It is the football equivalent of the West Lothian question, rearing up every so often because it never seems to be put to bed conclusively. Last week we had reports that Brendan Rodgers could be about to sign Scotland striker Steven Fletcher – which made the Irishman the fourth Celtic manager to be credited with a pursuit of the player. Fletcher, of course, has never penned any deal at Parkhead.
At least this summer the speculation comes when he is without a deal anywhere following the expiry of his Sunderland contract. He saw out the last six months of that on loan at Marseille. And should he want to keep raking in a wage close to the £40,000 a week he was making at the Stadium of Light at an age when earning potential tends to be highest for a footballer, he might require to go further afield than his homeland. Who knows? Certainly not Fletcher, who says the “suggestions of a move to Celtic never go away” when he is interviewed by fellow Scots. Of course, we couldn’t disappoint him when chewing the fat at Scotland’s training camp in Malta last week.
“It’s flattering for me to be linked with Celtic but it’s never happened,” he said. “I honestly don’t know. I’d love to sit and tell you where I was going because it would be better for me. I’ve not had much contact with anyone yet. I’ll sit down and think about it after this week and start picking up my phone when I go off on holiday. My wife will be worse than me for wondering where we’re going to be. I’m quite laid back, I’m used to moving around, but she isn’t.”
The appointment of Rodgers is “a great step forward” for Celtic, Fletcher believes. “The fans want Champions League football and to do well in it and with him it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. The one fresh element in the links with the forward and Celtic was the fact he was one of two Sunderland players said to be interesting Rodgers, fellow frontman Danny Graham being the other. “He’d be a great player for them. We’re good pals, and I enjoyed my time playing with him,” added Fletcher.
“We always used to say he could pin a double decker bus, he can pin anyone. The bigger the defender, the more he wants to go out of his way to pin him as well. He played for Brendan at Swansea and Watford so he knows what he’s about. He’s a great player, a big strong lad who can finish as well.”
That last contention is open to question, with Graham struggling for goals at Sunderland. He had a more profitable time when he went on loan to Blackburn Rovers in January, scoring seven goals in 18 games. “He had a hard time for goals at one point but strikers need to be playing regularly for their confidence and if you’re not high on confidence, it becomes hard, and starts playing on your mind. But I’ve watched him in training a lot and it won’t be a problem.”
After almost a decade in England – with Burnley, Wolves and Sunderland – it won’t be a problem to Fletcher where he has to go next to land the best possible option. He is a man who would preach vive le difference after his French experience.
“Maybe a few years ago I would have said ‘Nah, I want to stay in England’ when I had a four-year contract with Sunderland. But now that I have experienced it I would actually be up for it, I would never say no now. A few years ago I would maybe have been intimidated to go to another country but I enjoyed it and I was at a massive club. It was a privilege to play for them.
“There was obviously a bit going on there when I was there but I didn’t really understand most of it, which is probably a good thing. There were banners around the park every few minutes and I wouldn’t know what they were saying. I’ve seen it at other clubs, just not as extreme as that. For how big a club they were and all the things they’d won, to then be in the position they were in when I got there, was a surprise. But I think they’ll turn it around next season.”
The all-hours dedication to self improvement he witnessed at Marseille, and the desire to play the game with both mind and body, Fletcher believes he will take into the next phase of his career.
“The game was more tactical but I learned a lot from it,” he said. “The day to day culture wasn’t that different but one of the main things that was different was that the training ground was open 24 hours a day and people were going in at all hours to do stuff.
“We all had our own bedrooms in the training ground, which I’d never seen at any club I’ve been at before. So some boys would finish training, go for a sleep, then wake back up at five or six and go and do some more work. There was always someone there and it was a great set-up.
“I learned because of things I’ve never done before as a player. I became a better player because my awareness of where I was on the pitch grew, rather than just being that No.9 that plays with his back to goal, I got to play different positions. I played most of my time in the No.10 role, I think I only played two or three games up front actually. And I enjoyed it because it gave you space to play. It added to my game and now that I’m out of contract all that experience is good for another line to put on your CV.