STEVEN Fletcher has praise for influence of former Old Firm rivals, hears Andrew Smith
HE MAY be periodically linked with a move to Celtic Park but it seems unlikely that Steven Fletcher will ever set up camp in Glasgow. Yet his career has been shaped by two colossal figures who have left a lasting imprint on the city’s footballing big tent.
Going into Scotland’s pivotal Euro 2016 qualifier in Dublin, the Sunderland striker is in better nick at club level than he has been for more than a year. That can be attributed to attack-minded former Rangers manager Dick Advocaat pitching up at the Stadium of Light two months ago for a top-flight salvage mission.
Meanwhile, Fletcher’s reinvigoration across the past two-and-a-half months – helped by netting Scotland’s first hat-trick since 1969 to end more than five years without an international strike – potentially spells trouble for a former Celtic manager who paid £12m to take him to Sunderland from Wolves in the summer of 2012.
Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland cannot afford to lose when they face Scotland at the weekend. Fletcher can remember O’Neill facing similar circumstances in the nine months they spent together at Sunderland. The relationship ended when O’Neill was dismissed as the prospect of relegation reared up. The Irishman’s lot might have been different had he not lost Fletcher to an ankle ligament injury sustained on Scotland duty approaching the run-in of the 2012-13 season.
The Scotland striker regrets he did not have longer under a manager he will this week seek to make life difficult for. “He was great for me,” Fletcher said. “I enjoyed working with him in the short time I did. He gave me self-confidence. He’s a really good man manager, as well as on the training pitch. He took you aside and spoke to you, filled you with confidence.
“When I picked up the injury with Scotland I remember him phoning me and saying ‘please tell me you haven’t…’ But I was out for six months and he got the sack before I came back. I was really disappointed with that because obviously he showed a lot of faith in me by paying so much money for me.”
In O’Neill and Advocaat, Fletcher has come under the tutelage of iron-willed coaches. Yet, it is the personable nature of both to which the 28-year-old has responded.
“Some managers you don’t really see apart from on the training pitch but he always went out of his way to speak to you. I’d heard from his time at Celtic he wasn’t really around the training ground much but at Sunderland he was there every day. Running us.”
In Advocaat, Sunderland now have a 67-year-old running their club who couldn’t bring himself to leave it. The Dutchman announced last week that he had decided to stay on, despite having said his farewells days earlier. When he was recruited to replace Gus Poyet, the brief was to save the club from the drop and then ride off into the sunset to enjoy his retirement. Advocaat’s tears on guaranteeing Sunderland top-flight status suggested that parting would be such sweet sorrow. So it has proved.
“You could tell he took a real shine to the lads by the way he got so emotional after the Arsenal draw [that made sure we stayed up]. We have a great group of lads there, especially in training, it’s a good atmosphere. He’s done brilliantly since he came in. He’s kind of similar to Martin in the way he takes you asides and speaks to you, which I like.”
As he does Advocaat’s progressive approach. “I got more chances in that Arsenal game than I’d had all season,” said Fletcher. “He likes to get forward a lot and that suits us with the players we’ve got. [He came at the right time] for me and the club. With the injuries I’d had, I was low on confidence, in and out the team, not really playing. Then he came in and started playing me – and I got another injury, which didn’t exactly help. But the last few games of the season he was telling me just to keep going and I’d get my chance.
“You don’t want to step out of line because he’ll be the first one to tell you to get back in line, but he’s a caring manager as well. He cares if you make mistakes, but he tells you if you’re going to make them, make them on the training pitch. If you have someone like that filling you with confidence, that’s great.”
Fletcher, meanwhile, is greatly amused by the Glasgow-phile nature of Advocaat and his assistant Bert van Lingen, following their three years with the Ibrox club.
“I used to drive up the road to Glasgow after games and he’d be driving up. Bert and Dick used to like coming up quite a lot. I’d drive past them and give them a little flash. Bert was driving with his nose up against the windscreen. They never have a bad word to say about Glasgow.”
The professional and personal are running true for Fletcher. Even when they overlap. The player should have been in Portugal for his wedding this week. However, his Scotland commitments mean the union has been put back until the end of this month. “I’ve not even seen the venue,” he said. “My missus has sorted it all out. She’s done it all. I’ll give her her due, she’s done well.”
It isn’t so long ago that the national team’s schedule would have made no difference to Fletcher’s summer’s plans. His self-imposed exile during the Craig Levein era seems a distant memory when he relates the whereabouts of the match ball with which he scored three in the 6-1 defeat of Gibraltar.
“The ball’s sitting in the dining room at the moment, it’s my centrepiece – the missus isn’t happy about it,” said the 29-times capped forward. “But it’s so my daughter can’t get hold of it because she runs about kicking it. It’s high enough up to stop her. All the boys had signed it but when she was running about kicking it in the lounge all the signatures ended up all over the carpet so I had to take it off her.” In his football life, once more Fletcher seems in a position to take the ball and run with it.