“Lovejoy nailed it with the show. It was about getting everyone involved, and we were saying ‘come and be a part of our gang’.”
It was the Saturday morning hangover TV show that football fans up and down the country fell in love with.
For the past 25 years Soccer AM has been a staple of the weekend during the season for fans, growing from humble beginnings in 1995 to the beast it was in the 2000s.
Still today it entertains fans week in week out.
But in its heyday, it brought normal every people onto television screens alongside some of the biggest Hollywood A listers and rock stars in the world.
It produced characters that would go on to be adored by supporters of all ages, and one of them has lifted the lid on what life was like on the brilliant powerhouse that was Soccer AM.
James Long, more affectionately known to fans as Rocket, was a familiar face on the programme for almost 20 years, growing from the tea boy to a main character.
He’s revealed the good, the bad, the cringeworthy, the heroes, the laughs and the work that went in to producing a programme that hit an average of three million viewers at its peak.
Rocket, who believes the show hit its peak around 2002, explained why he believed Soccer AM became the beast it was.
“It was like a big warm hug, it was if we were saying, come and be a part of our gang and come and join us putting this chaos on tele.
“It was organised chaos.
“We made the viewer part of the show. You had Forces Photos which would be their talking point for a week.
“It was a like a soap, we’d run stories for weeks. We had the Save Chip campaign about a guy who couldn’t watch football because his missus wouldn’t let him.
“That was massive and blew up with banners at games and stuff.
“It was phenomenal. When (Tim) Lovejoy took over he just nailed it, getting everyone involved. It was just a dream job.”
The show was originally presented by Russ Williams and Helen Chamberlain, who would go on to be a mainstay on the programme until recently.
It was a more serious, Goals on Sunday style look at football, but as Rocket explains, Lovejoy joined Sky from the Big Breakfast and built the show.
It was a chance meeting following a changed work experience placement at Sky Sports that led to Rocket getting his breakthrough.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and we had a chance to go on work experience in school.
“I was given a placement for two weeks in an ice cream van, but I told school I would sort my own, so I wrote to Channel 4, ITV, Sky Sports and others.
“Sky were the only ones to get back and I went there for two weeks, but it was boring really, just watching editors cut clips of cricket and fishing.
“On my last day I bumped into Lovejoy and Helen, Fenners, Sheephead, all the originals, and I introduced myself as Rocket.
“I had the nickname as half of our kids football team were called James, so I got called Rocket because I was fast.
“Lovejoy liked that and asked me if I had any ideas for Soccer AM next season. He gave me a few and I went and worked on them.
“I think he liked me because I was a little bit cocky when I was 15, a bit chirpy. Anyway it led to six weeks unpaid work on the show.
“I gave the ice cream job to my mate, which worked out well because he loved ice cream.
“He didn’t carry it on though, he didn’t fancy it after a couple of weeks.”
After three years of working for free and making tea for the likes of Noel Gallagher, Rocket shunned university for a job at Sky Sports.
A year later Lovejoy cherry picked him to take up a paid job on Soccer AM, and he never looked back.
He moved from props, to cameos on the show and evolved as a character.
“I joined about two seasons after it started and it wasn’t as big as it would become.
“It was four hours long when I joined, so imagine trying to fill four hours of live tele.
“It was mad and we would look at anything to fill it. I would come on, and they would say we need to try this trick out on someone, we’ll do it on the work experience.
“Then there was a running joke that I would do something wrong and get sacked every week.
“It was about 2002 when it peaked and we had an average of about three million viewers, which for a Saturday morning show on satellite TV and not terrestrial is mad really.”
As Soccer AM grew and grew through the noughties the features and characters became bigger and better.
Alongside Rocket the likes of Tubes and others were getting recognition.
And Rocket praised the guidance of Lovejoy to continue trying knew things, even if they didn’t work all the time.
“He was good at trying knew things, and if they didn’t work we’d try something different the following week..
“Tubes evolved from Peter the Test Tube Baby to his one question and his rapping.
“You had Sheephead’s Topless Weather, a spoof of Eurotrash’s topless weather, where Sheephead gets his top off and its had a sponsor which was something like ‘ooooh northern boys love gravy’.
“We had ideas that evolved. We had loads of lads who weren’t actors but were talented.
“Sometimes you’d be worried a joke or a gag would die, but even if it did it would be funny in a cringy way.”
In the age before social media really kicked off, it was difficult for the shows stars and producers to gauge how big the support had become.
But for Rocket he realised how large it was when he attended a few events, some more random than others.
“You do the show to three cameras and that’s it, you go again.
“It was before Twitter, so the only time you’d understand it was when we had the games where Soccer AM played another team and we got like 5,000 people there, it was mad.
“And I went to Bristol to turn on someone’s Christmas lights in their home and there was 300 people outside.
“Then I switched on Stoke’s Christmas lights and people are asking you for pictures and autographs, and I’m thinking, I only play a few bit parts in a TV show.”
As Soccer AM is today, the show revolved around the guests.
To begin with it was made up of footballers and a selection of indie bands, but that changed, with A listers, music stars and other people were invited onto the sofa.
Some guests stuck in the memory more than others for Rocket.
“In a good way the bloke who played Mr T was brilliant. Some people come to promote something to get paid and they don’t do much.
“But he was up entertaining, signing autographs, shouting ‘I ain’t gettin’ on no plane fool’.
“He gave the people what they wanted.
“Meatloaf was a nightmare. We tried to book people with big personalities, but then you had the extreme.
“He was behind the sofas, taking shirts off the wall, doing all sorts.
“We had to cut loads of VTs because we couldn’t control him. That show was a shambles.
“Mel B was a strange one, she left halfway through.
“We got her to do a Hairy Strikers gag, which was cigga cigar or something like that.
“Half way through she said ‘I’ve had enough, this is not for me, I’m off to get some chicken’
“It was so strange.”
For many years early on in the show it had been the job of the crew at Soccer AM to book guests.
But as things progressed, the show became inundated with celebrities looking to go on the UK’s hottest football show to boost ticket sales and to sell albums and films.
But there was one guest in particular that Rocket will never forget.
“I loved it when Gazza came on. I was 16 and after the show we’d go to a pub across the road.
“I was standing between Gazza, Jimmy Five Bellies and Razor Ruddock, talking to Gazza and thinking this is surreal.
“I said my Mum was picking me up and I told him I had a moped.
“He said next time you’re in Newcastle we’ll take the bikes out, so he got Jimmy to write his number on a fag packed and he gave it to me.
“But I never had the balls to ring it. But he was such a nice guy who would do anything for anyone.
“The one person we never got on and I would have liked to get on was Becks.”
Rocket became more prominent as the years went by on Sky Sports’ flagship Saturday morning programme.
One segment in particular was to become the brainchild of Rocket, but as he explains, it was not always an easy job.
Especially when some young talent had no skills.
“I took skill skool to Lovejoy and he said he wasn’t sure it would work, so when he left the new producer told me to go for it.
“Academy lads loved it when I was arriving to do the feature, they’d all be excited.
“The likes of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling are on it. Most of the lads who had skills, but never went on to make it.
“And the music made it as well I think. When ever anyone hears T Power now, they think of Soccer AM.”
Another featured was Small Talk, which involved Rocket going to different places to interview people about a topical issue.
One of these episodes in particular sticks in the memory and regularly does the rounds on social media.
“I went to Pontypridd to chat about nicknames and the video always surfaces every now and then.
“They were just so funny. We had the one lad Doug who was called Shovel Head, and the guy who kept saying ‘Eggy but’.
“It was just another way of getting the public involved.”
But some of Rocket’s finest moments came in the famous Soccer AM Dance Off, which he won six times.
It would have been seven, but for a suspicious Lovejoy who would end up stripping him of one title.
“It was so scary, no one wanted to do it.
“You’d be dancing like idiots in a bar, and out the back we would be queuing to go on for 15 seconds.
“I was like jumping from a plane, and it stunk behind the locker room door, with everyone nervous and farting.
“I won seven but Lovejoy took the one off me, because I was on the phone just after and he thought I was ringing to vote for myself.
“And earlier in the show I had agreed to get six stars tattooed on my arse if I won, and I did.
“So I got it done. The missus wasn’t best pleased.
“The later in the show we got more creative with the dancing, and I got the crowd involved to create the bike one year and the surfing too.
“It was just about making people at home smile.”
After 19 years on the show Rocket had moved from young work experience boy to being arguably the show’s most recognisible face.
But he moved from Soccer AM and went to work as a senior sports producer for Joe.co.uk.
“I had learned so much but it wasn’t being put to use, I thought I was treading water.
“I didn’t have the identity on the show that I once did, and everyone’s time comes to an end.”
Earlier this year JOE went into administration with a new firm coming in and axing a string of jobs, including Rocket’s.
He’s now working as a freelancer and is planning a pilot episode for his own YouTube show.
The fan’s favourite still loves looking back on the show with pride and joy at how much he and his silly gang brought laughs to people up and down the country.
Soccer AM is still strong, but probably not at the same level it did 15 years ago.
But under the guidance of John ‘Fenners ‘Fendley and Jimmy Bullard, the show commands good audience figures and gives fans their Saturday morning football fix.
Rocket backed his good friend Fenners to keep steering the show and keep one of Sky Sports’ most popular shows going.
“It’s great to still see it going so well.
“It is stripped back now, it isn’t as long and it hasn’t got all that silliness.
“That’s what it needed, to get rid of some of the nonsense and all of the chaos. “Fenners is doing a great job. Long may it continue.”