PAL EDDIE IS GOING TO BE ONE OF THE GREAT BOSSES
IT WAS 1992 and Steve Fletcher was just 20 when he left his home in Hartlepool to become Tony Pulis’ first signing for Bournemouth. Little did he realise then that he’d still be there 23 years later, a Cherries legend with a stand named in his honour.
With 714 appearances, no player in history has represented Bournemouth so often and with 122 goals – including the one that kept the Cherries in the Football League in 2009 – few have given the Dean Court faithful so much to shout about.
Now 42 and working as an ambassador/scout for Eddie Howe’s Championship pacesetters, the big striker remembers how it all began in the office of Cyril Knowles, how it almost ended under a surgeon’s knife and how a bit of determination and a lot of ibuprofen kept him going all those years.
Hartlepool when I was 15.Nine places on their YTS scheme had already been taken and they held a trial to fill the other two.
There were about 120 kids from around the area. I got through three rounds and by the end they’d got it down to 22. So we had a match and from that two of us were asked to join the youth team.
At the time, I wanted to be a PE teacher. I’d got my five GCSEs and sorted a place at college. But fortunately for me, I was chosen and two years later got offered a pro contract by the wonderful Cyril Knowles.
Cyril had only watched me for one game in the youth team. He took over quite late in the year and I’d been injured so when he called me into the office at the end of the season I fully expected him to say ‘Sorry mate, I haven’t seen enough of you – I’ll have to let you go’.
But the first thing he said was ‘I’ve seen something in you big man – I’d like you to turn pro with us’. As you can imagine, I was the most ecstatic kid in Hartlepool.
If it wasn’t for Cyril, I wouldn’t have had these 24 years in football. I’d probably have gone back to college. So in that sense, it has to be him – he was my mentor. I only worked with him for a year before he passed away but even in that time he transformed my game.
But the one I loved playing for was Eddie Howe. I watched Eddie come through the youth team at Bournemouth. I roomed with him for years. He is one of my very best friends. So playing under him was surreal but as soon as I saw the work he did, the attention to detail, the professionalism – I was blown away.
I was 36 when he re-signed me from Crawley in 2009, but I learned more and achieved more in the subsequent four years than I did in the previous 17.
I’ve had some great managers here. Tony Pulis signed me for Bournemouth. Mel Machin was fantastic. Sean O’Driscoll made me captain and changed the way I thought about football. But Eddie stands apart and I believe he will go on to be one of the best managers this country has ever seen.
I was the strike partner of Jermain Defoe in 2000-01, when he scored ten games in a row to equal the league record.
And while we’ve had plenty of good strikers, I haven’t seen his like at Dean Court since.He was a one-off. I’d flick the ball on and win headers. Jermain would take on three players and chip the keeper from 25 yards. And somehow I’d claim an assist!
He absolutely transformed our season. We were languishing in the bottom three when he came on loan in September and we nearly got into the play-offs. That was thanks to Jermain and the confidence he gave the rest of the players.
He was 18 at the time and when he left to go back to West Ham, we all said ‘He’ll be an England player’. Two seasons later, he was.
I went up with Hartlepool United in my very first season as a pro. We had the likes of Joe Allon (who scored 36 goals and got a move to Chelsea), Paul Baker, Rob McKinnon, Paul Dalton, Brian Honour – all Pools legends who are talked about to this day. People still say that team was one of the best Hartlepool ever had.
I was only 18 and spent a lot of time as a sub but just to be involved in that was an incredible experience – and very rare. Hartlepool were a team who traditionally languished at the bottom of Division Four so promotion was fantastic for the town.
Over 24 years, I’ve met a lot of weird and wonderful people. But none were stranger than my Scottish friend Warren Cummings. He came to Bournemouth in 2003 and it was obvious he was a bit of a character. But once he got his foot in the door and got a bit cocky, he was crazy beyond anything I’d ever seen. He did things you simply wouldn’t get away with now. For instance…
We used to call this ‘Warren’s Welcoming Gift’ and there really is no way to describe it tactfully.
Basically, whenever we got a new signing or a loan player in, Warren would disappear into the toilet.
And instead of doing his business in the pan, he’d get a load of toilet paper and do it into his hand. Then he’d carry it discreetly over to this new lad – who had only met everyone 20 minutes earlier – shove it under his nose and say ‘What do you think of that, mate?’
It was quite an introduction. These poor lads used to think ‘What the hell have I got myself into here?’ But everyone took it well and we all reassured them that we weren’t all as crazy as Warren.
I’ve got two. One is winning the first Sir Tom Finney Award at the Football League awards last year. It’s lovely win- ning awards and promotions at your own club. But to receive an award that was voted for by everyone in football – especially as someone who never played in the Championship – was a great honour and I was very choked when I went to collect it.
The other is scoring the goal against Grimsby that kept Bournemouth in the Football League five years ago. We’d been given a 17-point deduction and we stayed up with a game to go.
Injuries. I’ve had 11 operations on my left knee. In 2003, I had six ops in a 14month period and I was told twice that I would never play football again.
The problem was a hole in the bone called condyle defect – the same injury
as Jamie Redknapp and Alan Shearer. The difference was that they had a few million quid in the bank.
I was 30. I had a mortgage, bills to pay. I couldn’t afford to quit. So I got a third opinion and I finally found a surgeon prepared to do the operation. He said ‘We might get a couple more years out of you’ and I ended up playing for another ten!
I was limited in what I could do. I could run in straight lines but I couldn’t turn quick and sharp. I couldn’t go into certain challenges. So I went into the gym, built up my upper body and just became an out-and-out target man.
I took painkillers for ten years. The club doctor told me I was probably damaging my health but I couldn’t get through games if I didn’t. I was caught between a rock and a hard place but I had to pay the bills.
TOUGHEST PLACE TO GO
Griffin Park, Brentford. I used to get dog’s abuse off the supporters. The changing room was no bigger than my downstairs toilet. And it was one of those places I just never had a good game at. I used to wake up and think ‘Oh no, not Brentford’.
The out-and-out hardest man I played against was Andy Morrison of Huddersfield and Man City.
He was a big centre-half with a neck like Mike Tyson and everyone knew he wasn’t for show – some of the stories you heard about him off the pitch were scary. I remember going up for a header with him when we played Huddersfield at Dean Court. He got up, stood on me, raked his boots all down my thigh and I was the one who said sorry! Nobody messed with him.
FAVOURITE PLACE TO GO
My most fruitful ground for goals was Notts County. I scored more there than any other ground.But I also loved Walsall – it was a small pitch and I didn’t have to run around too much!
Let’s be a bit different. Forget football.My ambition is to have a nice little place on the south coast of Spain where I can retire and spend half the year. That’s always been my little fantasy.
Best Team-mate: Jermain Defoe
SOARING: Bournemouth’s Steve Fletcher, who netted in the 5-2 win, climbs the highest against Lincoln in the Division Three PlayOff Final in 2003