IAN LADYMAN: Soccer Saturday is like champagne without the bubbles now

IAN LADYMAN: Since Sky shook up the roster in August, Soccer Saturday has become so FLAT… Jeff Stelling looks like a bloke wondering when all his mates are going to come back to the pub

  • Soccer Saturday hasn’t been the same since Sky changed the roster in August
  • Jeff Stelling won’t be short of offers if he decides to go but will he leave?
  • Meanwhile, VAR is still lacking consistency in its use across football games 

Jeff Stelling is a brilliantly warm and relatable TV host but first and foremost a fine journalist, which is why he had the confidence to criticise Rochdale’s players for the 10-man pile-on that followed their equaliser against Crewe on Saturday.

‘Hardly in the spirit of social distancing,’ said Stelling on Soccer Saturday.

Stelling, 65, pretty much owns that programme. It has been built around him over the years. But right now he must wonder what on earth Sky have done to it and why.

Sky got rid of the majority of their panel of former footballers for Soccer Saturday in August

Jeff Stelling pretty much owns the programme but will he decide to stick around much longer?

For those without satellite television, Soccer Saturday has been the central point of Sky’s weekend football coverage for 22 years.

With Stelling as host, it features a panel of former professionals watching chosen matches on TV screens and reporting on developments.

It is the kind of concept that sounds like it shouldn’t work. But it always did, brilliantly, and the best thing about it was that it was never really about analysis, tactics or gravitas.

Sky happen to be the market leader of all that on their other shows. They have raised the bar on the serious stuff and others have had to follow. One of the reasons that BBC’s Match of the Day is now so improved is that they had no choice other than to chase the trail blazed by Sky.

But the intrinsic beauty of Soccer Saturday was that it was never about that. It didn’t want to be.

There is nothing particularly wrong with the new show, but right now it is simply just ‘fine’

No, it was about the drama, fun, unpredictability, ridiculousness and — on occasion — sheer mundanity of football.

It was, in essence, four middle-aged blokes shouting at TV screens that nobody else could see.

A rather niche framework for sure, one that was held together at the edges by the impeccable Stelling and carried that irresistible feeling that it might fall apart at any given moment. But it never did and instead became so popular that other stations such as BT Sport and BBC One felt compelled to follow.

Which brings us to today and the sad realisation that — on Saturday’s evidence at least —other people are now doing it better. And we should not be surprised.

It was back in August that it emerged Sky were shaking up their roster of Soccer Saturday pundits. And when we say ‘shaking up’, we mean getting rid of the people that everyone liked and made the show work and bringing in new ones.

So out went Phil Thompson, Matt Le Tissier and Charlie Nicholas and in came a younger, more diverse crowd. It felt like a catastrophic error of judgement at the time and there was nothing at the weekend to encourage an alternative view.

Others have started a similar format, and BT Sport’s was more interesting at the weekend

Stelling featured with Clinton Morrison, Matt Murray and Sue Smith on Saturday. Tony Cottee was there, too. Maybe they forgot to look at his birth certificate.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the show. None of the guests were ill-informed or under-prepared. They were all fine. The only problem is that ‘fine’ doesn’t make for great television, particularly on a format that always relied on the rapport of its guests to make it what it was.

Sadly, Soccer Saturday is now like champagne without any bubbles. It’s flat.

BT’s panel this weekend was just better, more interesting. The station now appears to be winning a race it never even seemed to be in, and that just feels a little bit sad.

We know why Sky made their changes. Diversity is important, but so is good television and it looks as though the broadcaster has sacrificed one for the other.

On Saturday, Stelling looked like a bloke wondering when all his mates were going to come back to the pub.

I would be surprised if he sticks around much longer. He won’t be short of offers.

Ozil’s legacy 

Mikel Arteta says Mesut Ozil’s Arsenal legacy is intact wherever the German decides to go next.

It sure is, just not in the way Arteta means. 

Now on the way out of Arsenal, Mesut Ozil’s legacy at the club is certainly intact

VAR still lacks consistency 

It was heartening to see VAR used so effectively at the Emirates on Saturday.

Emile Smith Rowe’s attempt to flick the ball away from Newcastle’s Sean Longstaff while off balance was the kind of challenge that looks bad live or on a freeze frame but was shown to be largely harmless when watched again on tape. The decision to downgrade from red card to yellow was a correct one.

Less fortunate was the Brentford player Josh Dasilva, sent off for leaving his studs on Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg four days earlier.

VAR was checked to change the decision on Emile Smith-Rowe’s red card against Newcastle

Dasilva’s contact seemed accidental to me, but that shouldn’t matter. It was still reckless and VAR was right to tell Mike Dean he had missed something serious.

Which brings us to Theo Walcott and James Milner at Southampton last Monday.

The Southampton player’s challenge was dreadful. He was late, dangerous and not in control. The tackle fulfilled just about every red criterion yet referee Andre Marriner was not alerted to it by the officials at Stockley Park.

Why not? It is this baffling inconsistency that fosters a lack of confidence in the system.

Macari deserves every donation 

Tommy Docherty’s widow Mary has asked that anyone wishing to make funeral donations direct their generosity to Lou Macari’s homeless project in Staffordshire instead.

Macari — who won the FA Cup with Docherty’s Manchester United side in 1977 — established his foundation five years ago. Recently, he announced the opening of a new Covid-secure homeless shelter in Stoke-on-Trent.

It is an astonishing project and deserves every penny of support it receives. Details can be found at www.macari-foundation.co.uk. 

Tommy Docherty’s widow wants funeral donations to go to Lou Macari’s homeless project




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