An Ode to Gillette Soccer Saturday

Sky Sports’ show for those who want to know literally all of the football scores, ran by pundits who are just barely on top of everything

NBC Sports’ partnership with Sky Sports for Premier League coverage is the best thing to happen for Premier League fans in America since NBC first acquired the rights to broadcast the league in the United States in 2013.  The vast amount of content provided from both companies that are now available to American viewers is tremendous, even beyond the content put behind the NBC Sports Gold paywall.  It is a further demonstration of how far ahead NBC Sports are compared to any other company that covers football in the United States.

However, maybe the most underappreciated aspect of this partnership is that now, American viewers have access to Sky’s off the rails but still informative show Gillette Soccer Saturday.  Hosted by Jeff Stelling and featuring analysis from the likes of Paul Merson, Charlie Nicholas, Matt Le Tissier, Chris Kamara, and others, Soccer Saturday acts a live updater, with goals and analysis of events as they happen for the football matches taking place in the Saturday mid-day time slot.  The insanity comes into play when you realize it is not just the Premier League matches that they are updating, but it is every single match taking place in England that day, from Premier League through the EFL and including the National League South, as well as the matches taking place in the top three divisions in Scotland.  The analysts in the studio are each assigned one game, usually a Premier League game, which they watch on a monitor, updating the match events as they happen.  Stelling is the conductor of the madness, updating viewers on all matches not assigned to an analyst and flipping between the pertinent Premier League matches, calling on the analysts to discuss what is happening while sifting through what I imagine is a horrendously massive pile of papers in front of him full of statistics and research (which is conveniently covered up by the Sky Sports chyron).   Due to the amount of games going on at one time, it can seem like information overload, with stats and updates coming in from everywhere, most of which are coming in from Stelling himself.  It does work, however, and it is an informative and entertaining way to follow the football for the day.

The brilliance of the show is centered around Stelling and his ability to keep everything flowing while constantly providing updates on every game imaginable and stats to accompany them.  He can carry on conversation with the Premier League pundits about key players or trends for those teams one minute and then transition into talking about the leading scorer for Raith Rovers or Wrexham’s home form this month.  His mind seemingly runs at a mile a minute, and I do not doubt that the aforementioned stack of papers he sifts through is quite large with a quite extensive amount of information.  He is similar to a conductor controlling the tempo of the orchestra; the show completely revolves around him.  Stelling is an expert pundit, a real pro’s pro, and his skill, talent, and work ethic is on display every weekend with the amount of information he is able to call upon from his extensive research and preparation.  In a way, the massive range of football covered is a reason why the show is so entertaining.  In some ways, it can seem to be a daunting information overload, but once you get used to it, it feels like a full immersion into a different world, and Stelling’s brilliance as a pundit and journalist acts as your guide through it.  It makes for very entertaining and fascinating viewing.

Another major brilliant part of the show is the humor on set.  I do genuinely laugh multiple times watching this show.  The chemistry between all of the on-air talent is visible, and they clearly all work well with each other in a setting that is still professional enough to be a legitimate Sky Sports program but not too serious to not have some laughs sprinkled in.  The on-air talents are not afraid to make jokes out of themselves or each other, with Stelling’s beloved Hartlepool United being a particularly popular target.  It is a show where Stelling can half-seriously tell Charlie Nicholas to be quiet for interrupting him with a Premier League update while he was sharing a Scottish Championship scoreline.  It is a show where they can get ex-Southampton forward Matt Le Tissier and ex-Crystal Palace forward Clinton Morrison to be the pundits watching Saints play Palace.  Shouts of “I love VAR” and “I hate VAR” could be heard simultaneously from Le Tissier and Morrison, respectively, when Max Meyer’s goal was disallowed, with the rest of the room breaking into laughter in the background.  Sports journalism is, rightfully, a profession that requires objectivity in analysis, but that small segment is a demonstration of how objective analysis can be paired with some personality and a human element that makes the broadcast more humorous and enjoyable for the viewer.  This is all without even touching upon Chris “Kammy” Kamara, Sky Sports’ roving match day reporter and living legend.   Kammy’s role is similar to that of the analysts in the studio with Stelling, but he is actually out at one of the grounds covering a Premier League match.  A quite charismatic and likable person, Kammy is always presenting in an energetic and excited manner, but, as he is not always the best with words, sometimes confusion and hilarity ensues.  Among the famous Kammy highlights is a time when he called Stelling “Carly” and when he reported on Portsmouth’s 7-4 win over Reading in 2007, famously exasperatingly repeating the line “It’s unbelievable, Jeff” at seemingly every update.  His most famous moment was when he missed Anthony Vanden Borre’s red card for Portsmouth against Blackburn in 2010.

“And we’re off to Fratton Park where there’s been a red card, but for who?  Chris Kamara…”

“…I don’t know, Jeff, has there?”

The character and personality of the show and the on-air talents is what makes this show as great as it is.  It is not the only show of its kind in England, with BT Sport having BT Sport Score and the BBC having Final Score.  Both of those programs are very informative and feature a vast collection of brilliant journalists and former players offering their insight, but neither offers the charisma and personality that has made Soccer Saturday such a massive success.

The reason why opening this show up to the American viewer is interesting is because there is seemingly no direct equivalent program found in the United States.  A close American relative, the NFL Network’s NFL RedZone, operates in a similar manner, with coverage of all major events in each NFL game going on at that time.  However, its one person set up, with only host Scott Hanson in the studio, means it loses out on the personality and interaction between multiple on-air talents that makes Soccer Saturday as great as it is.  Hanson is a fantastic host, able to orchestrate the madness in a similar way to Stelling, but the show is purely informational for viewers who are NFL fans and Fantasy Football team owners.  Soccer Saturday has that informational aspect, but is also a show I could see myself watching for the entertainment it offers.

Soccer Saturday is a brilliant show, but it is not without its negatives and criticisms.  These criticisms are not necessarily that bad, however, in the grand scheme of football journalism and sports television.  Should Jeff Stelling have used his television platform to call for Hartlepool to sack manager Dave Jones in 2017?  Probably not, but it is hardly the worst or most incendiary thing that has been said on sports television (I’m looking at you, Graeme Souness).  Do some of the ex-pros on the show fire off some crazy opinions and inflate their egos at times?  Yes, but that is also something that happens quite a bit everywhere.  It is hard to watch an NBA game where Charles Barkley is not doing that same exact thing.  Football fans in America have had to listen to Alexi Lalas and Stevie Nicol for years.  It is unfortunately par for the course when watching sports programs that do feature some big name ex-pros, but the chemistry between those in the studio on Soccer Saturday does help you overlook some of the crazy statements.

Through NBC’s partnership with Sky Sports, Soccer Saturday has made its way over to our shores.  It is a very enjoyable way to keep up to date with the scores and news of the football weekend, and is worth a watch for any American fan who has entered into the world of the Premier League.

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