The saying goes that you should never meet your heroes, well that can’t be said for when Alastair Campbell met Paul Fletcher to help create a fantastic book fittingly named ‘Saturday Bloody Saturday’.
It is fictional football novel based on the concept that this is your team facing the finest English clubs of the 1970s when Fletcher was at the peak of his powers. This was also at a time when Campbell was growing up in his teenage years carefully following the progress of a footballer he looked up to as a boyhood Burnley supporter.
Recently, we caught up with Fletcher and Campbell to find out more about their pursuits from humble beginnings, involvement in the footballing world, how they came to meet and the book itself.
Fletcher began his road to professional football as an outside right as it was in those days for Lancashire school boys. From there he was trialled and offered an apprenticeship at Bolton where he played for three years and was transformed into a striker during this time, before moving across the North West.
Fletcher really made his mark at Burnley where over a span of ten years played just shy of 400 games scoring over 100 goals in all competitions. When transferred to Burnley for a Club record fee of £66,000 it wasn’t the feeling of uncontrollable excitement that many may expect, rather a feeling of relief that bolstered his game as Fletcher says: “When I was transferred to Burnley for an awful lot of money it gave me a lot of confidence that I’d lost because I was being transferred to Everton for half the fee around two years earlier and I failed the medical with a heart condition. I was always very nervous about my availability to play football because of this heart condition and eventually, after two years the Burnley specialist just said you’ve got a heart murmur and it doesn’t mean anything just get on with your career. So, the fact they paid so much money for me gave me a new lease of life.”
During Fletcher’s time at Burnley, he scored an iconic goal, voted Burnley’s goal of the decade of that time, that will remain in the minds of many football fans for years to come. However, he does reveal that it may not have been the case if his manager at the time Jimmy Adamson hadn’t been so demanding that he was to play in this League fixture. Burnley faced table-toppers Leeds United ahead of an FA Cup semi-final the following week.
“On the Friday night, before the League game, I came down with a really heavy cold almost like flu and I rang the manager up and told him that I wouldn’t be fit for the Leeds game tomorrow. He quite bluntly said to me ‘Well, no problem, you don’t play tomorrow you’re definitely not playing next Saturday’ so he forced me onto the field when I was really feeling rough.
None of Burnley’s directors at the time travelled to the game due to the chairman of Burnley, Bob Lloyd, and Leeds’ equivalent Manny Cussins having a significant bust-up following a Jewish derogatory comment, as Fletcher recounts the day clearly.
“Just the team, on our own, travelled thinking we were going to get hammered and we beat Leeds 4-1. My first goal I just tapped it in from three or four yards and my second goal, the overhead kick, has really been a godsend to me because If no one remembers anything about my career, there was about 200,000 Burnley fans there. There must have been, as that is how many people have spoken to me about it who saw that, and still to this day bring it up.”
Within his time at the Clarets, Fletcher had made four appearances for England U23’s and even warranted a call-up to the senior England squad, but contrary to reports, he was unable to return from a tour of the Caribbean with Burnley to make it back for the game in time. He then suffered an injury that had a detrimental effect on his career. He was then transferred to Blackpool, however, after just a year his ankle injury unfortunately, put an end to a 16-year career.
It was after his playing career when Fletcher formally met the co-publisher Campbell, who has had an illustrious career as a Journalist, Broadcaster and a Political aide, renowned for his work as former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman, press secretary and director of communications and strategies.
From a footballing sense, he is widely regarded one of the most eminent Burnley fans and even has a claim to fame of playing with Diego Maradona and being managed by Pele, two of the greatest to grace the game. Albeit in the first Soccer Aid and following Gordon Banks’ statue unveiling respectively, but nonetheless, still notable achievements as Campbell says: “That gets under Paul’s nose as not many people can say that”.
He has since gone on to be the author of 13 books and has also played his part in the creation of ‘Saturday Bloody Saturday’ to make that 14. Campbell has held Fletcher in high esteem ever since they first met as he states: “I first met him as a kid getting his autograph. As a Burnley fan, when I was a kid you watch the players, you don’t know them obviously, but you see them and read about them. He just struck me as a very lively, quirky footballer”.
Little did Campbell know at the time he would go on to help create a book which promptly acquired the title of a ‘Sunday Times best-seller’ with someone he looked up to as a child as he describes how they met formally: “When I first met him properly was when he came back to Burnley as Chief Executive. I have always been a massive Burnley fan and by then I was quite well-known as a Burnley fan, he wanted to meet up, so we met up and had a chat. We got on straight away and now we have become very good friends.”
Fletcher also recounts the moment they met, as he notes how Campbell is different to celebrities with a soft spot for their football club. “I was obviously aware of Alastair Campbell. He used to come in the boardroom and he seemed an alright guy. I have to say I am not impressed often with celebrities, they seem a bit full of themselves. But, Alastair was much the opposite. He was a very down to Earth, Yorkshire guy, loved the club, would talk to anybody, had strong opinions, and I got to know him just as a friend.”
When creating the book, Fletcher needed a helping hand to get him through the process and Campbell was the perfect man. “When I put the idea of this book together, I thought it was a good story, but it needed some kudos. It needed somebody to put it out there in the marketplace and I thought who better person to ask for two reasons; one, because he was a publisher- he had done 13 books (prior to this), and two, he knew how to get a book out into the marketplace”.
Fletcher adds: “I was also very nervous about writing about the IRA because of all the trouble they had caused in the 1970s and they are still around to this day. I didn’t want to get my information incorrectly published so I asked Alastair would he look at all the politics and in particular look at the IRA and was it like that in the 70’s. He had a friend called Martin McGuinness who was one of the IRA antagonists in those days, not liked by a lot of people, a very controversial guy, but he overlooked the book and he approved what he saw.”
Campbell liked the storyline was attracted by the key components that every book requires, but this one stood out to him. “He basically asked me to read what he had done, and I read it and I think Paul will be the first to admit, he doesn’t know how to write a novel but within it, there was a fantastic story with some fantastic characters.”
Despite the praise from Campbell, Fletcher recounts finding some trouble with the publishers to give him the go ahead and how he overcame this. “You have got to find a solution to things. So here is me with a book in my head and I have no idea how to get it published, so I sit back and think how will I get this book onto the marketplace and the way I found out was to do it through somebody who knows how he is doing it and here we are in 10th place on The Sunday Times book list (one week after release)”, Fletcher says. “Life is about being knocked back, and people telling you no. Three publishers looked at the book and said they didn’t like it and they never thought I would get it published, so you prove all those people wrong”.
This fictitious football team doesn’t have a name for a specific reason that has been chosen very wisely as Fletcher says: “If we had given this football club any type of a name, you just put off every other football fan in the country who support their club. You don’t want to read about other clubs, you only want to read about your club. So, this is your club, if your reading this book and you’re a Chelsea fan, a Manchester United fan or a Manchester City fan then it’s your club that is taking this journey. We didn’t want to give it a false name like Roy of the Rovers, it just sounds cheap. So, it’s a professional team but it does play against real teams so if you’re playing against Manchester United in the 70s you would be playing against Bobby Charlton, George Best, Paddy Crerand and the likes”
Fletcher has captured his playing days within the story through the character types as says: We have all these characters that I remember from my playing days, it would be different today, I’m not saying it would be better or worse it’s just different. Players now are from all around the world and in the 70s they were only British- you had a couple from Ireland, a couple from Wales, two or three from Scotland and the rest were English and the banter that we had in the dressing room in those days was just immense. The fun that we had, these Premier League teams, they can’t possibly have the same fun that we had.”
“The characters that we had, nearly every dressing room had; someone who drank too much, someone who was God’s gift to women, someone else who was a gambler, someone we called the professor because they had one O-level, so all these characters we have tried to portray in the book.”
Within the story, a parallel narrative is occurring between two concepts, one being that of a struggling manager named Charlie Gordon who is an alcoholic, he promised a top-five finish, yet the side are slumped in the lower half of the table. He is given two games to turn it around, the first of which is lost 4-1 at home, and the second is a pivotal FA Cup match against Chelsea.
At the same time the side of travelling down to London for the latter fixture, the IRA are having a bombing campaign in the Capital targeting the minister of Northern Ireland who, coincidently, is staying in the same hotel as the football team, just the night thereafter. To find out the reasoning for this, Fletcher concludes by saying “You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out what happens”.
To purchase the book and read more visit Amazon here.