THERE were times during Sky Sports’ coverage of this year’s Super League Grand Final where it almost seemed as if the game itself was of secondary importance to the main event of the day, that being Mike Stephenson’s retirement party.
Yes, after 26 years as one half of the channel’s first-choice rugby league commentary duo, Stevo has finally hung up his microphone, with the 69-year-old’s last game fittingly being the showpiece finale of the domestic season as Wigan Warriors edged out Warrington Wolves at Old Trafford.
Sky can perhaps be forgiven for lavishing so much attention on one of their longest-serving commentators though because, while it might be cliché to say it, the coverage of the sport on the channel will not be the same without him.
For those who will be sad to see Stevo go, there are plenty who will be glad to see the back of him, such is the love-him-or-hate-him nature of the man who has been alongside commentator Eddie Hemmings since the early days of rugby league being on what was then BSkyB.
His legacy can perhaps be compared to that of the BBC’s former ‘voice of rugby league’ Eddie Waring, who was reviled in the sport’s northern heartlands as much as he was loved in other parts of the country due to him being perceived to be portraying a certain image of the game.
Everyone has an opinion on him though and Stevo has played role as Hemmings’ larger-than-life, outspoken sidekick to shoe-throwing perfection, helping popularise rugby league among new audiences.
Much like Waring, the former Dewsbury and Great Britain hooker has done much to spread the rugby league gospel outside of his television role as well. Indeed, it was Stephenson who helped get the former Rugby League Heritage Centre in Huddersfield off the ground, donating many items from his own personal collection as exhibits.
He has allowed that continue as part of the Rugby League Cares touring exhibits and it would not be a surprise to see Stephenson have some involvement in trying to find a new permanent home for the sport’s historical artefacts.
Of course, the difference between the two is Stevo had already decided when the time would be right to call it a day, revealing in Friday’s hour-long interview special with Hemmings that he had done so five years ago.
“I don’t want to hang on another couple of years, with people saying you should pack it in,” Stephenson told The Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew last week as well. “Eddie Waring went far too long, and it was painful to listen to. I want to think I’m going out at the top.”
That pre-Grand Final interview on Sky went right back through Stevo’s playing career, looking back on the highlights of winning the World Cup with Great Britain in 1972 and then helping Dewsbury win the Rugby League Championship the following year.
There were also plenty of opportunities to recap some of Eddie and Stevo’s finest moments on air from down the years too – including the memorable moment from ‘Boots ‘n’ All’ when the latter was attacked by an ostrich while filming a segment.
It will undoubtedly seem strange without Stevo around when the Super League season kicks off next February, although Sky have plenty of potential high-quality replacements lined up in the form of Phil Clarke, Barrie McDermott and Brian Carney, while Jon Wells has elevated rugby league punditry to another level with his superb insight when picking apart key moments from games.
And yet, there will be no more tough hombres, T-R-Y time or comments which make you want to put your foot thought the TV and send Rupert Murdoch the bill emanating from the commentary box.
Then again, it would be impossible to find another commentator quite like Stevo. He is one of kind – thankfully, some might say – and while it has been said repeatedly over the past few weeks and month, it is worth reiterating that, for better or worse, it really will not be the same without him.