Saturday interview: The man behind changing the face of football

WHEN first opened 20 years ago this month, Huddersfield’s new sporting citadel quickly became a symbol of hope for football after the wreckage of Hillsborough and Bradford.

PROUD ACHIEVEMENT: Paul Fletcher was in charge of building the new McAlpine Stadium 20 years ago. He now works as a consultant at the University College of Football Business at Burnley FC, above. Picture: Tony Johnson
PROUD ACHIEVEMENT: Paul Fletcher was in charge of building the new McAlpine Stadium 20 years ago. He now works as a consultant at the University College of Football Business at Burnley FC, above. Picture: Tony Johnson

It also, according to one of the key figures behind the development of the award-winning £29.5m stadium, helped safeguard the future of both the town’s football and rugby league clubs.

“I’m in no doubt about that,” insists Paul Fletcher, the former Burnley striker who led the team that built what is today called the John Smith’s Stadium, when speaking ahead of the 20th anniversary of the stadium’s official opening on August 20.

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“It was always the intention, too. In fact, it was a phrase used by John Harman, then leader of Kirklees Council, at the very start. He told me, ‘The good thing is that we can save two teams with one stadium’. And he was right. It was typical of the good, old-fashioned Yorkshire common sense that John brought to the project.”

To understand just what impact the McAlpine made not only in Huddersfield but further afield, a quick recap of history is perhaps in order. The Hillsborough disaster – coming a little under four years after the horrors of the Bradford fire – meant football had to change.

Terracing was, thanks to Lord Justice Taylor’s subsequent report into the 1989 disaster that claimed 96 lives, soon on its way out, as famous old names such as the Holte End, the Stretford End and Molineux’s South Bank crumbled to dust.

In their place, new stands sprang up all over the country – 19 alone in the Football League during the first five years after Hillsborough – but it was here in Yorkshire where perhaps the most ambitious project got under way with Fletcher at the helm.

“I wanted nothing to do with the stadium at first,” recalls the 63-year-old, who first joined Town as commercial manager after calling time on a playing career that had been spent exclusively in his native Lancashire.

“The proposal had been on the table for some time when I joined but had not really gone anywhere. Directors back then wanted to discuss new signings but when it got round to ground improvements, no-one really had much to say.

“It was only when Graham Leslie came in (as chairman) that things changed. Graham asked me to build the new stadium and, after thinking about it, I agreed but with a couple of conditions.

“These included me moving out of the football club into an office elsewhere and George Binns, the club secretary at the time and someone with blue and white blood running through him, would sit at the next desk to me.

“After getting agreement, I then threw another condition in. If George and I agreed on anything, that was that. We didn’t have to then get approval from the board.”

Soon, Fletcher and Binns were working out of an office in the old club shop next to Town’s then home at Leeds Road. Progress followed swiftly, thanks in part to how firmly Kirklees Council backed the project after being shown the potential on a fact-finding trip.

“We took the Council to Toronto Skydome,” laughs Fletcher. “The only new stadiums in England back then were Scunthorpe and Walsall so, instead, we chose the newest and most expensive stadium in the world instead.”

Such grandiose thinking would pay dividends for both the Terriers and Huddersfield RLFC, who during the summer of 1992 had moved into Leeds Road after calling time on the crumbling Fartown after 114 years. Eighteen days after the rugby club’s switch across town, planning permission was granted for a 25,000-capacity all-seater stadium.

“The most important thing when building a new stadium is money,” recalls Fletcher, who would go on to lead the teams building the Reebok Stadium in Bolton and Coventry’s Ricoh Stadium. “After that, everything else falls into place – especially when the team is as good as it was at Huddersfield.

“The McAlpine was built in such a way that we could build – and pay – for one stand at a time. The initial plan was to build the two sides first.

“Leeds Road, as a site, was worth around £4.5m but the overall cost of a four-sided stadium was going to be £29.5m. So, we took a leap of faith and got the project under way.

“The thinking between myself and George was, ‘If we can’t find the money for the entire project, someone will in the future’. In the end, we raised £25m – with the Council helping a lot with getting grants and so on.”

Kirklees Council also contributed around £4m to the overall cost, while the Rugby Football League provided an additional £1.5m to secure use of the stadium for semi-finals and internationals.

Sufficient finance found to erect three sides of the stadium, work soon got under way and, before long, the steelwork could be clearly seen from the terraces of Leeds Road.

By the first few months of 1994, what would become the main stand and the Kilner Bank were all but completed with the third side, which today houses the away fans at Town matches, not far behind. Not that everything went to plan.

“No stadium goes swimmingly, though they did get easier the more I was involved in them,” said Fletcher. “The big thing I remember about Huddersfield was that the stadium was built on land that was full of chemicals and all sorts of other stuff.

“It delayed the project and cost us about £1.5m to clear the site.”

The teething troubles continued even once the stadium had been completed. Fletcher added: “Due to not having the money, one end was left flat. That meant we had to fill it with something and my first idea was to buy Arsenal’s mural off them, the one that had been in front of the North Bank as it got rebuilt.

“Unfortunately, they had thrown it away. So, smart arse that I am, I came up with the idea of putting eight cricket sightscreens at one end and attaching them together.

“Come the first game, I was really pleased with myself. Until, that is, one of the players came up to me in the warm-up and said, ‘None of us can see the posts!’

“I went cold. They were totally camouflaged. We ended up getting beat and I got the blame. By the time of the next home game, though, I’d had the middle sightscreens painted navy blue and, funnily enough, we won with the goal being scored at that end.

“The concerts we used to stage could be interesting, too. The Eagles were difficult to deal with. Basically, all the members of the band hated each other so we were told we had to get them five different hotels, five different limos, five different changing rooms that were all the same. But they were worth it as a band.”

Fletcher stayed at Huddersfield for a couple of years after the stadium had been built before moving back to his home-town club Bolton. “I can’t believe it is 20 years ago since the stadium opened,” he added. “It seems almost like yesterday. It was a real happy time, too, and there was a great sense of satisfaction that we’d done a good job.”