Football's man of the future: The stadiums Paul Fletcher has helped to build

Paul Fletcher has brought blue-skies thinking to the Sky Blues' theatre of dreams

Phil Shaw
Saturday 20 August 2005 00:00

Kitted out in a pinstriped suit and hard hat, Paul Fletcher could be from the Stock Exchange or the Village People as he moves neatly among the rubble and lorries and cables. Back in the days when his old club chairman decreed that footballers were not fit to run a fish-and-chip shop, he cut a similar swathe through England's meanest defences.

On a site where the landscape was once blighted by a contaminated gasworks, Fletcher is supervising the final touches to something sky-blue and beautiful. The Ricoh Arena, which cost £113m and took 540,000 man hours to build, opens today when Coventry City receive Queen's Park Rangers. The former Burnley centre-forward, who is chief executive of a complex in which the stadium is only one element, admits to "excitement and anxiety" as the clock counts down to kick-off.

The chips are down, but Fletcher, 54, is a living refutation of the late Bob Lord's infamous jibe. Coventry's new home will be the third venue he has brought to fruition, following the McAlpine (now Galpharm) Stadium at Huddersfield and the Reebok Stadium in his home town of Bolton.

He also advised Birmingham on the city's bid for the national stadium and worked on the new Wembley, making him one of the key figures in football's fast-evolving architecture since the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and the Taylor Report it spawned.

Yet his career in the game might have been stillborn. When he was 17, Bolton Wanderers agreed to sell him to Everton until a heart problem was diagnosed. Bolton, he recalls, "kept it quiet", but he did not play for a year. He was then told "it was nothing, get on with it" and in 1971, just turned 20, he commanded Burnley's then record fee of £66,000.

Fletcher's finesse and finishing lit up Turf Moor for nearly a decade. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former spin doctor and a Burnley diehard, cites him as his favourite player. He is widely credited with scoring the best goal in their history, an overhead kick away to a Leeds United side who were champions-in-waiting. Don Revie later called him into the England squad for the injured Bob Latchford, but he was on a club tour, could not get back in time and was never asked again.

The seeds of his interest in creating sporting citadels were sown at Burnley - by Bob Lord. "I don't agree with his chip-shop comment because football contains a cross-section of intelligence, just as it gives you a broad range of ability," Fletcher says. "But I remember his building a new stand, which Ted Heath opened. In this village - well, town of 80,000 - his philosophy was, 'Put in quality facilities and you'll draw a crowd'. It's the Field of Dreams idea, build it, and they will come. Look after your public and they'll return."

He also learnt from the manager who took him to Burnley, Jimmy Adamson. "I've never been an academic, but he taught me to be a great team player. I know how to get a team together."

Sounds a natural for football management. "That was the one thing I didn't fancy. It's too nomadic. I married my childhood sweetheart; I've lived in the same house for 33 years; my kids grew up there. Also, to be honest, I hadn't a clue how to set up a side. We could come in 3-0 down at half-time, Jimmy would change things round and we'd win 4-3. I never understood what he'd done!"

The game's commercial aspect intrigued him, however, and he began working for the ambitious but short-lived Colne Dynamoes. "I found it harder to sell a £50 perimeter board to a local butcher than to sell a £5m sponsorship to Reebok. He used to ring me, saying: 'I've noticed some mud on my board.' I learnt that when people invest in football, they really care about the money they've put in. Now, I try to over-deliver to sponsors. If you've promised them 10 seats, give them 12."

Fletcher had already had "a real wake-up call" about stadium safety and design before Lord Taylor's blueprint for change. The Bradford fire of 1985 made him remember, with horror, how he and his fellow Bolton apprentices swept the litter under the wooden floorboards in the stands. "It could have been Burnden Park that went up in flames, or Ewood, or Deepdale, but it was Valley Parade. My family had sat in that stand. I also played at Hillsborough when it was packed on semi-final day, not unlike it was when they had the terrible tragedy."

But after graduating to the post of chief executive at Huddersfield Town, when they were still at Leeds Road, he noticed that whenever ground improvements were on the agenda, "the board didn't want to discuss it - all they wanted to talk about was buying players".

A change of chairman saw him put in charge of the McAlpine project. "I was reluctant to do it at first, yet within four years we'd won the Building of the Year award. We did it right by not making it just for football. It staged rugby league on Sundays, but for the other 320 days a year, it was for the community. We co-operated closely with Kirklees council; there was a swimming pool, health studios and offices.

"The unexpected thing that happened was the way it regenerated the part of town where the stadium was. So when the Bolton council people came to look at Huddersfield, they realised that by moving the Wanderers out of Burnden, they could put new life and jobs into the Horwich area.

"The reason Coventry council are heavily involved in this scheme is not, with great respect, to save Coventry City. It's to regenerate part of the city by creating jobs and bringing people, and revenue, into the area. The stadium has 32,000 seats, superb sightlines and no stanchions, a flat roof to keep the atmosphere in, state-of-the-art facilities for disabled fans and big translucent panels to let light into the pitch and concourses.

"But that's just the start. There's also a casino, gymnasium, hotels, conference centre, banqueting facilities and exhibition hall, which will be launched by a Bryan Adams show next month."

Fletcher took over the project after deciding the commercial director's role under Ken Bates' stewardship at Wembley took him too far from his family and "sunny Lancashire". While loath to criticise Wembley, he calls it "a very expensive building" and wonders whether the Government and Football Association have "taken a tiger by the tail".

A Jaguar, rather than a tiger, caused his worst crisis at Coventry. The car-maker withdrew as naming sponsors, but Ricoh, the Japanese camera manufacturer, stepped in and will pay £10m over the next decade.

"The great thing about this building is that it makes money," Fletcher enthuses. "When a club goes alone and borrows £40m from the bank, they can be repaying it for 30 years. Coventry will pay rent to play here and we hope that will give them the opportunity to return to the Premiership.

"Over time, clubs relocating tend to expand their fan base and build momentum. If the Sky Blues do go back up, they don't have to keep patching up the old ground. Everything is ready for them."

"I love bringing stadiums to fruition," says Fletcher, who is committed to the Arena for at least a further year. "The challenge is like a Grand National. Fences keep being put up and you keep jumping them. This will be here long after I've gone, so you're taking part in history."

Talking of history, is he ever nostalgic for the old concrete terraces and timber grandstands? "Absolutely," replies the self-confessed " Beatles nut" and ukelele player. "One sad thing about most new stadiums is you can't call at a corner shop and get a pasty before walking down a cobbled street to the match. I did that with my dad and granddad from the age of eight. But it's the price you pay for safety and comfort."

Ricoh Stadium, Coventry

Opened Today, Coventry City v Queen's Park Rangers.

Capacity 32,000.

Cost £113m.

Site size 72 acres.

Naming rights The IT company Ricoh secured the international naming rights (indefinitely) for £10m.

Construction length 20 months.

Galpharm Stadium, Huddersfield

Opened 20 August 1994, Huddersfield v Wycombe.

Capacity 24,500.

Cost £40m.

Site size 51 acres.

Naming rights Alfred McAlpine built the stadium before securing the naming rights for the 10 years until 2004. Galpharm have recently paid between £1m and £2m for them.

Construction length 24 months.

Reebok Stadium, Bolton

Opened 1 September 1997, Bolton v Everton.

Capacity 28,000.

Cost £45m.

Site size 200 acres.

Naming rights Reebok paid £2m over 10 years for them.

Construction length 15 months

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