STATISTICS have become a sad obsession of mine, says Jeff Stelling.
“I’ll be sitting in my office and suddenly the wife will hear a shout from me, ‘Yes!’
‘What’s the ‘Yes!’ for?’, she’ll ask.
“Well, I’ve just found someone who hasn’t scored for 228 games…”
The Sky Sports Soccer Saturday host is renowned for such arcane, detailed knowledge of the sport, all delivered with twinkling humour.
However, he’s also keen to highlight some much more serious, truly sad statistics, the horrendous impact of prostate cancer, the most common cancer afflicting men.
Imagine these up-dates coming from Stelling – and he wouldn’t be talking about red cards:
“At half-time, Crusaders are down to 10 men…”
“Back to Seaview, where it’s finished 10-a-side as Cliftonville have also lost a man.”
Yet it doesn’t finish there.
Prostate cancer kills one man every 45 minutes in the UK.
Stelling is currently part-way through his four-day ‘March for Men’, with the aim of raising £1m for the charity Prostate Cancer UK.
Four marathons in four days in four different countries.
Thursday was Glasgow, Friday in Belfast, Saturday in Cardiff, then finishing up in London on Sunday.
His routes take him around leading soccer stadia in each city; in Belfast it’s from Seaview to Solitude, then on to the Oval and Windsor Park.
Unusually, the 64-year-old didn’t have any personal motivation to get involved in publicising the effects of this disease:
“A few years ago Prostate Cancer asked me to get involved. I didn’t have a clue what prostate cancer was, I didn’t know what a prostate was.
“But once I heard the statistics: one man in eight in the UK will contract prostate cancer, one man dies every 45 minutes, and I went to the research labs to see the work they’re doing, well, I was pretty much involved from then on.”
Stelling has made his name by sitting around with other blokes talking about football, but he knows men are much more reticent about other aspects of their lives, especially health:
“Men don’t like to go to the doctor’s – and if it’s anything below the waist they certainly ain’t going to the doctor’s.
“We thought, football grounds are still mainly populated by men, so what better places to get the message through than through the football clubs?
“You look around and see full stands: sometimes I count the men in a row and if there’s 24 of them, the chances are that three of them will get prostate cancer – and it’s scary.”
Speaking at Seaview yesterday morning, Stelling said “I don’t know that much about Northern Ireland so it’ll be an eye-opening experience.” However, he’d obviously done some research, and he knew one ‘Belfast boy’ very well:
“Crusaders are top of the table at the moment, aren’t they? We’ll finish up at Windsor Park; we were there a couple of months ago [for a Northern Ireland match] and the first thing I noticed was this fantastic, huge photo of George Best.
“He’s my hero, I used to work with him. There’s that quote from Pele ‘the greatest player in the world’, and to me he was.
“George was a Soccer Saturday panellist for a lot of years. I think George was desperately misunderstood, because he was quite shy and quiet.
“People thought he normally had a blonde under his arm, or whatever but from my point of view he was just a good mate and he’s sorely missed.”
Soccer Saturday rolls on, though, and although it may appear a dream gig, Stelling points out that not all ex-footballers are banging down the door of Sky Sports studios to get on the show:
“Not as much as you might imagine because now so many Premier League players earn a fortune, so they don’t need to come and sit down for six hours on a Saturday afternoon. That’s just as well because I’d tell them ‘We’ve got the best four in the business anyway, so why do we need anyone new?!’
“But seriously, you’re always looking for new people to come in and new talent and we’ve had a couple in recent weeks just dipping their toe in the water – but Charlie Nicholas, Phil Thompson, Paul Merson, Matt Le Tissier, these are hard acts to follow.”
Stelling himself has plenty of followers on his four marathons, joined on his Belfast walk by former Northern Ireland star and Soccer Saturday pundit Iain Dowie, television and radio broadcaster Colin Murray, and Northern Ireland boxer Carl Frampton.
The Prostate Cancer UK supporters who signed up to join Jeff in his challenge and help raise funds include former Cliftonville footballer Walter Mills, an Irish Cup winner in 1979, who has himself had prostate cancer, and John Hutton, son of former Reds player and manager Jackie Hutton, who sadly died from the disease in 2015.
* Go to the following link for more information, and to donate to Prostate Cancer UK: