Steven Fletcher on losing his father aged ten, Craig Levein and 4-6-0, the infamous Sunderland Lamborghini, and being the only Hibs fan to get something good out of 5-1

On paper at least, the numbers for Steven Fletcher as a Scotland player look more than decent. During his ten years in dark blue he was one of our classiest and cleverest strikers. But there’s a sizeable hole in the record and it embarrasses him.

He was capped from Hibernian, Burnley, Sunderland, Olympique Marseilles and Sheffield Wednesday - but never once while hitting double figures in goals for Wolverhampton Wanderers two seasons running in England’s top flight which included his hottest-ever scoring streak.

The reason? Obstinance. Well, he reckoned he had sufficient cause. In 2010 for a crucial Euros qualifier against the Czech Republic, national coach Craig Levein opted for a strikerless formation to leave Fletcher seething in the stand.

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For more than two years, manager and player didn’t speak. Sadly, industrial disputes mediators ACAS were not summoned to knock heads together. Neither was Henry Kissenger while another practitioner of shuttle diplomacy, former US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, had died a few months before. The impasse cost Scotland and it cost Fletcher.

Steven Fletcher in pre-season action for new club Dundee United.Steven Fletcher in pre-season action for new club Dundee United.
Steven Fletcher in pre-season action for new club Dundee United.

Today, sat in a pitchside shelter after training with new club Dundee United he does not criticise Levein’s 4-6-0, the Prague-matic deployment which the latter will probably never stop having quoted back at him. Rather, our man regrets the time lost.

“The whole thing was unfortunate,” says Fletcher. “You say I should have played that night - well, I didn’t. And I didn’t play again for Scotland for too long a time. When folk ask me about my caps they can seem surprised at the figure of 33 and I just get annoyed. It should have been 50, a lot more. Yeah, that probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

“When I’d calmed down it could easily have been resolved. Probably, it was two stubborn men. I don’t know if Craig’s stubborn, that’s not for me to say, but I certainly know I am. That’s what made the dispute last so long. But do you know what, I’d love to have a chat with him about it. I don’t think I’m a bad guy and I’m sure he’s not either.”

Maybe the conversation could happen now he’s back playing in the SPFL. In a career of much wandering, not just at Wolves, and often record fees, Fletcher has turned out for some of the big dogs of management including Martin O’Neill, Sam Allardyce, Mick McCarthy and Dick Advocaat as well as a yappy, highly excitable one in Paolo Di Canio. Then there was the manager - John Collins - who incited a player revolt. But in St Andrews today, reflecting on two decades in the game, he’s not about to slag anyone off. “I’m 35 now with three kids to worry about. I don’t need to bother with silly football arguments anymore.” That’s good news for new United manager Jack Ross who in Fletch would seem to have made a shrewd capture.

Joy at scoring for Scotland against Poland in 2015.Joy at scoring for Scotland against Poland in 2015.
Joy at scoring for Scotland against Poland in 2015.

Stubborn, though. He’s always been that. Put another way, he’s always known his own mind. When just-relegated Burnley wanted him to help them come straight back up he was determined to remain among England’s elite. Before then, when schoolteachers - well-meaning ones, he stresses - cautioned against dreaming too hard about a life in football he ignored them. And before that when his mother, Mary, was preparing to move her kids from Scotland to England, Fletcher refused to go.

Aged ten he’d lost his father, Kenny, to cancer. “I was playing football outside the house when an auntie called me in to tell me. Dad was in a hospice - I didn’t know what that was or that he was never going to come out. It was a brain tumor. The next day I was back playing football, the way kids do.”

Fletcher was an army brat and, Shrewsbury-born, his father’s postings took him twice to Germany where his sister Bree was born. “The thing I remember most about Dad is watching him playing football for his regiment - he was a striker, too - and admiring his wee trophies. He’d play with me in the garden and Mum would hate that because we’d churn it up.

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“After he died we moved to Hamilton so Mum could be near her relatives but while I settled there, and lost my little Scouse accent within a fortnight, she couldn’t. I was 14 when I dug in my heels. I got on well with my cousins so it was agreed that Uncle Billy would look after me. Mum moved to Durham and she’s still there now. There was no fall-out between us, though I think after Dad passed away I was a bit of a handful. Nothing major, just daft laddie stuff. At school I got given so many punishment exercises that I thought I should learn how to fake her signature rather than have to show her any more of them. And I’ve got a lot to thank her for. If she hadn’t let me stay in Scotland maybe I’d never have become a footballer. When I played for Sunderland she cooked and cleaned for me, saying: ‘I’ve got my son back.’”

A somersault celebration after netting for Hibs against Aberdeen in 2008.A somersault celebration after netting for Hibs against Aberdeen in 2008.
A somersault celebration after netting for Hibs against Aberdeen in 2008.

Still, no father and his mother not there when he got home. “But I had great pals,” he stresses, “a really tight bunch. I haven’t made too many friends along the way so it’s still these guys. I remember asking them: ‘Should I go to Marseilles?’ ‘Course you should,’ they said. Just the other day, with the league about to start for United, I got a message: ‘Butterflies, aye?’ They know me so well.”

One of the gang was, and still is, fellow street-football graduate Jamie McCluskey. “The only grass was on a roundabout so we set up wee goals there, me fancying myself as a keeper and Jamie booting the ball from the road.” They joined Hibs together, aged 12, with Fletcher appearing to walk into Easter Road direct from comic-book fantasy.

“I’d had a sleepover at Jamie’s house and the next day we thought we’d just be kicking a ball about as usual when his dad said to Jamie: ‘You’ve got a trial down at [Hamilton’s] Palace Grounds.’ We’d both been training with Motherwell and I was chuffed for him so chummed him there. I was kicking a ball about the touchline with Jamie’s wee brother Stefan who now plays for Forfar. [Hibs starmaker] John Park asked Jamie’s dad how old I was. Then he said to me: ‘Do you fancy coming on?’ I scored a hat-trick and was signed on the spot.”

In Tony Mowbray’s exuberant young team - with Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor, Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Steven Whittaker et al playing sugar-rush football - McCluskey’s opportunities were limited but he’s still remembered for dribbling cameos from the subs’ bench. Fletcher was given more though still had to defer to the gallus strike duo.

“I learned a lot from Deek [Riordan] and Gaz [O’Connor]. That is, a lot of what a footballer shouldn’t do!” Fletcher smiles when I add Anthony Stokes, Leigh Griffiths and Jason Cummings to the gaggle of Hibs forwards who’ve starred in Leith then left and been underwhelming, finding life and goals difficult. Is he the sensible one? “Some would probably disagree with that. I made a few mistakes when I was younger but I learned from them. Some players find it difficult to leave what they know.” Fletcher, on the other hand, had already endured plenty of physical and emotional upheaval in childhood and knew he was going to have to stand on his own two feet. “When I joined Burnley I moved into a house in Manchester, just me and the dog rattling around, but it was fine.”

Now he’s laughing. Reminisces of Riordan and O’Connor will always prompt this. “Great guys, fantastic footballers, and Gaz wasn’t the least bit shy. One day, just as I was about to clean Smudger’s [Gary Smith’s] Puma Kings, he called me over: ‘Wee man, come and sit doon here.’ I was 16 and wondering what was coming. He said: ‘How good does it feel being this close to a million pound fitba player?’” And Fletcher revels in the memory of Riordan’s sorcery. “The top scorers in the Premier League when I was down there were the likes of Robin Van Persie, Carlos Tevez, Didier Drogba and Luis Suarez. Could they wobble the ball like Deek? I’m not so sure. Everyone tries to move it in the air these days but Deek for me was the first. We’re still in touch and he’s just sent me a ‘good luck’ message for United.”

Another he reckons was ahead of his time was Mowbray’s successor John Collins, under whom Fletcher was a two-goal hero of the 2007 League Cup triumph. Collins challenged his young charges and the training was intense with the superfit World Cup internationalist showing the way and, sometimes, showing the players up. “Maybe, after John had flaunted his six-pack for the 37th time, some of the guys got hacked off - but if I had abs like him I’d be doing it too.” As one of the youngest of the young bucks he stayed out of the revolt and adds: “John was trying to teach us good habits with the gym, diet, rehab and prehab and take us to the next level. All that stuff was strange at the time but as someone who’s trying to prolong his career as much as he can it makes sense now.”

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And, anyway, a manager confirming his muscle definition and the benefits of crunches over Crunchies doesn’t seem in the least bit weird next to the over-demonstrative behaviour of Paolo Di Canio who when managing Sunderland once expressed his disgust over a performance by spitting water straight up in the air and letting it land on his face. “Mental,” chuckles Fletcher. “When he’d come roaring right up to you, shirt ripped open, tattoos exposed, it could be too much. But generally I liked his passion.” Unfortunately, he got off on the wrong foot with the Italian who arrived on Wearside to find his £12 million frontman injured and on a club-sanctioned, pre-operation holiday in Dubai. “After that I think he just got fed up seeing me moping about on crutches and our relationship never really recovered.”

Di Canio had been preceded by Martin O’Neill who Fletcher loved for his man-management skills - “Every conversation we had he made me feel like the best striker who’d ever played for him and yet I knew that not to be the case” - and the same with Mick McCarthy, despite the latter’s combustibility. Fletcher has been pondering the coaching role recently although, glancing at his own heavily-inked arms, acknowledges that if he was ever to take it up he’d prompt almost as much consternation as the bold Paolo, even though he’d be unlikely to start gobbing at himself.

I wonder if Fletcher’s interested in politics. Mentioning Rishi Sunak’s difficulties in convincing as a Tory leadership candidate capable of empathy in a cost-of-living crisis while wearing a £3,500 suit and £500 loafers on a visit to a building site, the player knows what’s coming next: the Lamborghini incident.

When Sunderland were battling relegation from the Premier League Fletcher posing next to his supercar - cost £250,000 - was deemed not a good look. “I didn’t post the photo on social media,” he stresses. “The guy who sold me the car wanted a shot and I agreed. Next thing I’m getting pelters from some of the fans. The funny thing is, that was my second Lamborghini while I was at the club. The first, when we were doing okay, wasn’t a problem. I love the cars and used to have posters of them on my bedroom wall as a kid. But I came to hate the second one because of all the stick. In my drive I’d chuck the cover over it, though that came with a stupid, big Lamborghini badge. Pulling into the club car park there would sometimes be a supporter in a red and white scarf. He’d shake his head at me.”

Fletcher hopes, though, that for what he’s achieved on the park his father would be proud. Now husband to Rachel and a dad himself to Darcy, Brodie and Remy, he contemplated following in the old man’s footsteps, continuing an army tradition also involving his mum and various uncles, and still has the certificate from his teens for being “Cadet of the Week”. But it was one of his father’s final wishes that Fletcher would become a footballer. “I wished I could have made it to Liverpool, the club Dad supported, but I think he would reckon I’ve done okay. Every goal I score, when I look up to the sky, I’m remembering him.”

Best-ever strike? From his time at Hibs, he chooses a volley from the corner of the Celtic 18-yard box box at Parkhead - “I caught a ball from Boozy [Guillaume Beuzelin] on my chest and paintbrushed it.” Just 33 caps and one winners’ medal - he certainly should have achieved more, not least with the Hibees, having featured in the losing side in the Scottish Cup semis three seasons in a row.

Later, in 2012, he was in the crowd at the all-Edinburgh final, but not for long. “When Hearts’ fourth goal went in I couldn’t take any more. I was heading across the Hampden car park when I noticed this promotions girl. She smiled at me - out of pity, I thought. But I got hold of her number, we went for a coffee and the rest is history. I met my wife on the worst day for being a Hibs fan so maybe I was the only guy to get something good out of it!”



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