Easter Road call-up spared Fletcher a soldier's life

HE HAS the footballer's watch, the convertible Mercedes and the ready patter. On the face of it, Steven Fletcher is a prototype of his peer group. But his fellows don't have a fraction of the life experience that brought him on a long, winding and tragic road to the same destination.

Had it not been for John Park, Hibs' youth coach, spotting the potential in a left-footed 13-year-old at the turn of the century, Fletcher might today have been fighting off insurgents in Basra rather than preparing for a more trivial form of combat, a league meeting with Celtic.

There is nothing speculative about the proposal that had Fletcher not become a footballer, he would have been a soldier. The enlistment of his father, uncle and cousins - one of whom recently returned from Iraq - to Her Majesty's Armed Forces has created a family tradition, and had Steven not shown remarkable aptitude with a ball at his feet, he would have gone down the same path without complaint. At 15, he even spent a week in a training corps.

Born in Shrewsbury, Fletcher had a nomadic childhood, constantly relocated around English and German military bases with his Liverpudlian father, Sgt Kenny Fletcher, who served in the first Gulf War and on two tours of duty in Belize. The player's origin brings to mind that of another Hibee, Alex Cropley, who was born on the military base of Aldershot and nicknamed 'Sodjer'.

Tragedy, however, waved its cruel wand at Fletcher at the age of 10, when his father died of cancer. The family moved to Scotland to be near his mother's kin, but after a couple of years Mrs Fletcher, who had met her husband in the Forces, opted for the familiarity of the south. Steven, having discovered for the first time that home life could be something other than transient, took charge of his future and chose to stay on with his cousins in Hamilton.

Football offered a boy who had not embraced education the direction he craved. At 13, Fletcher was adopted by Park at Easter Road and placed on a fast track to a first-team career, his tale thereafter no different to that of Scott Brown or Kevin Thomson.

Relaying the nuts and bolts of his upbringing to The Scotsman this week, the tall, mature 19-year-old seems to have grown at ease with the darkness that befell him so young, having now, clearly, found his calling.

"When he was bringing me up, my Dad was into football and was always pestering me about it," he recalled of a time that featured pilgrimages to Anfield, one of which saw Steven emerge from the tunnel as a mascot.

"When I was 15, still at school, it was either football or - if I didn't make it in football - I was going to join the army. I went along for a week's work experience. It was all different activities and team-building, that sort of thing. If I had never made it into football it would have been something to fall back on, because I was never really good at school.

"All my family knew I wanted to be a football player and they just said to me: 'Stick in at it, and if you keep going the way you are going, you'll make it'. And if I didn't, there was a good alternative.

"When I was young we moved every two years, or sometimes after six months. We were in Germany twice, and then all over England.

"When my Dad died, we moved up to be near my Mam's brother. But Mam didn't like Scotland, so she moved back to England where she had always been. I wanted to stay, so I moved in with my uncle in Hamilton.

"It was my uncle who used to take me up to Hibs training and help me keep up the football. John Park is from Hamilton as well, and he saw me playing for the boys' club and asked to come in for a trial. He has been like my coach all the way through the ranks, always looking out for me as a Hamilton boy."

Now the youngster is in the process of impressing a new mentor, having started twice and come off the bench twice in John Collins' four-match reign, and returning the favour with two goals. Fletcher's growth as a man has been undoubtedly made easier by the fact he is among so many colleagues of a similar age in a team that plays with a youthful and liberated swagger.

"When you are playing well you haven't got a care in the world," he observed. "So when you come into the first team and everybody is dead young it's no different to just playing football with your pals when you were growing up.

"We are all about the same age and we are all friends. So you find yourself just passing the ball like it's a kick-about with your pals."

Fletcher senses the same vibe when summoned for international duty. He was the spearhead of the Scotland under-19 side that reached a European Championship final last summer, when a harsh caution in the semi-final left him suspended and forced to watch the 2-1 loss to Spain from the Poznan stand.

"I got booked in the semi-final for diving. I don't know why because I never dived," he insisted. "The boy took my legs away and I stumbled because I couldn't keep my feet - I couldn't do anything else.

"I just wanted to come home after that; I was gutted. But obviously I stayed to watch the boys in the final, and they were unlucky. We've got the World Cup to look forward to next summer, and we've got a good enough team to do well."

In the meantime, Fletcher will try to convince Collins he is worth a prolonged stint as Hibs' leading man. The manager has assigned him extra gym work every day, in an effort to change the fact he is, in the player's own words, "built like a pencil". A bit of sweat and graft shouldn't trouble a young man who almost signed up for a lifetime of it.