Freddie Fletcher: Persuasive administrator who revitalised Newcastle United football club

 

If Kevin Keegan was the public face of Newcastle United's revival in the 1990s, and Sir John Hall the man who bankrolled it, it was the club's former chief executive Freddie Fletcher whom one of Hall's closest allies, Freddy Shepherd, hailed as "the real driving force behind the Newcastle revolution".

Fletcher, who has died at the age of 71 after suffering from cancer, was only weeks into the job when he proposed asking Keegan, a Tyneside idol but a managerial novice, to give up his eight-year retirement on the golf courses of Marbella and succeed Ossie Ardiles in February 1992. Newcastle were bottom of the old Second Division and the new owners, Hall's Magpie Group, had inherited a parlous financial position.

The responsibility for sacking Ardiles fell to Fletcher. The Scot, who had cut his teeth in big-time football with Rangers during the 1980s, drove to Ardiles's home and, according to Geordie folklore, fired him with such charm that he was invited to stay for breakfast. Fletcher then set up a meeting in London to try to coax Keegan back to the North-east. The former England captain had told his family that Newcastle – where he had enjoyed two swansong seasons as a player – was the only club that could make him consider becoming a manager.

Fletcher's ability to think outside the box and his persuasive powers paid off. Keegan, having kept Newcastle out of the Third Division on the final day of 1991-92, initially retreated to the Costa del Sol complaining "it wasn't like it said in the brochure" because there was no transfer kitty to take the club forward. Fletcher, along with Sir John's son, Douglas Hall, flew to the Costa del Sol to dangle a three-year contract worth a then-handsome £120,000 and acceded to his demand for a written guarantee of a £2m war chest.

Newcastle swiftly won promotion and were twice runners-up in the Premier League in the mid-'90s. Fletcher's tenacious negotiating skills earned him the nickname of "The Rottweiler" (as Shepherd recalled, "he wouldn't give up on anything") and he secured a succession of high-profile targets for Keegan, among them Alan Shearer, David Ginola and Tino Asprilla. He cheerfully told the story, against himself, of how the Parma president shook hands and addressed him in Italian after Asprilla's transfer was finalised. Fletcher thanked him, only to be informed by the interpreter that the president called him "a little shit".

Fletcher also oversaw Newcastle's stock-market flotation in 1997 and the redevelopment of St James' Park into a 52,000-seat stadium. Yet football was only one facet of a richly diverse life; he called the sport "one of my two hobbies", the other being politics, although business formed a strong third strand.

Born in the shipbuilding town of Greenock, he never knew his father, who was killed in the Second World War, growing up in a house with his mother, her parents and seven assorted relations. For his fifth birthday he was given a season ticket to Morton, the local club, where he later took his first steps in football administration by joining the board in 1978. In between those pivotal moments, however, he emigrated to the United States in 1962, finding work in a publishing company in Massachusetts. Realising US citizenship would make him eligible for national service, he returned within a year.

Fletcher became involved in local politics, being elected in 1966 to serve on the first Liberal-controlled council in Scotland. He went on to hold the office of Provost of Inverclyde District Council from 1977 to 1981 and maintained an interest in Liberal Democrat Party affairs.

After working for an uncle's plumbing business, he was employed by Mars, Kraft Foods and United Biscuits before joining John Lawrence (Glasgow) Ltd, the construction company which owned Rangers for 25 years from 1963. Invited to become commercial director at Ibrox, he developed the lucrative corporate side of the club and was part of the executive team that sparked an era of trophy-strewn domestic dominance by bringing in Graeme Souness as player-manager and making big-money signings from English football.

Having also acted as treasurer of the Scottish League and sat on the international committee of the Scottish Football Association, Fletcher continued in his role at Rangers after David Murray took over in 1988 before leaving the following year. He had attracted Scottish & Newcastle Breweries to the club as sponsors and one of its directors recommended him to Sir John Hall. An eight-year sojourn as Newcastle's chief executive ended when he left in 2000 to become managing director of PTV (Ventures), later setting up his own company, Mercer Street Marketing and Consulting Ltd. In 2005 he was appointed a freeman of the City of London.

Fletcher, who relished reminding people he was "the Freddie who didn't get caught in the sting in Spain" (in which the News of the World snared Shepherd), was rushed to hospital with a collapsed lung in April. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer usually related to exposure to asbestos, which he believed he had been as a young man walking past the dockyards in Greenock.

Phil Shaw

Freddie Fletcher, football administrator, politician and businessman: born Greenock 1941 or 1942; married Margaret (two sons, one daughter); died 27 August 2012.

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