Photo by Adiebrown [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Written by Dan Davis (@dan_davis20)
Former AFC Bournemouth frontman Steve Fletcher has admitted his struggle with adjusting to life after his Cherries retirement, labelling it “the most difficult period of my life”.
Fletcher, now 46-years-old and an assistant first-team coach at the club in which he secured his legendary status, has experienced a footballing love affair like no other. He spearheaded tumultuous highs and crushing lows at Dean Court, and even scored the goal that hauled Cherries back from the brink of extinction.
From embarking on a 335-mile journey to first sign for the club, to watching on as his famous strike secured a fairy-tale victory against Grimsby in 2009, Fletcher’s many tales have indefinitely secured him a place in Cherries folklore.
So, when the time came to part ways with his beloved club, the towering target man was understandably reluctant to step away.
Fletcher’s retirement in 2013 came at the age of 40, on the cusp of Cherries’ first campaign after securing promotion to the Championship. He bowed out in typical grace, however, as the club’s record league appearance holder and after a career on the south coast that spanned 18 seasons.
“It was very difficult, probably one of the most difficult periods of my life,” Fletcher said.
“I was a footballer for 24 years and my heart wanted to go on, but my head knew that I couldn’t do it. That’s why I had to retire.
“Especially going into the Championship, the level was too much, and it just came ten years too late for me. It was tough because you live in a bubble, and then the bubble bursts and reality hits home. I thought I was Peter Pan and could go on forever.”
But with the end of his playing career came solace in the form of best friend and current Cherries manager Eddie Howe.
“I’ve known Eddie since I first joined in 1992, when he was in the youth team,” Fletcher explained. “We’ve been best friends, and he asked me to move into recruitment. And every now and then he’d bring me into training, and I was there before I had even put the phone down.”
After embarking on scouting missions for former roommate Howe for two and a half years, Fletcher was then invited to join the club’s coaching set-up.
He said: “We went to an event together and he asked me to come over to the coaching side until the end of the season, in January 2016. That was our first season in the Premier League. I learnt and got involved, and Eddie asked me the next season if I wanted to stay on.”
The ex-striker still cuts an imposing figure, as certain to prove just as much of a nuisance for centre-halves these days than during his playing career. But behind the physique lies a warm and determined individual relishing life on the training field in a coaching capacity.
“I’ve taken my badges, and I’ve learned from Eddie,” he said. “It’s been an amazing three years since I joined the coaching staff, and that made it easier. It’s the next best thing, because you want to be out on the training field.”
The assistant coach also admitted struggling with his confinement to the dug-out during games – likely a form of sporting purgatory for a man who prides himself on his competitiveness and timely knack for an explosive impact.
“It’s definitely different, and obviously I’m still jumping around when we win and kicking and heading every ball when I’m watching the games. But nothing will ever replicate playing, although coaching is absolutely the next best thing.”
Quite simply, Fletcher’s mark on the club is ever present, both in Howe’s training drills and also in the stadium. When Cherries and their opposition emerge from the tunnel on a matchday, to their left towers the stand named after the club’s legendary former target man.
As long as the club’s future remains tied to Dean Court, now named Vitality Stadium after a sponsorship deal, Fletcher’s name will remain hoisted high. And rightly so, after the talisman’s stature as perhaps the club’s greatest ever player was confirmed on one fateful day in 2009.
His 100th career league goal arrived at the perfect time – a powerful drive that flashed into the roof of the Grimsby net and with it secured Cherries’ Football League status against all the odds.
The club had begun the campaign on minus 17 points after financial trouble wreaked havoc off the pitch, and Howe was entrusted with the seemingly impossible challenge of keeping his boyhood side afloat. Had Cherries fallen through the trapdoor, they may never have returned.
“Before the game I think we were so hyped up,” Fletcher said, reflecting back to the build-up to the Grimsby showdown. “I came back in January and looked at the fixtures, I think there were 19 games left and we were ten points adrift.
“Eddie had just taken over, and I think everyone looked at the last couple of fixtures thinking if we could get anywhere near it going into the Chester and Grimsby games we would have snapped your hand off, to get to the position where we had to beat those two teams.
I just had this feeling that I was going to score the winning goal
“We’d always targeted those games, obviously hoping in hindsight that we’d all be done and dusted before that and we’d have the fairy-tale ending.”
But faced with almost insurmountable odds, and with the future of the football club effectively depending on just 90 minutes of football, Cherries’ players appeared to wither in the spotlight during a frustrating first-half.
Fletcher admitted to believing his side had blown their opportunity in the dressing room during the interval.
He said: “We ended up one nil down at half-time, and I was so deflated and thought we’d blown it. I thought we’d got to that game and we’d blown a gasket after clawing all those points back.
But after the re-emergence of the two sides, Cherries eased into the ascendency and found their illusive equaliser – further aided by the visitors having two of their ranks dismissed.
“Danny Hollands rattled the crossbar and Liam Feeney put in the rebound, which was a tough finish. All of a sudden, there was a pitch invasion and we were back in it at one all. They were down to nine men, and we all thought ‘this is our chance, this is our moment’.
“We were back on track, from thinking at half-time that we’d blown it to then thinking we were going to do it. But time went on, and you’re thinking ‘is a draw going to be good enough?’”
Fletcher also recalled the moment he believed he would net the crucial goal, his eyes misting over with evident pride.
“I just had this feeling that I was going to score the winning goal,” he said. “I wish I’d felt it throughout my career, I might have scored more goals! I just had this feeling, and I’d never felt it before really.
“The cross came in and Mark Molesley lost the header. To this day, he still says that he lost the header so the ball could fall to me!
“I remember just taking it down on my chest and thinking I was going to get a shot away. In football you get a split second to think about anything in circumstances like that, and there’s so much that goes through your brain.
“Did I mean to stick it in the roof of the net? No. Did I mean to hit it as hard as I could? Yes. And I was obviously buzzing when I saw it hit the back of the net through a crowd of players.”
After the realisation he had rocketed Cherries into an invaluable lead, Fletcher wheeled away in celebration. Snapshots of the target man racing downfield, shirt raised high and flapping in the wind, will be forever cherished by any Cherries supporter.
“Euphoria comes over you, and ecstasy.” Fletcher explained. “You feel like a ten-year-old running around the school yard again, like when you score a winning goal before going into a maths lesson.
“My shirt came off and I ran off down the line, then I got halfway down and blew a gasket. I was tired, so I just jumped in the air and had the whole team on my back.”
— AFC Bournemouth (@afcbournemouth) April 25, 2017
Fletcher’s strike not only secured Cherries’ safety, but likely ensured the club had a future that awaited them – a feat he himself admitted being aware of.
He said: “When you score a goal like that in the last minute of a big game, you’ll never get a feeling like it. And I’ll never get a feeling like it again in my life, and I never had a feeling like that in the 836 games I played.
“I think it was just because everything had been built up, the whole season was depending on it, and probably the existence of the football club as well. Because if we’d fallen out of the Football League, we’d have probably been liquidated and would have had to have started again six or seven leagues below. So, there was so much riding on it.”
The striker’s seismic impact both on and off the field for Cherries secured him boundless adoration in the seaside town, and formed a bond between the two that is certain to stand the test of time.
So much so, that when Fletcher originally departed Cherries for the first time in 2007, he received over 700 messages of support across messageboards solely dedicated to the club and wanting to celebrate the Hartlepool-born forward’s countless successes.
“My wife said it would be a good idea to print them all off, so we spent half a day copy and pasting every single message,” Fletcher explained. “I think there were about 700 of them and I put them all in a folder. And it’s not for me to look back on, although I was in tears reading them.
“A lot of them were about things off the pitch; things I’d done for people, hospitals, children’s charities. You don’t realise the impact you’ve actually had on the community until somebody reminds you what you’ve done.
“It’s only then that it brings tears to your eyes, and your family read them as well. When you stop playing, people remind you of the things you did and the time you spent helping and being around other people. And I think that’s the type of person that I am, I’ve always wanted to be out in the community.”
But as distinctly humble as Fletcher is off the pitch, the striker admitted he was quietly pleased that it was his crashing shot that completed Cherries’ great escape.
He admitted: “The last ten minutes seemed to go on forever. In fact, in some selfish way you don’t actually want to score another goal, so you can actually have all the plaudits. It was an incredible moment. I’ve played at Wembley, played in the play-off final and scored a goal there.
“I’ve done a lot of things that as a child I couldn’t have dreamed of doing. There have been so many milestones here, but nothing will ever compare to scoring that goal and how it felt.”