AFC Bournemouth legend Steve Fletcher on the honour of receiving the Sir Tom Finney Award
- Credit: Archant
Steve Fletcher enjoyed a glittering career with AFC Bournemouth but his greatest honour came this year as the first recipient of the Sir Tom Finney Award, which has a special family connection
Cherries legend Steve Fletcher is used to accolades. In more than 20 years AFC Bournemouth’s favourite striker Fletch, as he is affectionately known, has scored over 100 goals and loved the adulation that followed.
Humble is not the first word that springs to mind with footballers generally but it is the one that Steve uses to describe his reaction to learning earlier this year that he was to receive the Football League’s inaugural Sir Tom Finney Award for a lifetime achievement in football.
The award came in March just a few months after Steve finally hung up his boots. He is now the Cherries Head of Recruitment in charge of scouting for new talent.
“I was shell-shocked when I first heard,” he tells me. “It was such an honour. I couldn’t quite believe it.”
The award, in recognition of an astonishing career that has so far lasted 24 years, has special significance as Steve’s grandfather, Jack Howe, played for England alongside Tom Finney in the late 1940s.
“My grandad played for England on three occasions with Tom Finney so I feel there’s a small personal connection there.”
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Jack Howe also played with great footballers like Stanley Matthews, Jackie Milburn and Billy Wright and won the FA Cup with Derby County in 1946. “He was really special. I’m sure he should have been capped for England many more times but the war came along and effectively killed his international career.”
It was Jack who honed Steve’s childhood talent, helping to instill in him his lifelong passion for football and equipping him with the techniques that would see him develop into a masterful player.
“Grandad used to take me in the back garden and teach me control, heading, volleys, half volleys, passing, left foot, right foot, all the fundamental skills. By the time I was eight or nine, I was living and breathing football and it was really all down to him. I used to drive the neighbours crazy, kicking a ball up and down the road day and night.”
Jack died when Steve was just 15. He says he regrets that he didn’t pay more attention to his advice and get to talk to him in more depth about the early days and the great footballers he had played with.
“When you’re 15 you don’t understand these things,” he shrugs. “Those big names didn’t really mean a great deal to me at the time. I was a Liverpool fan. My heroes were Kenny Dalgleish and Ian Rush.”
It was in 1990 that 18-year-old Steven Mark Fletcher first turned out for his hometown team Hartlepool United. Two years later he was on his way to Bournemouth, and apart from short spells at Chesterfield and Crawley Town and a brief period on loan to Plymouth Argyle he has been at the club ever since.
He ponders the ups and downs of his career and admits he would have liked to have played at a higher level.
“I never got to emulate my grandfather. I played longer than him but never reached the heights he achieved. On the other hand when I was a kid growing up if anyone had said I was going to have a 24-year career in professional football I’d have laughed at them. I haven’t done too badly,” he smiles.
Indeed he hasn’t. Breaking the club appearance record, playing at Wembley, scoring in the play-off final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and having AFC Bournemouth’s north stand named after him are just a few of his achievements.
Giving up playing clearly wasn’t easy but with the Cherries having just spent their first season in the Championship, Fletch is loving his new role as Head of Recruitment.
As he points out he needs a job - “there are still bills and a mortgage to pay” - and he loves working for AFC Bournemouth.
“Dorset is the most wonderful place to bring up a family,” says Steve who with his wife, Lynne, have two teenage daughters, Danni, 16, and Emily, 13. “There are great beaches, amazing places like Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove and the weather is fantastic. I don’t think I would ever go back north now. I’ve lived over half my life down here so I suppose I’m more of a southerner than northerner.” He looks a little alarmed at the thought, and whispers: “I think I’d better keep quiet about that in Hartlepool.”
Steve’s current responsibility for finding new players and identifying future talent for the club is far from simple. For every dozen names bandied around by armchair pundits ten will be non-starters.
“We know within reason the players we can and cannot look at. Obviously I can’t go chasing £10m players but it’s not just the price you have to pay, it’s the wages as well. We have a wage structure at this club and whoever we look at has to fit in with that.”
Things have changed a lot since AFC Bournemouth bought the then 20-year-old Fletch from Hartlepool for £30,000 and a weekly salary of £300. He chuckles at the thought of those early days.
We’re talking in the players’ dining area - all wholegrains and nutritional charts outlining the perfect balance of protein and carbohydrate. Even the ice-cream is super healthy and jauntily titled Whey Hey.
“It’s so different. When I first came here we used to pop over to the Kings Park Cafe and eat whatever we wanted. You were sort of expected to go out with the lads on a Saturday night whether there was a game the following Tuesday or not. Now of course you’d never play for the club again if the gaffer found out. These days players are kept at the top of their game. By the time they get into the first team they’re pure athletes.
“I wish football had been like it is today when I first started. The professionalism, how you conduct yourself, the strength and conditioning as well as the brilliant coaches - we never had all that.”
A new member of the youth squad wanders in, helps himself to a huge bowl of muesli and looks aghast at the selection of herbal teas. He plumps for ginseng and lemongrass, sniffs it suspiciously, grimaces and asks: “am I supposed to put milk in it?”
Fletch, almost parental in his concern, gently puts him right. A learning curve has begun.