The Soccer Saturday supremo tells FFT.com's Gregg Davies about his cameo in Carlsberg's World Cup advert, why presenting Countdown isn't as relaxed as it might seem and why he will not be joining Twitter...
Greetings Jeff. You're supporting Football Fever 2010. Tell us more... I'm working with learndirect during the World Cup, who have come up with a great way for footie lovers like me to brush up on their maths. Their Facebook game Football Fever 2010 is a fun virtual tournament – you can challenge your football knowledge while helping identify any maths skills gaps you might have. Anyone can have a go at www.facebook.com/learndirect.
Where will you be watching the World Cup this summer? The majority of the games here in England. My family are football fanatics so I like to watch them together. I’m going to go to London to watch one of them with some people in the city and I'm flying out to Rustenberg to watch England v USA. So a bit of a mix, but by the time it comes to what we hope is going to be the crunch, I’ll be in sunny Hampshire.
Do you mither the missus with statistics when you're watching games on the sofa? Sometimes, but generally speaking my 11-year-old son Rob is far better at stats than I am these days. He’s absolutely obsessed by them, and with so much material around he’s inevitably going to come out with more than me. There may be a bit of a battle going on on the sofa. The wife is used to it, she just turns one ear off or turns them both off depending on how many are on the sofa.
What’s your fascinating World Cup fact and favourite piece of pub ammo? Crikey I’m not even sure if I’ve got one. I can’t think of one but the most interesting thing was that the North Korean games are only going to be screened in North Korea if they win! Everybody out there has been told by the great leader that it’s inevitable that they’ll be bringing the World Cup back. They’re only going to be told the positive results, which means that they’re not going be hearing much news really!
How did your cameo role in Carlsberg's World Cup advertisement come about? [Stelling jumps out of a crowd with a red cross painted on his chest] They said: “We’re doing a new ad – if Carlsberg did team talks…” At the time they said there would be a host of sporting icons involved and that they’d like to get me involved as well. And when they ran some of the names past me it was really appealing. That was the initial pitch that they made. And then they elaborated just a little with the fact that perhaps I’d be required to be topless with a cross of St George painted on me. But, by then, I was pretty much committed and it turned out to be a heck of a lot of fun. And when you’ve got a body like mine, obviously there’s no point in hiding it!
How many takes were required? They did lots of different versions of it. We probably did something like 20 takes but the majority of them were different. There was one initially where I had to get past the security guards and they dragged me away before I managed to jump out. There were lots of different variations of the same theme. But probably about 20 I would guess. And it was bloody cold that day!
How long did it take to get the paint off afterwards? Funnily enough it took a while. I went home with the paint on, on the train from Waterloo to Winchester and what I didn’t realise was that I had the top button of my shirt undone and the red was peeping out of the top. It looked for all the world as if I’d been knifed, and there was blood seeping out! It took a few days to come off, a bit of rubbing and scrubbing, that’s for sure.
Which of your Soccer Saturday colleagues would fare the worst on Countdown? It’d be interesting wouldn’t it? They all need to scrub up on their maths a little. Charlie Nicholas would probably get the top score – he’s pretty sharp. Phil Thompson is reasonable as well, but I probably think it would be a photo finish between Paul Merson and Chris Kamara. Under the circumstances I would probably give it to the unbelievable Kamara.
Kamara has changed his name by deed poll to Chris Cabanga for the World Cup. Is he going to be referred to as Chris Cabanga next season? No he is not. Definitely not! He told me he was gonna do it for the World Cup. The things that Kammy will do for publicity, eh? The man’s a legend, he can’t change his name! There’s some other things I might change about him, but not his name.
How do you manage to adapt from the madness of Soccer Saturday to the serenity of Countdown? It’s not that serene when you’re there, funnily enough. Obviously it goes at a different pace, thank goodness. I’d be having a heart attack otherwise! But it is fairly full-on anyway. There are some similarities in the sense that – well you haven’t got a panel there – but you do have Rachel and Susie and a guest each week in Dictionary Corner, and a couple of contestants as well. You’ve got to handle a little team of people, if you like, in the same way as you do on Soccer Saturday.
It can be a little more difficult on Countdown getting it out of the contestants. Some are absolutely fantastic and take to the studio like a duck to water, but for others it’s pretty nerve-racking – all the cameras, the lights, the live audience as well. So they can be pretty quiet at times. Sometimes on Soccer Saturday I would love them to be quiet but I can’t get them to! Sometimes on Countdown I would love the contestants to say a little more but I can’t get them to. So there’s a contrast there. But they are different animals. But it is television, it’s entertainment – those are the similarities really.
Are are you tempted to get involved with Twitter? No! How do people find the time to twitter? I don’t know how you do that. But look, people see and hear more than enough of me. I’m on TV virtually every day of the week, nearly every week of the year. I think that’s more than enough for anybody. I think the last thing they’d want is for me to be twittering as well. I’ll keep a very low profile as far as that goes!
What have you made of England’s World Cup preparations so far? Well, it’s a phoney war isn’t it? I’m never sure that you can read anything into anything. Obviously it was a blow that Rio [Ferdinand] got injured – very disappointed with that. We’ve all got our own opinions about the squad, but most of us would probably pick the same sort of squad. I would have put Adam Johnson in. But until it comes to the USA game, we won’t really know.
But you look at team's preparation – sides that have had bad results in the build-up. The likes of Italy are past masters of that. They’ve looked absolutely useless, generally speaking a) in qualification and b) in pre-World Cup friendlies. But, on the day, they somehow manage to grind out results. I wouldn’t say that we’ve been useless by any means, but we weren’t great against Japan, were we?
I just think it’s a case of the players rising to the occasion, and I think with [Fabio] Capello we have the right man in charge. They clearly respect him, they’re slightly in awe of him, they slightly fear him. For multi-million pound players, there aren’t may people they fear, or are in awe of. When he tells them to do something, he gets it done. He’s not our secret weapon – because we all know about him – but he could be the real driving force for a successful campaign, or winning campaign.
Some say losing Ferdinand is a big loss, others believe it’s a blessing in disguise as he hasn’t played all season. Which side of the fence are you on? I think Rio reads the game really well. He’s a footballer, a footballing centre-half. He’s got a bit of pace. We’re lacking in terms of pace at the heart of the defence. When you look at his potential replacements, Ledley King – most people are massive admirers of his – but is he going to go the distance? I’m not sure with his dodgy knees.
Then you’ve got Matthew Upson or Michael Dawson, one of whom, Dawson, has never played in a full international for England even though he’s had a fantastic season for Spurs. And Upson would probably admit himself that this season at West Ham he has not been exceptional. I do think we’re gonna miss Rio, I have to be honest.
Who do you think will be the surprise package of the tournament? I don’t see there being any huge dark horses. I think the Dutch have got a chance even though they’re not big outsiders. I think they have a chance of having a good run. They will desperately be hoping that [Arjen] Robben is fit, but in qualification they were fantastic. They can be a bit dodgy defensively, but going forward they’re a threat to everyone. They’ve been in a position before but they do have this tendency to self-destruct when it comes to the big tournaments. You sense a few egos getting in the way of each other. But I think that they could be a reasonable bet to reach, realistically, the last eight. But if you reach the last eight, you’ve got a chance of reaching the last four. So, they could have a decent run.
If Hartlepool were taken over by Arab billionares, do you think you would lose the enjoyment? Well, at the moment we are run by a Norwegian oil company, so they’ve got a few bob! But it doesn’t quite compare with what they’ve got in the Middle East. I’d love the opportunity, like everybody else – I’m not one of those who resents Manchester City and their millions, for example. I just think good luck to them. It’s happened before. It’ll happen again. And if it happened to my team, fantastic. But hey, I’m 55 now, and I guarantee you it isn’t going to happen in my lifetime!
Interview: June 2010. learndirect's Football Fever 2010 is an interactive game designed to put your maths skills to the test as you compete to win a virtual World Cup tournament. To play, log on to www.facebook.com/learndirect