IAN LADYMAN: Saturday football is like champagne without bubbles now

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Jeff Stelling is a brilliantly warm and understandable TV host, but above all an excellent journalist, which is why he had the confidence to criticize the Rochdale players for the 10-man stack that followed their equalizer against Crewe on Saturday. .

“Not at all in the spirit of social distancing,” Stelling said on Soccer on Saturday.

Stelling, 65, pretty much owns this program. It has been built around him over the years. But for now, he must be wondering what Sky did to him and why.

Sky got rid of the majority of its panel of former footballers for football on Saturday in August, with Matt Le Tissier (2nd left), Phil Thompson (2nd right) and Charlie Nicholas (far right) sacked

Jeff Stelling pretty much owns the program, but will he decide to stay much longer?

Jeff Stelling pretty much owns the program, but will he decide to stay much longer?

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

With Stelling as the host, it features a panel of former pros who watch chosen matches on TV screens and report on developments.

It’s the kind of concept that doesn’t seem to work. But it still was, brilliantly, and the best thing about it was that it was never really about analysis, tactics, or gravity.

Sky is the market leader in all of this on their other shows. They raised the bar on serious matters and others had to follow. One of the reasons the BBC’s game of the day is now so improved is that they had no choice but to follow the trail laid out by Sky.

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

There's nothing particularly wrong with the new show, but at the moment it's just 'good'

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the new show, but at the moment it’s just “good”

No, it was about the drama, the fun, the unpredictability, the ridiculous and – on occasion – the sheer banality of football.

It was, in essence, four middle-aged guys screaming on TV screens that no one else could see.

A rather niche frame for sure, one that was held together around the edges by the impeccable Stelling and carried that overwhelming feeling that he could crumble at any moment. But it never did and 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 realization that – at least from Saturday’s testimony – other people are doing better now. And we shouldn’t be surprised.

It was in August that it emerged that Sky was shaking its roster of Saturday football experts. And when we say ‘shake up’ we mean getting rid of the people that everyone else loved and making the show work and bringing in new ones.

So Phil Thompson, Matt Le Tissier, and Charlie Nicholas came out and came in a younger, more diverse crowd. It looked like a catastrophic error in judgment at the time and there was nothing over the weekend to encourage another point of view.

Others started a similar format, and BT Sport was more interesting on weekends.

Others started a similar format, and BT Sport was more interesting on weekends.

Stelling featured with Clinton Morrison, Matt Murray and Sue Smith on Saturday. Tony Cottee was there too. Maybe they forgot to look at her 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 “good” doesn’t make great TV, especially on a format that has always relied on guest ratio to make it what it was.

Sadly, Football Saturday is now like champagne without any bubbles. It is flat.

The BT 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 it looks a little sad.

We know why Sky made the changes. Diversity is important just like good TV and it seems the broadcaster has sacrificed one for the other.

On Saturday, Stelling looked like a guy wondering when all his friends were coming back to the pub.

I would be surprised if he stayed much longer. He will not run out of offers.

Ozil’s legacy

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

Sure, but not like Arteta wants it to be.

On leaving Arsenal, Mesut Ozil's legacy at the club is certainly intact

On leaving Arsenal, Mesut Ozil’s legacy at the club is certainly intact

VAR still lacks consistency

It was encouraging to see VAR used so effectively in the Emirates on Saturday.

Emile Smith Rowe’s attempt to drive the ball away from Newcastle’s Sean Longstaff while out of balance was the kind of challenge that looks bad live or on a freeze frame, but turned out to be big harmless part when viewed on tape again. The decision to downgrade from the red card to the yellow was a correct one.

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

VAR has been checked to change Emile Smith-Rowe's red card decision against Newcastle

VAR has been checked to change Emile Smith-Rowe’s red card decision against Newcastle

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

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

The challenge for the Southampton player was appalling. He was late, dangerous and out of control. The tackle pretty much met all the red criteria, but referee Andre Marriner was not alerted by officials at Stockley Park.

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

Macari deserves every donation

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

Macari – who won the FA Cup with Docherty’s side at Manchester United 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’s an amazing 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 for Lou Macari's homeless project

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

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