Paul Fletcher talks about the birth of the John Smith's Stadium
The mission was simple: Paul Fletcher was challenged to build a stadium everyone connected with Huddersfield Town could be proud of.
Today, 20 years after the John Smith’s Stadium staged its first Football League game, it is fair to assume everyone will agree it has been a case of mission: accomplished.
It was Fletcher who went from leading the Burnley attack to spearheading plans for a new stadium to replace the old Leeds Road ground that had been called home for the Terriers since 1908.
“There was hardly a dry eye in the house when Town played that last game at Leeds Road against Blackpool,” Fletcher told Rob Stewart for the Bournemouth edition of GUAH.
“But I think we put smiles back on people’s faces when the new stadium opened for business.
“Even though the Leeds Road ground carried a lot of fond memories for many people you can’t stand in the way of progress and for Town that meant building a new home.
“It was the end of an era as far as Town was concerned and the Club needed a new ground because as well as everything else the old place was heading towards being unsafe and the capacity had been reduced, reduced and reduced.
“I know a lot of people were very upset by it but I think they were wise enough to see we could build something we could all be proud of. Everyone wanted the team to climb up the divisions but you need your stadium before you can move anywhere.”
Fletcher had his own memories of Leeds Road having served Burnley with distinction as a player
That was all before he embarked on a journey that would see him mastermind the building of the new Wembley and would also earn him a visit to Buckingham Palace.
“It was down to serendipity that I ended up at Huddersfield Town, initially as the Club’s Commercial Manager,” the 63 year-old added.
“It came about because my big mate Steve Kindon, who I used to play tennis with, used to be the Commercial Manager and he recommended me for the job when Keith Hanvey moved on.
“I was with Colne Dynamoes at the time doing a similar role and, funnily enough, I took the job on condition I had nothing to do with the new stadium.
“That was because I’d seen Keith Hanvey, who’d had the job before me told me he’d split his job between the commercial side of things and the new stadium and ended up doing a 50 per cent job of each.”
Fletcher had been learning the ropes at non-league Colne who were on the up-and-up during Fletcher’s time at the club.
“When I’d stopped playing I didn’t fancy going into management or coaching because the lifespan for the average manager was so short,” Fletcher said.
“If you are an assistant manager you’re waiting for your best mate to lose his job so you can have a go at the job yourself and if you lose a job the statistics show it’s very tough to get back into management.
“So with that in mind I decided I had to go right to the bottom of the ladder of the business side of football, and I started off selling perimeter advertising boards, sorting out sportsman’s dinners and arranging penalty prizes at half-time.
“I wanted to work my way up and I learned how commercial works, how to cut deals and how to deal with people. It stood me in good stead when the job of Commercial Manager came up at Huddersfield.”
But the then Club Chairman Graham Leslie took the helm at Leeds Road and told Fletcher his job was to build the Club a new stadium.
So, after just a year as Town’s Commercial Manager, he was appointed Chief Executive of new stadium company KSDL joint venture company between the council, football club and rugby league club.
“It came right out of the blue,” Fletcher said. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse so I got cracking on the new challenge.
“My main condition for taking the job was that (Club Secretary) George Binns would be my right-hand man because he had blue and white running through his veins and that if we agreed on things the board had to back us.
“George was a grumpy old sod but he became a great friend and still is to this day. He was the commandant and I was the new get-up-and-go and make-things-happen kid. It was a good combination.”
They were venturing into uncharted territory because with the exception of Walsall’s Bescot Stadium there were no other examples in England of new stadia to follow.
That is why the Toronto Skydome provided the inspiration for the new stadium team and a visit to Canada helped shaped the vision for the future for the football and rugby league clubs.
“Kirklees Council, who were led by John Harman, were an absolute pleasure to work with,” Fletcher said. “We wanted the new stadium to look iconic and John Harman had a lovely saying that we could save two teams with one stadium.
“It was important in terms of continued fan loyalty that the ground was near the old Town ground and we certainly provided a home that would allow both clubs to one day vie for places in the top flight of each sport and while that hasn’t happened yet with Town, they just need to look to Burnley to show it can be done.”
“We did pretty well starting off with the £4m we sold the old Leeds Road ground for and in the end the new stadium cost £29m so we didn’t do too badly.”
The Lobb Partnership – who would morph into Wembley architects Populous - was asked to design the new stadium with the Todmorden-based Burnley fan Derek Wilson the chief architect.
“As chief executive I was a sort of orchestra leader,” Fletcher said. “You don’t make all the decisions but you get everyone together and hopefully you end up playing the same song.”
“Me and George didn’t really know what we were doing but we got there in the end. George had this Yorkshire ‘we don’t spend money unless we have it in’t bank’ common sense and stubbornness. That was a good principle because t is easy to borrow millions and struggle to repay it.
“Our base was the old club shop on Leeds Road. Me and the Commercial Manager that I appointed (Kevin Collinge) put a couple of beds in the back room to stay overnight because we were working till 11pm and then we were back working at 7am.
“It wasn’t because we were being forced to work it was because it was great fun seeing everything together. It was fascinating.”
The new stadium was an instant hit as Neil Warnock’s team won promotion from the old Division Two via the Play-Offs and attendances soared.
While fans voted with their feet, the stadium was given a huge seal of approval when it was voted the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects building of the year award.
And Fletcher would eventually receive his own personal accolade when he was awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2007 for services to football and charity after being nominated for the honour by Binns.
“The stadium looked good I’m very proud of it and the fact we won the Building of the Year award in 1995 says it all,” Fletcher said.
“It was a well designed stadium but my only criticism is if we wanted to expand it with another 10,000 seats it would be really hard because of the finger posts in the corner that are an obstruction.
“That was the only flaw. But the bottom line is important. We didn’t blow the bank and it will be there for the next 100 years.”
Fletcher spent six years with Town (“It was time to move on.”) before becoming Chief Executive at Bolton where he masterminded the Reebok stadium; he then turned his attention to the new Wembley.
He later headed to Coventry where he was Chief Executive before assuming a similar position at Burnley who were promoted to the Premier League for the first time during his time at the helm.
Fletcher, who lives in the Rossendale Valley area of east Lancashire, remains a popular figure on the speaking circuit and this month he flew to Azerbaijan with Kindon to do an after-dinner talk.
At Burnley, he became Managing Director of the University and College of Football Business, which has since gone from strength to strength with bases now at Turf Moor and Wembley.
“The business of football is booming these days and thanks to my time at Huddersfield Town I would like to think I have a fair amount of experience to share,” Fletcher said.
“I certainly have a lot to thank the people of Huddersfield for because they gave me an amazing opportunity. It was an absolute pleasure working for those people.
“Seeing the team run out for the first match against Wycombe was a massive thrill but then when we had REM, who were the world’s biggest band, come to Huddersfield on a lovely summer’s evening, it really was extraordinary.
“To see the stadium rocking at 10pm with about 35,000 people and what that generated for the area was very rewarding. People say that was a magical evening and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, funnily enough, is the name of my autobiography. ”
This interview first appeared in the Bournemouth copy of 'Give Us An H' - get your Charlton copy around the ground for just £2 on Saturday!