Saturday, 3 August 2013

Part 2: Rolling back the years with Steve Fletcher

Mel Machin took over the manager's job from Tony Pulis in 1994 and he was met with a Steve Fletcher who said he wanted to leave the Cherries. Mel said, "Why leave?" Stay two months to give me time to work with you and if you still want to leave after that then okay." Fletch had been playing centre half at the time because of so many injuries in the team and he hadn't been enjoying it, but Machin convinced him that it was right to stay.

Machin brought in some great young players like Neil Young, Matt Hollands and Steve Jones which made it easier for Steve to fit in. It was the 1995 season that made its mark on Fletcher when he came back into the team having been injured. By Christmas the team was already 10 points adrift and when he came back on 2nd January against Swansea Fletch scored a brace in a 3:2 victory for the Cherries. From January to May he was virtually a different player. "I found my love for football then," said Fletcher. He hadn't been fully focussed before then.

The 1998 Auto Windscreens Trophy Final at Wembley was a big day in shaping Fletch's career. While Wembley can be a burden to some players, Steve always wanted to play there, "it was my boyhood dream," he said. "Winning the FA Cup was as big as winning the league then." While it was not going to be the FA Cup final Steve said: "How can you fail to be inspired when you are playing in front of 67,000 people?"

Steve and Franck Rolling were both carrying injuries the week before, but Mel Machin told them if you don't play against Walsall in the week you can consider yourself out of selection for the cup final against Grimsby. The three points against Walsall were just as important to Machin. Steve made him self available but the Frenchman was put on the bench for the final, having almost single-handedly got the team to the final with his goals since the quarter final, and he never played for the Cherries again, after refusing to play against Walsall. Eddie Howe came in to replace him. "Football is brutal," commented Steve.

O'Driscoll years

The O'Driscoll years were fascinating as it was the first time Steve had been under the leadership of a former team mate. In 1992 Sean was still playing but when he became manager he made Fletch captain. But the most important thing Steve said he learnt from Sean was that: "You don't have to be the best player on the pitch to influence the game." Indeed, you can do other things and Steve's job was to cushion the ball and feed it off to other strikers, keeping possession.

Steve affectionately refers to Sean as "Grumpy bollocks" or "Mr Happy." That is Sean's persona off the pitch but when he is on the training ground it was completely different said Steve. "Sean says it as it is, it's black or white, there is no grey. But you won't get a conversation out of him.

"It's different on the pitch, he brought me on. He was very technical in training and most of us didn't get it which was frustrating for him. He didn't always explain it - but he was a head of his time."

Steve would say how the players would ask the manager to explain what he meant. It would often just need 30 seconds more explanation before a lot of them would get what he was after. But Sean was doing some innovative training. It was the period when foreign mangers were coming into the game. Sean wanted the type of player who was a total footballer. Fletch remembers that many teams would see Bournemouth as a soft touch: "We had lots of small technically gifted players but opponents thought they could get at us if they got stuck in," he said.

"This is where we became known as a passing team. A nicey, nice team," says Steve. "I can't understand how that team never managed to get out of league One."

Talking about the strike partners that Steve has played with he mentioned that Jermain Defoe was probably the best striker we will be privileged to see at Dean Court. He was given on loan to the club by Harry Redknapp from West Ham and while he simply looked okay in the first week of training it wasn't until he scored in September 2001 away at Stoke which we lost 2:1 that he went on that record-breaking goal scoring run. " We actually used to applaud him in training. That is what he fed off it. He could just ping the ball in the top corner from an acute angle. He would then give it the full works with his celebration and run off holding his arm aloft. We had to tell him you don't have to go mad and run around the pitch every time you score."

Steve said he would just win the headers and Jermain would do the rest. "He'd just beat a few players at bang it in the top corner and I'd get an assist. He was a joy to play with a privilege and an honour." Steve and the lads knew he was destined for bigger things and would play for England one day.

Some have also said Steve played well with Mark Stein and they did complement each other well. Off the pitch though their relationship was a bit strained as Mark would often be a bit sarcastic of players if they could not do things when he had played in the Premiership. Steve has always been respectful of those who have played at a higher level but it would nark him when Mark would say some things. Of course Mark was at Crawley later on in Steve's career and they are okay with each other now.

Steve's special striker relationship though was with James Hayter. James would always be prepared to go back and do the defending to let the big man rest a bit. "We had a togetherness," said Fletch.

Millennium Stadium play-off Final
It didn't matter to Steve that the play-off final was at Cardiff rather than Wembley when AFCB took on Lincoln City in 2003. The atmosphere was better as those who went can testify to. Fletch was 30 then and he wasn't going to lose this final. "It was my one opportunity," he said "I would do anything I could to get promoted, to play my best and to get us the win. I was fed up with being the nearly man."

Steve was so pumped up he asked the manager if he could have a room on his own. He said he was like a caged tiger. He couldn't sleep and was up by six. When it came to the handshake at the start of the game he like he almost broke the first Lincoln player's hand he was that wound up. Fletch was up against Ben Futcher, a big 6ft 7in defender, but he knew he could out do him physically in the air as he didn't jump much and Fletch smashed him in the first couple of minutes to let him know he was there. "The first five minutes were probably my best ever in a game," said Fletch "I set my stool out. Nothing was going to stop me."   

When Fletch scored, Wade Elliott was seen holding his head because Fletch had gripped it so tightly in celebration that he had made him bleed. But Fletch then went over to his family to celebrate and blew his wife a kiss to say that's for you.

Part three to follow...

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