It is a television programme so successful that it has become virtually an institution.

Over the years Soccer Saturday's popularity has grown and grown to become the football juggernaut it is today with its cult following.

The weekends would scarcely be the same without Jeff Stelling and co letting out high-pitched shrieks and quick-witted barbs on our screens.

And despite its impressive longevity, arguably its glory days have been at their peak in recent years gone by.

That was until Sky Sports made the shock decision to wield the axe on three of its best-loved pundits.

Sky Sports overhauled their line-up of pundits as part of a huge shake-up
Sky Sports overhauled their line-up of pundits as part of a huge shake-up

Phil Thompson, Charlie Nicholas and Matt Le Tissier were all given the boot back in August after more than fifty years' service between them.

Here's the inside story of how it all unfolded.

Time for change

Matt Le Tissier was shocked by Sky's decision to let him go
Matt Le Tissier was shocked by Sky's decision to let him go

It was not the first time Sky Sports opted to overhaul their Soccer Saturday line-up, but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic - coupled with increasing pressure to diversify - led them to implement swift cost-cutting measures.

"Thommo rang me first on a Tuesday morning," presenter Stelling recalled to The Guardian .

"He said the head of football had asked for a meeting at lunchtime and a meeting with Charlie an hour later."

Thompson perhaps had an inkling what his meeting might be about.

After all, the then-66-year-old had seen his former co-pundits such as Rodney Marsh swept aside to make room for the new line-up previously, and had already been in discussions 18 months prior about being replaced.

"They wanted to do it sensitively rather than one day you’re gone," Thompson revealed to The Mail . "They said until we find somebody who is better, it might continue."

Sadly, his exit was a little more abrupt.

Stelling continued: "Just before midday, my phone rang and it was Tiss. I said: ‘Hello Tiss, how’re you doing?’ He said: ‘I was doing OK until I was sacked.'

"That was a real shock. Matt is much younger than the other guys and I was very taken aback. But, as soon as Matt told me he’d been sacked, I knew what was coming."

A Sky statement read: "We are changing some parts of our football coverage – Matt, Charlie and Phil have done a great job for us over the years, and they will leave us with our sincere thanks and very best wishes."

Speaking to Mirror Football on behalf of Karcher , the ever-popular correspondent Chris Kamara admitted: "I only found out from the press the same as everyone else. I didn’t expect it but decisions were made."

Stelling added: “It hit Matt the hardest because that was out of the blue."

Few could argue with Sky for wanting to go in a different direction, but it was still a bold strategy, and one that received plenty of reaction.

End of an era

Phil Thompson revealed his exit has been broached about 18 months prior
Phil Thompson revealed his exit has been broached about 18 months prior

Despite their disappointment, the three pundits took the decision with good grace.

"I’ve had a great 22 years with @SkySports," Thompson wrote on Twitter. "Enjoyed every minute with some amazing people on the show and behind the scenes which made it the iconic show it is today."

Paul Merson, 52, was the only pundit kept on the show, but Thompson felt both Le Tissier and Nicholas should not have been let go.

"It was three parts of a midfield," Thompson said. "The others could have continued."

Nicholas, 58, has remained fairly tight-lipped on the whole experience, while Le Tissier, 51, thanked staff for their support and said: "Enjoyed my time at Sky Sports, time to look forward to life’s next challenge."

Naturally, Stelling was particularly gutted.

"One of my saddest days ever at Sky Sports with the departure of three of my best mates," he tweeted. "They have been part of a team that for me was the best."

Kamara said: "You always feel the same when any of your mates get moved out, but they accepted it.

"It so easily could have been me and I would have accepted the situation in the same way that they have."

However, the fallout on social media was not so smooth.

Backlash

Micah Richards was targeted by online trolls amid rumours he was set to join the show
Micah Richards was targeted by online trolls amid rumours he was set to join the show

Talk soon turned to who would replace the trio of fan favourites, sparking a backlash of fans slamming 'PC gone mad'.

After speculation thrust Micah Richards and Alex Scott into the limelight as two of the rumoured front runners, both pundits were targeted by online trolls sending them abhorrent abuse.

"I saw I was trending in relation to a brilliant & institutional Sky Sports TV show that I’ve never even been on," Richards wrote.

"The underlying insinuation of tweets immediately linking mine & Alex Scott’s names makes for some uncomfortable truths."

Ian Wright - a regular on the BBC's football coverage - launched into a verbal tirade defending the pair.

"The racism is going through the roof today," Wright said.

"Somebody answer me this: what does Micah Richards, Alex Scott, Sol Campbell, Clinton Morrison or any other black pundit have to do with Sky's decision to get rid of these guys, all because three middle-aged white guys have got the sack?

"What have these guys done? Because a black person or woman might get the opportunity to do this job? Why are people upset?

"Matt Le Tissier, Charlie Nicholas, Phil Thompson, they've had an unbelievable run, it's been a great show. This happens to everyone in the industry.

"This is Sky's decision to evolve the show."

As things were, neither Richards nor Scott formed part of Sky's plans for Soccer Saturday, while the show's crew were not the only ones facing cuts.

Scott Minto, who often presented EFL, Carabao Cup and Spanish football action, was also sacked, leaving another member of Sky's workforce considering his own future.

Stelling ponders resignation

Presenter Jeff Stelling admitted he weighed up quitting the show
Presenter Jeff Stelling admitted he weighed up quitting the show

Stelling revealed he held talks with Sky's Head of Football, Gary Hughes, about the direction the show was heading, as he was concerned over pushing out a "diminished product."

Using a similar midfield analogy as Thompson, the show's anchor admitted he was unsure he wanted to start over again with a fresh line-up.

He tweeted a few days after the initial announcement: "So far no discussions have taken place, no decisions made. Only I know what I am thinking but it is important to listen to all arguments."

But the departed trio soon had their say.

"So I did think about [resigning] but all three urged me not to do anything silly," Stelling said.

Both Thompson and Nicholas even sent messages to Stelling ahead of his first show back on air wishing him good luck and to tell him they were tuning in.

The 65-year-old conceded that continuing to support his family financially played a part in his decision, and once the show was back he "couldn't help but enjoy it."

He added: "It’s the start of a new journey and we’ve just got to see where it takes us."

Moving forward

Troy Deeney is among a host of new faces to appear on the programme
Troy Deeney is among a host of new faces to appear on the programme

In their new-look shake-up, Sky introduced a number of new faces to join Paul Merson on the pundits panel, but they are yet to nail down a permanent line-up.

Tim Sherwood, Tony Pulis, Glen Johnson, Clinton Morrison, Adebayo Akinfenwa, Robbie Fowler, Troy Deeney and Joleon Lescott have all appeared, among others, as well as previous regulars Sue Smith and Alan McInally.

Stelling admitted he was "apprehensive" the new team could recreate the same buzz, and revealed that Merson felt the departed trio had "brought the best out of him".

"Hopefully they’ll get that bond again soon. It’s just chemistry. That helps build the programme up," Kamara said. "These things take time when you have change and hopefully it’ll reach the heights as it did with all the familiar faces."

Meanwhile Thompson, Nicholas and Le Tissier have recently been working on a show called 'Pundits', in association with Paddy Power, but are yet to get back on prime-time TV in the UK.

Reflecting on his time on Soccer Saturday, Thompson said: "It took on its own life. I think people could relate to us.

"I’m not saying everybody loved every one of us. You only had to go on social media to see that.

"But we knew what we were and that was the biggest thing."

*Chris Kamara was speaking to Mirror Football on behalf of global cleaning experts Kärcher, who have launched the next generation of pressure washers for 2021. The new range is available to purchase from www.karcher.co.uk