But now 60-year-old Jeff Stelling is set for an unlikely late comeback of his own.
He is set to host brand-new early-evening telly show Alphabetical – a fast-paced word quiz starting next month on ITV.
Jeff, who previously hosted Countdown on rival Channel 4, reveals why he loves being a quizmaster – and how even Mr Unflappable sometimes loses his cool.
IF your husband is nowhere to be found on a Saturday afternoon then there’s a good chance one man is at least partly to blame.
For the last 22 years, Jeff Stelling has presented Sky Sports News results service Soccer Saturday, the biggest and best live football results show on telly.
With scores of scores flooding in and a panel of noisy former footballers in the studio jostling to be heard, you’d think the marathon six-hour broadcast would get a bit stressful for ringmaster Jeff.
But it’s all in a day’s work for the slick and enduringly popular host.
In fact the cut and thrust of live football results is nothing…compared to presenting Countdown!
“Soccer Saturday isn’t stressful – Countdown is a real test of endurance!” laughed Jeff. “They film 15 shows in three-day blocks, which is hard going.
“I took over from Des Lynam and he told me that by the end of show 14, no matter how nice the contestants are, I’d feel a deep, deep hatred for them!
“It wasn’t quite as bad as that! It was a lot of fun though.
“Put it this way – it’s a lot more enjoyable working with Rachel Riley than it is Charlie Nicholas!”
It’s that sort of light-hearted laddish banter, along with unflappable professionalism in the face of all that can go wrong in the normal course of an afternoon’s live television, which has made Jeff such a well-liked figure.
He proved a popular host of Countdown too but left to concentrate on presenting Sky’s Champion’s League coverage, as well as Soccer Saturday, as there wasn’t enough time to do it all.
To be likeable for six straight hours on television is impressive.
What’s also impressive is his bladder control. “You certainly have to watch the amount of coffee you drink early on in the programme,” laughed Jeff. “I can nip away during a report but by around twenty to three there’s no chance I can get away.
“I have to be microphone-d up so it’s too difficult. Once the games start that’s me stuck.”
He doesn’t look uncomfortable, though.
In fact Jeff and the co-hosting team – Matt LeTissier, Paul Merson, Phil Thompson and ex-Scotland striker Nicholas – always look comfy, as well as quite impeccable.
There’s a suspicion these macho football punters, who specialise in trading dress-ing room-style banter with each other, have to sit in the make-up chair. Jeff laughs this off though – saying no amount of make-up could make Phil Thompson look better.
Mistakes on Soccer Saturday, like presenters mispronouncing names of the more exotic imported footballers, are commonplace.
But not all gaffes make it onto the end-of-season funnies compilation, however.
“I’m a Hartlepool fan and I’d been speaking to a couple of the players on Friday night, who said they were going to win the next day,” said Jeff, sounding genuinely embarrassed.
“Of course the next day the opposition scored against Hartlepool.
“We went to the reporter and the camera was supposed to cut away from my face.
“Except it didn’t, and you could quite clearly see me mouth a swear word under my breath.
“It wasn’t the worst swear word but my boss took me into the office on Monday morning. He gave me a talking-to – but also said that given the circumstances he didn’t blame me!”
Next month Jeff is walking the equivalent of 10 marathons in 10 days from his beloved Hartlepool United FC’s stadium to Wembley to raise money for Men United, a Prostate Cancer UK campaign.
“I didn’t want this to sound like a jolly,” explained Jeff.
“I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for Prostate Cancer before and I was aware that a lot of people would like to actually do that.
“I put my thinking cap on and happened to look at the distance between Victoria Park and Wembley.
“It just so happened it was 260 miles – the equivalent of 10 marathons – and I thought, why not?”
Celebrities doing some charity work is nothing new – but this isn’t a cushy, Sky-sponsored event.
Later Jeff lets slip he’s doing his charity endurance test during international week – a rare week off for him.
He’s been married to wife Liz – who he met while working at Sky – since 1998 and the couple have three children Robbie, Matt and Olivia.
Jeff comes across as friendly and down-to-earth in conversation – in fact he almost seems electable. But politics is definitely a no-no.
“I’ve been lucky enough along the way to make a lot of friends and not a lot of enemies,” Jeff explained. “But if I wanted to make some enemies than I’d go into politics.
“I enjoy the cut and thrust of a debate on TV but I don’t see me entering the political arena.
“I don’t have any plans to retire, either.
“In terms of the future, from March I’ll be doing a new quiz show on ITV called Alphabetical, it’s going into production in a few weeks,” said Jeff.
“It’s another word game, and I think they approached me because I’d been involved with Countdown.
“Unlike Countdown it’s a very high-tempo quiz game with hopefully quite a dramatic finale and potentially some very big prizes available – you won’t be walking away with £200, it’s much more significant money than that.
“Unfortunately Rachel Riley won’t be involved with this one…you’re stuck with me!”
The only time Jeff sounds a bit exasperated is when he talks about what he gets up to in his free time.
“I’ve got a wife and three kids to spend time with and I’ve got a couple of dogs – so I’m doing lots of dog walking at the moment,” said Jeff. “I do like golf but I’m taking a bit of a sabbatical at the moment.
“I haven’t played since last summer, because golf is far more stressful than live telly!
“I was having a bit of a crisis with it so I thought I needed the time off.”
For once, the unflappable king of Saturday afternoons sounds quite…flapped. As his excitable co-host Chris Kamara would say…unbelievable Jeff!
Watch Gillette Soccer Saturday from Noon on Sky Sports News HQ. To support Jeff, and find out more about his challenge, visit menunitedmarch.org