“City will win the Premier League this season. United and Chelsea are not as strong and Arsenal just aren’t good enough. City are the best team, they have the best squad and have the points advantage.”
He’s the man who brings you minute-by-minute updates and action throughout the busiest days in the football calendar- and he does it in his own incomparable way. In the second part of an exclusive three-part interview, Football Pundette chats to the ultimate football anchorman, the enigmatic Hartlepool fanatic, Jeff Stelling.
Who is going to win the Champions League, the Premier League and the FA Cup this season?
“Two out of those three for me are easy. I think Barcelona will win the Champions League again and I City will win the Premier League. The FA Cup is much more difficult because teams will field weakened sides these days for it. If I had to stick my neck out, and I’d say it because they need it and my goodness do they need it, I’d go for Arsenal.
“I’ve backed City because they have got much more strength in depth in their squad than United have. I think United will need a buy in the January transfer window to strengthen their midfield and defensively they’re not quite as good as they were. They are going through a transitional period: the goal-keeper is young and new and you can’t rely on Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez to score sufficient goals for them every week. I just don’t see them as being quite as strong as City this season.
“Don’t get me wrong, Sir Alex Ferguson is a genius, but as things stand City have got a stronger squad than United. Chelsea are defensively not quite good enough and Tottenham Hotspur aren’t the finished product yet. They haven’t got anything like the strength in depth that City have. Arsenal I’m afraid are just not good enough. Through a process of elimination City are the best team, they have the best squad and have the points advantage already so I fancy them very strongly.”
The Premier League has changed greatly in recent years and the so-called ‘Sky Four’ now seems non-existent. Do you think that Manchester City have what it takes to win the League this season?
“I think they should. I thought they had what it takes last season but perhaps it took them a little bit longer to settle down. Getting into the Champions League was a big achievement but clearly they’ve got what it takes to win the League. They’ve shown that not only at Old Trafford during their 6-1 win over Manchester United, but time and time again so far this season.
“The only question mark for me is that they’re involved in so many competitions. I wonder what effect will the Champions League have on them, particularly if they reach the knock-out stages when you can’t afford to coast. I know that City have a tough qualifying group anyway and they haven’t really been able to coast. They coasted a bit against Villarreal; it was a fantastic result but Villarreal are a rotten team. Spurs found that reaching the final 16 cost them big time, but City have got a much stronger squad than Spurs had last season. As long as Roberto Mancini can get the juggling right, then there’s no reason it should really affect their chance of winning the Premier League. I think they will win it- I’ll be surprised if they don’t.
“A lot of people resent City because of their money but they forget the tough times they have been through over the last umpteen years. It’s not as if they’d be winning it out of turn. The people who used to go along to Maine Road week in, week out, when they were plummeting down the divisions are now getting their reward for their one-time blind faith.”
City have aspirations of becoming a big force in football, like Barcelona or Real Madrid. Do you think that’s a realistic possibility for them?
“It is, but it’s not going to happen overnight or in a couple of seasons. If City can win the Premier League and make an impact in the Champions League that’s a good start. But if City get drawn in the Champions League this season against Barcelona, I don’t see them beating then. If they make an even stronger impact in football and attract even better players, there’s no reason why not.
“I think you’ve got to have the right people at the helm, but a lot of it is down to Mancini and has man-management skills of some big-name, big-money players. He’s the man who’s got to deal with them and so far it’s hard to think of what he’s done wrong. There were a lot of people that were very suspicious of him when he arrived in the country. People were questioning if he was the right man, if he’d play too defensive but he’s got it all right. As long as that continues, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t go from strength to strength. But Barcelona’s a fantastic football club and everyone has got a lot of catching up to do to them.”
Who do you rate as being the best player in the Premier League at the moment and why?
“It’s a good question because comparisons are difficult with different positions. A lot of people would say David Silva and I’ve have no problem with that at all as he’s been fantastic this season. But I love Luka Modric; he’s just a brilliant footballer. For such a slight guy he’s got the lot: he’s aggressive, he can win the ball, his distribution is brilliant and his vision is fantastic.
“I remember covering the Inter Milan v Spurs game last season in the Champions League at the San Siro and Spurs were hanging out for dear life, they were getting absolutely battered after 70 minutes gone. I thought Harry Redknapp was sure to bring on another holding midfield player but he brought Modric on. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe what he was doing. But then Modric got the ball and he passed it to a Spurs player and he got it again and did the same again. He basically killed the game off because Milan couldn’t get the ball back. Modric controlled everything for that vital 20 minutes and won Spurs the game. It was just a virtuoso performance that lives in my memory so I think he’s an absolutely fabulous player.
“It’s hard to say one as there are so many of them. It could be Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez, Robin Van Persie, they are all fantastic strikers. But if I had to pick one it would have to be Modric.”
When I was at university studying sports journalism, the lads on my course played the ‘Gillette Soccer Saturday Drinking Game’. Are you aware of it and what do you think of it?
“I’m definitely aware it exists and I couldn’t possibly endorse drinking alcohol! Over the years, thousands of people have asked me about it. I think the rules vary from university to university; when Chris Kamara shouts ‘unbelievable Jeff’, I’m not sure what the quantity of the drink is. It’s really interesting. As long as it’s a bit of fun, that’s fantastic. I like a beer so I’m not going to criticise somebody else who does. It’s great that students like the show- I hope they like it for other reasons as well as for the drinking game though!”
In the third and final part, Jeff talks about what really goes on behind the scenes on Soccer Saturday, his proudest moments, his beloved Hartlepool and offers his advice to any budding Stelling fans wishing to follow in his career footsteps.