, then the club has to back the manager. The decision has got to be down to him. Brian Marwood and the Sheik need to make it quite clear that whatever the manager decides, is what they’ll do.”
But he doesn’t believe Mancini is being entirely truthful with his claim that if he wins both Premier League and Champions League, he will quit:
“Not a chance. If you’re in charge of the best team in Europe – and by the way I don’t give them much chance of winning the Champions League this season, that’s for sure – with the resources and the potential they’ve got, why would anyone walk away? I would find that absolutely staggering.”
In a remarkable parallel, Stelling himself had the opportunity to walk away from Sky before the 2006 World Cup, when ITV offered him a presenting role, which he came perilously close to taking:
“I’d shaken hands on the deal, and the contract was in front of me. But Sky showed a lot of faith in me over the years, and the then managing director of Sky Sports showed a lot of faith in me and was a good friend of mine. And we had a long sit down chat and he persuaded me that I should stay where I was.”
With a smile in his voice, he added: “In retrospect it’s a decision I’m very pleased I made. There aren’t many people who can be as happy in their work and have as fantastic a job as I’ve got. Every day when I wake up I should give thanks to the lord that I’ve got the job. Any man out there as a football fan would absolutely love it.”
The job he speaks of, he confesses, consists of watching and talking about football with a group of his best mates – Matt Le Tissier, Paul Merson, et al. And being a quick-fire stat machine? “No!” he laughed. “A badly-oiled machine, maybe.” So how does he do it?
“You have to put the prep in beforehand,” he explained. “Yesterday and today I spent the day going through really exciting things, like tomorrow, if Chris Iwelumo scores – he hasn’t scored in his last 27 games – I’ve got that in the back of my mind. But I do have a stats man as well, who’ll tell me things I can’t be expected to know, the really obscure ones.”
The onus is on Stelling and co. to keep the laughs coming, but with his motley crew it’s not too hard: “Kammy [Chris Kamara] is unbelievable! What you see is what you get, and that’s the thing with all the guys. We’re a team of our own, and everybody’s got a part to play.” Surely it’s easy to take things too far, and forget you’re on live TV?
“They’re all aware that there’s limits that they can go to. They know they can’t swear and they know all the rules. I don’t really have to rein them in too often, but I’ve got to put them right from time to time.
"Phil Thompson can be incredibly misguided when it comes to anything that doesn’t involve his beloved Liverpool! I’ve got to put him in his place, and you know he’s getting desperate when he says: ‘But who did you play for Jeff?’, which is a bit harsh.”
Although we’ve heard a lot about what Stelling is not looking forward to, it’s no surprise he’s eagerly awaiting next year’s European Championship. “That’s what I’m interested in, and that’s what most football fans will be interested in.
“I’m desperate for England to do well, and I hope the Republic of Ireland get there as I believe their fans will make it a fantastic occasion. As for the Olympics - I’ll be watching, but I’m not interested in the football.”
Jeff Stelling was speaking on behalf of Soccer Saturday Super 6, the free-to-enter online predictor game with a weekly jackpot of £100,000. Go to skysports.com/super6 for more details. Plus, in this week’s Super 6 Sunday special, predict the score of the Manchester derby to win £5,000 in prizes.