Paul Fletcher: the man who went from playing in big stadiums to building them

Paul Fletcher: the man who went from playing in big stadiums to building them

THERE HAVEN’T BEEN MANY FOOTBALLERS WHO’VE HAD THE CAREER of ex-Bolton, Burnley and Blackpool player Paul Fletcher. He went from dreaming of playing in big stadiums to overseeing the construction of them.

“I was 15 years old, and I saw a young boy, he was 14, probably five foot two inches tall. I saw him leap up above a six-foot player and head a ball and it was just magical,” says Fletcher. “I can see the vivid image now of this young kid just springing up there, and I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ Not for any other reason, I thought it was just wonderful that you can head the ball like that.”

Fletcher grew up on a council estate in Bolton playing both football and basketball. His sense of timing when jumping was honed playing the latter, which then translated to his success on the pitch. “I loved to compete with tall players, and I learned to spring and I learned my timing and that is how I managed to get into the game,” Fletcher continued. “Often I would look at the center-half of the opposition we were playing against and if he was big that would suit me down to the ground because I knew the moment I sprung up to head the ball, if I got my elbows out on his shoulders, if he started to jump he would just lift me with himself.”

He combined this timing with an incredible ability to head the ball, which he developed with a simple household exercise. “I found that if I hung a ball on the washing line and I headed it perfectly then it would go from one end of the washing line straight to the other,” he explained. “If I didn’t head it perfectly correctly, then it would just spin around the washing line. So every night I would come home from school and I would just hang the ball up and I would practice over and over and over again.”

This skill propelled Fletcher to a 16-year career. “Slowly I got into playing professionally and then somebody spotted me and I became a centre-forward, and that [heading] was my passport in football for 16 years.” He was best known for his decade-long tenure at Burnley, from 1971 to 1980, where he scored 71 goals in his 293 appearances for the Clarets. He also made four appearances for the England under-23 side.

Fletcher relished the physical play of the time, which led to him breaking his nose four times in his career. One notable instance came in an under-23 game against Belgium in 1974. “A broken nose is just seen as one of those things,” he said. “But unfortunately I was going on a cruise. This was the end of the season, I was going on the QE2 with the Burnley team and when I came off and the doctor said ‘You’ll have to get it straightened when you get home.’

“My nose was underneath my eye and it looked like a real mess, but the club doctor with the under-23s wasn’t prepared to try and straighten it for me. So I got one of my teammates to straighten it for me in the toilets. We went into the toilets and he gave me a bash on one side and he put it nearly straight, so it was straight enough. And once the doctor found out he went wild. I said, ‘Look I’m going on with my teammates, we are going to the Caribbean on the QE2 for three weeks.’”  

Eventually, eight years later, a leg injury ended his career. Fletcher was grateful for it and believes injuries at the end of careers are beneficial for players because “that gives [players] time off from the team when [they] recover. That enables him to think about what he’ll do when the time comes where he’ll hang his boots. Inactivity gives time for thought and planning, it’s almost a rehearsal for the real thing when it comes. It happened to me.”

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Following his retirement, Fletcher became a businessman. It came naturally to him; while he had been a player he had launched numerous businesses on the side – two printing companies, a home furnishing centre and a furniture removal business – although nothing that lasted long-term. “I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to start halfway up the ladder. Even though I had some notoriety in the area and people would recognise me and I had been an ex-player, I didn’t want to play on the back of that, so I thought I would start right at the bottom of the ladder and try to climb a bit,” said Fletcher. “And that is exactly what I did. Rather than going to football at a certain level, I went to football right at the bottom, non-league. We used to get 400 people, and I took the commercial manager job at a non-league football club.”

Starting at the bottom and learning from mistakes are invaluable steps he advises young professionals entering the field to take. “You learn at the basement level,” he said. “And I was trying to do sponsorship deals for, I don’t know, £4,000 or £5,000, which was a lot of money in non-league football. A few years later I’m doing naming rights deals for £10 million.”

After working at non-league Colne Dynamoes, Fletcher moved to Huddersfield Town. This was the first of many times he was tasked with building a stadium, and it turned into a monumental learning experience. “I think the figure [someone said] was £1.5 million, the price of the project was just raised by [that amount]. That was a serious figure – well it was in those days. I had all the professional team there in a team meeting, and I was having a real argument with the architect, and he suddenly said, ‘Listen, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re a naive client.’ I was like ‘What, sorry?’ He said, ‘You’re a naive client.’

“’What do you mean by a naive client?’ He replied, ‘Well, you have never built one of these buildings before have you?’ I said ‘No.’ And then he said, ‘Well, you’re a naive client.’ And then he sort of went quiet because he had let the cat out of the bag. I looked around the room and everyone was looking back at me and I said, ‘I was, I have never done one before.’

“He was exactly right, I didn’t know the cost of seating or how floodlights worked or pitches worked. When I drove home that night I thought he is absolutely right, I’m a naive client. I will have to find an extra £1.5 million because there will be some contract somewhere. These guys have been building these buildings before and I have not, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll never be a naive client again.”

From then on, Fletcher began a string of stadium projects, which coincided with the high demand of new stadiums in the UK in the 1990s. After building the McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield, which won the Building of the Year award in 1995, Fletcher transitioned to the position of CEO of Bolton Wanderers, his hometown club. There he was primarily responsible for securing the naming rights deal with Reebok – previously it had been called Middlebrook Stadium.

After his short stint at Bolton concluded, he seized the role of commercial director of the new Wembley Stadium in 1999. As the process dragged on – Wembley wouldn’t be completed until 2007 – Fletcher grew tiresome of the political games that came with doing business with such a large project in London. He therefore resigned and moved on to the CEO position at Coventry, who were in the process of trying to build a new stadium.

This stadium process served as a cautionary tale to other clubs around England on how not to build a stadium. The club did not have enough money to build the ground outright so it went into partnership with the local council. “So on the first day, I was asked – or summoned – to go see the local authorities. And the questions that they asked me that day were very, very deep,” said Fletcher. “I could sense that day, they didn’t have great affection for the football club. This was on day one.”

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It served as a valuable lesson to Fletcher that a club should always own their stadium. “You can’t have an involvement with the local authority who are looking after taxpayers’ money, so the message is, don’t go into a partnership with the local authorities,” he said. Eventually, the club found itself in financial difficulty, and so it had to sell its 50 percent share in the stadium to the Higgs Charitable Trust. As a result, Coventry ended up renting the stadium that was supposed to be theirs, losing out on valuable revenue streams that could have benefitted the club.

“I seemed to be in the middle of it all, between the football club and the local authorities. And the local authorities have won, they have won the battle. But what has it gotten them? Their name, Coventry, instead of being a Premier League club beamed around the world alongside Manchester United, Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool, the word Coventry is now associated with Rochdale and Scunthorpe,” says Fletcher.

Fletcher would move on to become the CEO of Burnley from 2008 to 2011, and then started his own company StadiArena, which claims to be able to convert football stadiums into concert and conference venues in eight minutes. To challenge himself, he then decided to write The Seven Go£den Secrets of a Successful Stadium.

One of the ‘secrets’ Fletcher strongly stresses is the need for stadiums to “sweat commercially”. By this, he means to be in use for commercial purposes seven days a week, not just on game days. “They [owners] are sometimes coated by architects who show them pretty pictures, and really all the thinking is about football on match days. When I see a stadium I want to know what it’s doing on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, what it’s doing through the night. Does it have hotel bedrooms, executive boxes? There’s lots and lots of detail. But unfortunately, it’s my view that architects and the professional team know they are dealing with naive clients. To me, the most important part of a stadium is inside not outside. I don’t really care what it looks like on the outside.”

Fletcher dreams of building “hamburger stadiums” in the future. “If you look at the hamburger, the bun at the bottom [under the pitch] would be retail, shops, lifting the pitch up [he says by seven metres]. The meat in the middle would be the football or the rugby that’s played there, and then I would love to see a university designed into a stadium and have students actually living in the building. Just imagine having 400-500 student bedrooms there, all overlooking the pitch, where students could live in that football building.”

This idea of a multifunctional stadium that is used year round by hundreds or thousands of people daily instead of stadiums solely used on match days is what excites Fletcher. “But they mustn’t just be football buildings, there’s a lot of other facilities you can put there that makes them a community building. And then on Saturdays, it’s a place to go and watch sports.”

Now Fletcher is spreading the knowledge he’s learned in 20-plus years of managing stadiums to the University & College of Football Business where he is managing director. Meanwhile, he is also consulting on stadiums from the United States to India.

It turns out that Fletcher’s playing career was just a prelude, a warm-up to the main act. But it all started with a Dale Carnegie course, where he was asked: “Where do life’s opportunities lie; inside of your comfort zone or outside of your comfort zone?” It’s a motto he lives by every day.

Even now at the age of 66, he is not done trying something new and challenging himself; next February, he is even publishing a novel with Alastair Campbell called Saturday, Bloody Saturday about when the IRA conducted a bombing campaign in London in 1974 and clubs had to play there. It has been an incredible journey from pitch to porter cabin for the affable Englishman 

By Josh Schneider-Weiler  

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