PAL ED­DIE IS GO­ING TO BE ONE OF THE GREAT BOSSES

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By Chris Dunlavy

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.

FIRST CLUB

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.

BEST MANAGER

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.

BEST TEAM-MATE

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.

FIRST PRO­MO­TION

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.

FUN­NI­EST PLAYER

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…

FUN­NI­EST IN­CI­DENT

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.

BIG­GEST ACHIEVE­MENT

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.

LOW­EST MO­MENT

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’.

TOUGH­EST OP­PO­NENT

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!

AM­BI­TION

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

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

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

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