Friday, 2 August 2013

Part 1: Rolling back the years with Steve Fletcher

Cherry Chimes was one of 100 or more AFCB supporters who packed themselves into the Key West Bar on Bournemouth Pier on Thursday night to hear what 'Big Un' would have to say on his his career, colleagues and family as he shared an evening with his followers.

The evening began with Steve talking about having had three children being named 'Fletch' after him which seemed to cause him some embarrassment but deep down he said he was honoured. "It is such an innocuous thing to happen to you. I'm just a lad from Hartlepool."

One fan is also known to have Fletch tattooed on his back, with No10 on it, as a keepsake for when Fletch used to wear that number in his heyday for the Cherries. Steve talked about how as a football player you live your life in a bubble and you don't really take in all the things that happen to you at the time, but now I can see all he has achieved in the last 20 years. Steve has clippings of all the supermarkets he has opened, the schools, fates and hospitals he has visited etc in a big file. He said he was still touched by people's tweets.

Steve arrives on stage.

Moving onto his career at AFCB, Steve admitted that he did not really want to stay after that first season when he came down from Hartlepool. "I'm like Marmite," he said "People either love me or hate me and they didn't take to me at first in Bournemouth."

Steve had said to Mel Machin, the manager at the time (1994), that he didn't think it would work out for him on the south coast. Steve was only 19 at the time and had been brought in to replace Jimmy Quinn, but he had only started 11 games for Hartlepool when he had been spotted by Tony Pulis and brought to Bournemouth. The goals didn't fly in and he didn't establish himself as a first team player easily. The fee of £30,000 was also big for Bournemouth at the time.

Steve admitted that he did not want to sign for AFCB when he was driving down in July 1992 to take a look at the club and kept saying he wouldn't sign. But a stay at the Royal Bath Hotel, a tour of the ground and a meal at the Ocean Palace soon had him thinking differently. Tony Pulis was keen to get his man and the club treated Steve extremely well. He signed within 24 hours of coming down. "I just took a chance," Steve said.

In his youth Steve said he was not the most talented football in Hartlepool. He was just more dedicated than most. "I would annoy the neighbours paying football in the street. We had a long wire fence that I'd kick the ball against repeatedly, and I'd work my way down the street being told to move on each time. We had 28 houses in our street, so it took a long time for me to work my way down to the end."

In those days Steve played as a winger and was keen to play that role, but Cyril Knowles, Hartlepool's manager, saw him more as a striker. Steve had a couple of trials at 16 at Hartlepool before being taken on as a two-year YTS player at the club. Steve was injured most of the time and did not expect to get a full contract at the end of his scheme, but in 1990 he won his first professional contract, despite only playing in two reserve games all season. The team won in Steve's first pro game at Chesterfield 3:2.

It is on his mother's side of the family where Steve has some very high footballing pedigree. His grandfather played for England three times and he won the FA Cup with Derby County in 1946, the only time that Derby has won the cup. Steve still has his grandfather's FA Cup winners medal - a treasured possession. His grandfather played as a left back and Stanley Mathews commented that: "he was the hardest player he ever played against".

Sadly Steve's Grandad died 2 months before he won his first professional contract. Steve learnt all his 'skills' (that drew a few laughs) from his Grandad and so it has always hurt him that he never played professionally with his Grandfather looking on. The other side to his upbringing was that Steve's parents were publicans.

The Bournemouth contract
Tony Pulis was an admirer of Steve Fletcher. Cyril Knowles died during Steve's second year as pro and Pulis made a move for Fletcher as he felt he was ready for first team football. Steve was adamant that he was a Hartlepool boy and did not want to go to Bournemouth, not that he even knew where it was. Then a look around East Cliff and the promise of first team football seemed to good an opportunity to miss, explains Steve. "I had half a chance of making something with my life," said Steve. He said to his father "B..., let's do it!"

That season he picked up a cruciate ligament injury to his left knee with a 20 per cent tear when he played at Wigan's old Springfield Park ground. He was playing up front with Efan Ekoku. It was not a good time to get injured as he was in and out of the team, but he came back in just four weeks which was naive at 19 years old he says now. "I should have taken much longer to recover," he said. It probably meant his left knee was never as strong for the rest of his career.

The remainder of the season did not go well and Steve even heard a shout from the old East stand of, "Why don't you just go ... back home. We don't want you." To a 19 year old that is hard to deal with, but on reflection now, Steve says it was probably fair. His heart was not in it at the time. But Pulis liked something about Steve and he wanted Steve to repay him with the faith he had in bringing him to AFCB.

Tony Pulis is known as a long ball specialist, but Steve reminded us that he brought Joe Parkinson for next to nothing and sold him a year later for £800,000 and Neil Mansen to Wolves for £400,000. He had a tough management style and would drag players out of the treatment room. It was a different game then, explains Steve. He remembered one time with Paul Morrell (who was in the audience) when Shaun Brooks had gotten the wrong side of Tony Pulis and his failure to run around the old miniature rail track in Kings Park. Things were more disciplined then.

Part 2 to follow...

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