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To many armchair fans he's the face of football but Hartlepool-born Jeff Stelling is also passionate about the North East, as Andy Greeves reports
From his early days, Robert Jeffrey Jeff Stellings main interests were always football and journalism. Little has changed over the years, except he now conveys his passion for Hartlepool United to a considerably wider audience.
The 56-year-old is a long way from hanging up his microphone even a flirtation as presenter on Channel 4s Countdown came to an end because he wanted to commit all his time to being the face of football on Sky Sports but he can already look back and admit its been one hell of a ride.
My first big break came not long after receiving a set of GCSE results which, by my own admission, were indifferent, to say the least, said Jeff in an exclusive interview with North East Life. I was offered two journalist posts one at the Hartlepool Mail and another at the Sunderland Echo. Well, suffice to say, for the dedicated Hartlepool United supporter, there was only one choice, and this was the perfect start to working life.
Id already been showcased in the newspaper given that I regularly peppered them with my views on football and, specifically, Hartlepool United, he says. The Star Letter of the Week won five quid and I won it week after week. It wasnt until after I started working there that the sports guy told me the only reason I kept winning was because I was the only person who wrote in!
But I loved my four years with the Mail there was, and still is, a great atmosphere in the regional press and, of course, I was able to develop my writing style and land qualifications. To write stories, among other things, about Hartlepool United, and get paid for it certainly wasnt a bad job for a council house kid from the town who lived and dreamed the club.
Stellings fondness for Hartlepool extends beyond the football though. The cult broadcaster, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by Teesside University and comes home as often as he can, is full of happy memories from his days growing up in the area.
I used to enjoy doing all the things that kids enjoy growing up, says Stelling, who is a former pupil of Hartlepools Rift House Primary School and West Hartlepool Grammar School for Boys and now lives near Winchester in Hampshire.
I remember being taken down the beach at Seaton Carew, regardless of what the weather was like. It was always a fun trip. The North Sea never seemed cold then but, my God, it does now. Our house backed onto open fields and Id often spend Saturday and Sunday mornings playing football or picking brambles. When I got a bit older, Id go fishing with a hand line at the local pier. They were simple but good days.
The North East was also where Stellings job as a broadcaster took off. After his stint at the Mail, he joined BBC Radio Tees in the late 1970s, covering rivals Middlesbrough and, despite having no previous broadcasting experience, settled into his new position well.
The calibre of people I was working with at BBC Radio Tees was amazing, says Stelling. Mark Mardell, whos now the BBCs North America Editor, was there at the time, as was John Andrew, who is also a very talented BBC news correspondent these days. I learnt a hell of a lot when I was there and it has stood me in good stead ever since.
Jeff is now best known for presenting the Saturday afternoon football show on Sky Sports a role he has held for 16 years. The show has seen him work alongside football legends such as Rodney Marsh and George Best. Todays line-up includes Matt Le Tissier, Paul Merson, Charlie Nicholas and Phil Thompson, among others, but none of them, past or present, can match Stellings raw enthusiasm for the game. And he quickly admits the six-hour weekendshow is the highlight of his week.
I love Soccer Saturday as much now as I did in that first year. I work with great people and its lots of fun, he smiles. Ive enjoyed the confrontations and the arguments with Phil Thompson and Rodney Marsh, building some great friendships and meeting some true football heroes. I know I am very fortunate to have what I think is the best job in the world.
During that time, Stellings catchphrases and mannerisms have become commonplace, including his impression of soul legend James Brown thats trotted out each time the Hartlepool United winger of the same name finds the net.
Stelling and his sidekicks are taking their show on a UK tour in the coming months, visiting Newcastles Metro Radio Arena on Monday May 28th.
Doing the tour is going to be a unique experience. We havent done anything like this before, says Stelling. Were all looking forward to it, although it would be fair to say were a little apprehensive.
On a normal Saturday afternoon you can feel youre only performing to a camera crew, but being in front of a sea of faces is something else!
What weve tried to do is visit the real football hotbeds, and there is nowhere with more passion for football in the country than the North East... with Hartlepool the epicentre, naturally!
* Tickets for the Soccer Anyday tour are now on sale, available from www.livenation.co.uk, or 0844 844 0444
The print version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of North East Life
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