Jeff Stelling Q&A: presenter discusses George Best, Jimmy McIlroy and Linfield’s proud record

Jeff Stelling at the National Stadium
Jeff Stelling at the National Stadium
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GRAEME COUSINS has a chat with Sky Sports’ Jeff Stelling during last week’s visit to the National Stadium in Belfast

Jeff Stelling paid a fleeting visit to Belfast last Monday, spending a few hours at the National Stadium at Windsor Park to promote his next visit in September which will be a much more gruelling affair.

When he comes back to Belfast on Friday, September 6 he will be walking for 26 miles in aid of Prostate Cancer UK, one of four such walks in four days in the four home nations.

The assured and affable Soccer Saturday presenter spoke to the News Letter last Monday.

Is this your first time in Belfast, at Windsor Park?

I think I’ve only been to Belfast once before which is a bit embarrassing. I think I came for an Under 15s match in my early days at Sky. It’s a nice stadium, very compact. You can see why the atmosphere is so good.

Jeff Stelling taking part in one of the March For Men

Jeff Stelling taking part in one of the March For Men

Are you looking forward to your return?

Yes, I’m back in September. It’s the second day of the four marathons for Prostate Cancer UK. It’s the day after Northern Ireland have a friendly at home to Luxembourg and a couple of days before you play Germany. I’m hoping there’s a good buzz and a good feel about the city. We start at Crusaders, then Cliftonville, Glentoran and then back here (to the National Stadium).

Would you have much of an interest in the Irish League?

A bit. I know some of the history – Linfield have won 52 titles and only Rangers have more in world football. What I like to do with all the leagues is just look through the results and league tables. I find league tables fascinating. But that’s about as far as it goes for the Irish League.

Jeff Stelling at the National Stadium

Jeff Stelling at the National Stadium

Do you feel the pressure of having to watch so much football as opposed to regular fans who can choose which matches they watch?

Sometimes, especially when there’s three matches in a row on Sunday it’s not great for marital relationships. Thankfully I come from a family where I’ve two boys who are football fans. I’ve got a wife and daughter but the three men outvote the women by three to two.

Do you follow anyone else other than Hartlepool?

I started to go and see Hartlepool when I was about seven, but you wanted a bigger team as well. I picked Burnley. I didn’t even know where Burnley was. The only reason I picked them was as a kid you used to write to football clubs and ask them if they had any photos or programmes or whatever else. Most of them just ignored you, but Burnley always sent something back. As a teenager I started to go and see them play. They had some fantastic players over the years like Jimmy McIlroy – one of your own, a fantastic footballer – Ralph Coates, Dave Thomas, Stephen Kindon, Frank Caspar. I’ve still got a soft spot for them now. I really like Sean Dyche (their manager). He did a leg of the walk with us last year.

Who is the greatest player you’ve ever seen?

For me, it’s another one of your own – George Best. There were so many things about him, the fact that the more you kicked him the more determined he was to beat you and score goals. Having worked with him later as one of the panel, I had to pinch myself. I thought, what am I doing here, a council house boy from Hartlepool who played Sunday league football sitting beside the guy who I viewed as the greatest footballer ever. I get frustrated by people who say Bestie was this, he was that, he was the other. You didn’t know him. I always found him to be a quiet guy, he was good company, of course he wasn’t reliable but he was so misunderstood. Even in his later years he lived his life in a goldfish bowl. I really, really admired him. I know he didn’t get everything right, but who does?

You’ve undertaken a number of walking marathons for Prostate Cancer UK, do they get any easier?

I’ve run some marathons as well and believe it or not walking a marathon is harder than running one. You’re on your feet for 11 hours. The repetition on those muscles and joints can be agonising. I found the first 10 marathons in 10 days really, really tough, but the second time round when we did 15 in 15 I found it a bit easier. I was better prepared physically and mentally. Once you get through the first four or five days your body becomes accustomed to it. The good thing is you’ve got a lot of good people around you when you’re doing the walks. The guys from Soccer Saturday will be joining me. Paul Merson has said he wants to walk all four days, Matt Le Tissier wants to walk, I’m hoping Chris Kamara will, Phil Thompson and so forth. We haven’t walked in Belfast before so we’ll be hoping to get a few ex-pros and managers from Northern Ireland involved. That helps. You’re walking and chatting away and suddenly you’re two miles down the road, then you’re seven, then you’re 10. There are a lot of inspirational people who walk with you who are either suffering from prostate cancer or survivors of prostate cancer or who have lost somebody to prostate cancer. That’s a massive help as well, if they can walk it surely I can.

You’ve been with Soccer Saturday since 1994, how do you stay pumped up every week?

Partly it’s easy because I love football and I feel I’ve got the best job in world because I’m paid to watch football and talk about it with my mates who all happen to be ex-international footballers. In terms of us being animated, sometimes you can go in and not be inspired by the fixtures then you watch a match like Newcastle against Everton, they’re 2-0 down and come back to win 3-2 and it’s chaos. Then you have Southampton coming back to beat Spurs. There’s always something different. Always something you don’t expect. No Saturday is the same, that’s why I get pumped up by it.

Given the chaotic atmosphere in the studio, how do you manage not to swear?

I don’t know. I’d love to say that I never swear, but unfortunately my language in real life is not necessarily an example to my kids. But I think when the red light goes on in the studio you just become more aware. Sometimes you think, crikey, I’ve been in live television for 25 years, six hours every Saturday and a few midweeks as well, I’m bound to say something that’s going to get me the sack, but I’ve been fortunate it hasn’t happened.

Do you see the Soccer Saturday guys outside the studio?

We’re from a pretty broad spread, after the show the guys will go back home to Glasgow, Liverpool, Cheshire, Southampton. Generally we meet on a Friday night, have a few beers. Sometimes we’re involved in charity things together. Make no mistake they’re like my best mates. We do get quite a large female audience, some people see us as a male sporting version of Loose Women. The difficulty will be finding anybody to replace these guys when they go. They’re so good at what they do, they come from an era where they weren’t part of football’s gravy train.

Do pundits get headhunted while they’re still playing?

Yes, that’s what happens. I don’t think he’d mind me saying, but that’s what happened to Jamie Carragher. Everybody thought he was a brilliant talker. He came on our show one Saturday while he was still a player and he was brilliant. Everyone knew that Gary Neville would be a brilliant opinionated pundit, we tried our socks off to get him and succeeded. I like Danny Murphy a lot, I think he’s a terrific pundit. There is a demand for top pundits, but there’s a dearth of top class players who can do it. You can count on the fingers of one hand the guys who have come through recently who are really good. I always think to earn the right to criticise other professional footballers you have to be able to show your medals.

What has been your stand out moment as a Sky Sports presenter?

The obvious answer is the Aguero goal (to win the league for Man City on goal difference from Man Utd on the final day of the season in 2012). We had feeds coming in and I could see Sir Alex smartening himself up at Sunderland and getting the team ready for the parade of honour, then Aguero scores and it was unimaginable. Then there’s Leicester winning the Premier League (in 2016), although the drama there wasn’t as instant. Chelsea beating Bayern Munich on penalties on their own ground to win the Champions League (in 2012) was another unbelievable moment. That’s the beauty of football, you never know what’s going to happen.