Steve Fletcher the footballer was renowned for being a big bustling centre-forward who would be used as a battering ram to strike fear into the soul of the strongest defenders around the country.
Steve Fletcher the person is a far more humble, calm and sensitive man. Certainly not what you would expect from the persona he displayed on the field.
This was evident at the first game of this season. Normally it is one of the most exciting days for players, coaches, managers and fans alike. But, for someone who has just retired after making 725 appearances, in a career spanning 24 years, it was one of the hardest experiences Fletcher has had to deal with.
As the whistle blew to signal the start of another blistering campaign, Fletcher was sat in the stands for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, watching Birmingham play Watford at St Andrews, as part of Bournemouth’s scouting team.
Fletcher revealed: “I sat by myself, away from the other scouts and I shed a few tears because for the first time in 24 years I wasn’t involved in the first game of the season so it wasn’t easy.”
He was unable to hide his emotions and disappointment of not being involved in the opening day and suddenly, Steve Fletcher the person is revealed to the world.
He explains: “It doesn’t matter how big, brave or manly you are, you don’t want to cry but it does get to you. I am a sentimental bloke and I have been a professional footballer for so long.
“I was looking at the Bournemouth score on Twitter and I was thinking; ‘Wow, one, I’m not playing and two, I’m not even at the game.”
The transition between playing and retirement can be daunting for anyone, nevertheless, it was even harder for Fletcher who had spent 21 of those years at AFC Bournemouth and developed a genuine love, not just for the sport, but for the club.
Steve Fletcher and AFC Bournemouth have become synonymous with each other, but then you would expect that when he has become part of the furniture, literally.
In 2010 the North Stand at Dean Court was named after him as a reward for his loyal services to the club and would ensure he will be remembered in south coast folklore for many years to come. It also represents Fletcher as part of the dying breed of devoted footballers that are few and far between in the current era.
Steve Fletcher is responsible for scoring the most important goal in the club’s recent history.
During the 2008/09 season, the club had been battling relegation from League Two, following the 17-point deduction for exiting administration without a Company Voluntary Agreement. It had boiled down to the penultimate game, Bournemouth had to beat Grimsby to maintain their league status.
With 10 minutes remaining, Fletcher scored the winner in a 2-1 victory to spark mass celebration throughout the town. It could not have been better timing for the striker to notch the 100th league goal of his career.
You can judge how much love he still has for the sport in his tone of voice and the glint that remains in his eyes, all those memories replaying over and over again inside his head.
Fletcher was not offered a new playing contract for the club on the south coast but has taken up a scouting role and admitted he might have continued playing had the team not been promoted to Championship this season.
He said: “We decided that the step-up was going to be a little bit too much for me, and Eddie Howe, who is one of my best friends, didn’t want me being a bit-part player. If we had stayed in League One I might have been offered something.
“In League Two you’ve got one player in each team who has got a bit of quality, in League One you might have two or three and in the Championship you have got seven or eight, you go into the Premier League and they are all quality so that’s the step-up.”
When you have been in the same profession for such a long period of time it can act as a drug and becomes so addictive, knowing when to go cold turkey gets increasingly difficult. Nevertheless, Fletcher had a sense that his time was up, which did not make it any easier for him.
“My heart wants to keep playing but I think realistically in my head and my body it was the right time. You live in this world where you think it’s never going to end, you think you are Peter Pan and you need people around you, not to tell you to retire or hang your boots up but to ask: ‘Can you keep it going?’ It’s a difficult decision to make.
“Once you lose the love for football then it’s time to retire and I never lost it so that was the hardest thing to give up when you love something so much.
“When I go and train with the first team or play 5-a-side now, I think wow I couldn’t sustain day-to-day training like I did last season.”<a href=”http://kyranpick.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/steve-fletcher.jpg”><img src=”http://kyranpick.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/steve-fletcher.jpg?w=300″ alt=”steve fletcher” width=”300″ height=”200″ class=”alignright size-medium wp-image-282″ /></a>
Fletcher also admits that he spoke to a lot of former colleagues about life after playing, with many struggling to adapt to their new lives and with such a drastic change it is no surprise to see some have issues during the adjustment.
“In the latter stages of my career I spoke to a lot of ex-pros and they said you can never envisage what it is going to be like, but I haven’t been as bad as people explained to me they were in the past, a lot of them went off the rails.
“It’s interesting to see all of these programs on television about ex-professional sportsmen who can’t handle the reality of normal life after living in the professional bubble for so long.
“Nothing can prepare you totally but I’ve had a fantastic career, more than I could ever dream of so half my head was round it and I think that’s half the battle.
“I think when anyone stops playing you need a pathway, you need something to do, you need another goal in life, you need to say that’s what I am going to do for the next X amount of years.”
Fletcher also had a ten month spell as assistant manager at the club during 2011 and before retiring it looked like he may have gone into management, before choosing to stay at Bournemouth in a scouting capacity. However he admitted coaching is a possibility that he is considering but it would be difficult to leave the team he adores.
He said: “I have ambitions and dreams about becoming a manager but I have got so much going on with what I am currently doing and I haven’t really had time since I retired to think whether that is the path I want to go down.
“But you are talking about leaving the club I have been at for 21 years and that wouldn’t be easy, it doesn’t matter what job you offered me whether it would be in football, a movie star, a pop singer and all those exciting other things you still have to take into consideration the amount of time I have been here and the affection I have for this club.
“If I was given an opportunity I would definitely think about it because if you are not going to be a professional footballer, the next best thing to be involved in is coaching.
“It will always be in the back of my mind, I would like to get back into coaching because there is nothing better than being on the training field with the boys kicking the ball about.”
Fletcher’s career started at Hartlepool back in 1990, making 32 league appearances before moving to Bournemouth for £30,000 two years later. After being released in 2007 the forward spent the next 18 months at Chesterfield and Crawley respectively, before returning to the Cherries in January 2009.
His last transfer was a brief spell on loan at Plymouth in 2012, where he linked up with friend Carl Fletcher who was manager at the time.
Most former players say nothing can compare to stepping out onto the green turf every Saturday afternoon. Fletcher’s path has taken him down the scouting route at the club, not necessarily the first choice of career change for most footballers currently. Over the past few years there has been an influx of players going into the media or coaching side of the sport, after hanging up their boots. However Fletcher is enjoying his new job.
“Player recruitment is probably the best way to describe my role because I am looking at players to bring in to the football club that I believe the manager will want in this environment. I would to like think I know a decent player when I see one and after knowing Eddie Howe for 18 years I know the type of player he likes as well.
“Over the last eight-to-ten years I have done a lot for the club and I thought it would be great if I could incorporate an ambassadorial role into that. I love going out into the community and now we are a club that are going places and have big businesses behind us. I enjoy that side of it but my first port of call is my recruitment and if the gaffer turns around to me and asks me to watch a game everything else has to be dropped.
“It’s great that I am still at the football club, it has given me something to focus on and it has kept my mind away from not playing and obviously I still have to pay the mortgage.”
Pressure and expectation are accepted hazards of being a professional footballer. However there is a different type of pressure that is inherited by scouting and Fletcher is able to relate it back to his playing days with the January transfer window just around the corner.
“The manager always says that we have one of the most important roles at the football club. It’s like the build-up to a big game, at the start of the week there is a bit of light training and tactics and you build up for the crescendo on a Saturday.
“It’s the same with the transfer window, once it shuts I suppose you could class that as the beginning of the week and your training is looking at players. You are working towards the window opening, when it does, BANG, you’re ready to explode.”
Even though Fletcher now spends most of his time sat in an office, he says his viewing experience of the sport has drastically changed since quitting.
He explains: “I have found it harder to watch games now and I want the team to win in a different way. I have become a loudmouth supporter, jumping around, heading and kicking every ball.”
Fletcher was also able to provide a rare insight into how Bournemouth’s scouting system works, a part of the game that not many clubs like to talk about.
“The gaffer will come to us and say; ‘These are my priority targets and positions on the pitch.’ From that we put our list together of players he’s looked at and from what he has been told about by agents.
“We have to narrow them down and then between the three or four scouts we’ll sit down and watch half a dozen games on the player and if we agree he is worth watching, we will go to a game and watch him live.
“If he comes out of the Premier League or Championship you already know about the player so you might only have to watch one game, whereas if there is a player who is at a smaller club or he hasn’t really played much then you have got to do a lot more homework on him.
“We look at their attributes, negatives, and background. You can’t just say he has had a good game, he is a good player, let’s go and sign him, it doesn’t work like that.
“We have some very experienced scouts at the club and some inexperienced ones so we have meetings once a week, we get together everyday and talk over the phone because we want a structure in place that suits the manager and gets the best out of our information on players, you can’t just write it down in a book.”
In this country young boys want to become the next David Beckham or Wayne Rooney, a dangerous concept to be engrossed by. Many, make it their life ambition and dedicate themselves to achieve this goal. None even contemplate what they will do after playing.
Imagine accomplishing this dream and spending the next 25 years of your life living what you love. Then envisage having to give it up, being dragged away from the only routine that you know.
This is why retiring was such a challenge and meant so much to him. It also highlights how important it was for Bournemouth to retain the services of their club icon and sets an example that should be followed by all football clubs as well as players.
Being a professional footballer has got it’s negative connotations, nevertheless Steve Fletcher is still flying the flag for what is now becoming a minority of players that just love the game for what it is. Take money, fame and status away from the sport, Fletcher would still be out in the park on a winter Saturday morning kicking a ball around with his mates. It is a shame the same cannot be said for everyone fortunate enough to play the beautiful game.