IT FELT LIKE it just wasn’t going to work out. Maybe not good enough. Maybe not lucky enough. But Curtis Fleming was capable; the perfect opportunity just hadn’t arrived yet.
After leaving school, the former Belvedere man felt the frustration building. A move across the water into professional football looked as distant as ever. The chance to make a career from the game, he believed, may have already passed him by.
“I felt I had enough of football; I just wanted to play with my mates,” Fleming tells The42.
“I had all these League of Ireland managers coming down to my house asking me to sign. I was turning them away.
“But then Brian Kerr came down and he said: ‘I want you to sign for Pat’s. Some people say you can’t make the step up from schoolboys to League of Ireland, but I am going to play you in the first 10 games of the season. If you don’t do well enough, then I may drop you, but I can’t see that happening.’
“I signed and then had a wonderful time with Pat’s. I probably didn’t appreciate it enough back then, but there was so much laughter.”
Under the guidance of Kerr, the Saints won their first title in 34 years in what was Fleming’s second season with the club, and he believes the manager was instrumental to the side’s success.
“The facilities we had to train in were terrible. We used to train on this astro pitch, but we had to go over it with the brushes and brush the glass off before we started.
“But Brian was probably ahead of his time. His scouting and his detail were brilliant. The club had no money, he just did it all himself.”
An opportunity to make a permanent switch to Second Division side Swindon Town after the title-winning season failed to materialise with Fleming soon returning home to Pat’s, but the full-back felt he came back to Dublin in the best shape of his life.
“Things like that have you thinking it is never going to happen, but the manager, Lou Macari, used to get us on this running track twice a week and I must have lost about two stone, so when I came back to Ireland I was absolutely flying, which looking back probably helped me in the future.”
Fleming, who was born in Manchester to an Irish mother and Jamaican father, moved to Dublin when he was only four months old, where he was brought up by his mother, Mil.
His mother, who acted in the Gaiety and Olympia Theatre, and also had a small role in the film ‘My Left Foot’, even had the footballer thrown into the role of an actor as he was growing up, to help her rehearse.
But not long after Fleming reached adulthood, his mother passed away, leaving him to care for his teenage siblings.
When a chance to move to Joe Royle’s Oldham then arose, wages proved to be a stumbling block and the move fell through, as the money the club offered wasn’t enough to provide for his family.
Fleming, who worked in various retail outlets in Dublin, calculated that he would have been earning less in England with Oldham than he would if he stayed in Ireland working in his day job, while also receiving a modest amount from Pat’s.
“At the time I was bringing my brother and sister up. I still had to pay the bills. I knew I would have to send money back for washing and shopping. I was only angling for more money to send home to keep a roof over the kids’ heads,” he explains.
Although Shamrock Rovers had also showed interest, it was the chance to join Middlesbrough in the Second Division, then English football’s second tier, that proved to be a turning point in Fleming’s career in 1991.
“When I got the call to go to Middlesbrough on trial, I had just played for Ireland in the Toulon tournament, so I already had used up my holidays from work.
“They asked if I could come over for a week, but I couldn’t – I had taken all of my days. I didn’t want to lose my job.
“I think they thought I was taking the mick. I asked if I could fly over and just play a match and they had no problem with that. Luckily enough I flew over and it went quite well and they decided to take me.”
Fleming ended up playing the vast majority of his career with Middlesbrough, but there is one period of his 10-year stay that sticks out more than the others as the club transformed.
Two heart-breaking cup final defeats plus a controversial relegation from the Premier League would make for a season that most teams would want to forget – but the Middlesbrough side from the 1996/97 season were no ordinary team.
The town of Middlesbrough for years had tried to remove the perception of the area as being a tired, declining industrial part of England’s North East.
But that side and its box-office signings aroused interest and made Middlesbrough, the football club at least, feel strangely modern and ahead of its time.
“It was like playing for two different clubs. When I first arrived we were playing at Ayresome Park, then Bryan Robson came in during my third season with the club,” Fleming recalls.
“The new stadium was being built, but we were in the Championship [then known as Division One] at the time and we knew we had to get promoted. Robbo was player-manager and we won the Championship in his first season in 1995.
“It was a fantastic day and a relief too because we knew we were playing Premier League football in a new stadium going from a crowd of 16,000 to over 30,000.”
An impressive new ground meant the stage was all set for Middlesbrough’s return to the top flight. To raise expectations even further, multi-millionaire chairman and lifelong fan of the club, Steve Gibson, decided add a sprinkle of stardust to the club.
Nick Barmby arrived from Spurs, while the vastly experienced Brazil international defender Branco also made the move to Boro, but it was the signing of the Brazilian Footballer of the Year, Juninho, that captured people’s attention.
A 12th-place finish allowed the club to consolidate and build again for the following season.
In the following summer, another highly rated Brazilian midfielder arrived in the form of Emerson from Porto, to add yet more flair to a team that also contained Irish internationals Alan Moore and Chris Morris.
But it was the signing of the Champions League winner and deadly Italian striker Fabrizio Ravanelli that felt like a game-changer.
In a period before unfashionable Premier League clubs could sign worldwide stars, this transfer was a statement of intent.
“We started bringing in these players and you’re saying to yourself: ‘Jesus Christ – this is Middlesbrough! This isn’t meant to happen,’” Fleming says.
“People were ringing me saying Ravanelli was coming and I’m thinking he just scored in the European Cup final for Juventus – how are we going to get him when every club in Europe would want him?
“It helped make the club a household name because I remember when I signed, some of my mates didn’t even know where Middlesbrough was.
“But it was a brilliant time – it was like a carnival every game – we had samba bands playing at the matches. Everybody was talking about us.”
Ravanelli, the silver-haired 27-year-old forward, was reportedly on wages of over £40,000 per week but instantly started to repay the £7 million that big-spending Boro paid for his services.
A hat-trick on the opening day of the season in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Liverpool was the first of his 16 league strikes that season, as his shirt-over-the-head celebration became a regular sight.
But in many ways, that match was a microcosm of Middlesbrough’s season – they could mix it with the best but their defensive vulnerabilities left the side exposed.
“We conceded a lot, but we were very attack-minded. Defending is not just about the back four and the goalkeeper. We were always worked and overworked because we had such an offensive team,” the former Ireland defender explains.
“Maybe we didn’t concentrate enough on the defence. But the Middlesbrough fans loved it because they knew in every game and every week they were coming they were going to get a show – not a boring 0-0.”
Meanwhile, Juninho’s outstanding performances throughout the season proved on many occasions to be worth the entrance fee alone on Teeside.
His superb dribbling ability left defenders across the league bewildered and helped the Brazilian maestro to cultivate a legendary status at the club, while his 12 league goals saw him named Premier League Player of the Season.
But heading into a hectic festive period, Middlesbrough were winless in 12 league games, and in a season which promised to leave fans optimistically looking upwards, they were fearfully looking down.
A pivotal pre-Christmas clash with relegation rivals Blackburn Rovers looked set to have a huge bearing at the bottom of table, and it did, but not for the reasons you may think.
Boro failed to fulfil the fixture as they had 23 players unavailable for the game due to illness, injury or suspension as a virus hit the club.
The club decided against taking a depleted squad to Ewood Park with the no-show resulting in a three-point deduction despite the club’s high-profile appeal. Ultimately, the ruling would prove decisive.
“If we had put an U18 team out we would have probably lost and been fined, but we wouldn’t have been deducted any points.
“The club felt the FA had treated the club very harshly, as did the fans. There was a real togetherness between the team and the fans then,” Fleming says.
Despite the problems in the league, the side flourished in the two domestic competitions.
A late extra-time goal from Leicester’s Emile Heskey denied Middlesbrough what would have been their first major piece of silverware in the 1997 League Cup final, with Martin O’Neill’s side coming out on top in the replay.
However, their league form could not be recovered enough to save the side from relegation on the last day of the season. The club was relegated back down to Division One by two points – the three-point deduction proving crucial.
“We were unlucky I thought. I would have loved to have stayed up that season, but we got to two cup finals and we had loads of games.
“Supposedly, we had another couple of big players to come in again and I do believe that team would have kicked on.”
Something could still have been salvaged from a bitterly disappointing season, with the FA Cup final against Chelsea the following weekend.
But a lightning-quick start from Ruud Gullit’s side put a severe dent in Middlesbrough’s aspirations, as Roberto Di Matteo scored what was then the fastest-ever FA Cup final goal after just 43 seconds, with rumours of discontent among the players prior to the game reportedly contributing to Middlesbrough’s poor start.
At the start of the following season, tension between Ravanelli and Fleming reached boiling point.
“He was very good at the start, a real good guy. A couple of times he went away on international duty and we heard a few stories come back from Italy that said he wasn’t happy at Middlesbrough, but we had just seen him leave the club smiling and laughing.
“Near the end of the season we were fighting for our lives, but he went back to Italy because he pulled his hamstring.
“I was named man of the match in a game against Blackburn and I was asked about him and I said I thought he should be here with us. A big thing was made of it in the papers.
“The following season when he came back, we had a punch-up just before the first game – it is the only punch-up I’ve ever had in my career.
“To be fair if I was picking a team tomorrow, he would definitely be in it. If I was going to have a dinner party, I probably wouldn’t invite him.”
Despite making 146 Premier League appearances in his career, opportunities at international level were limited, with Fleming making 10 senior Ireland appearances, but most of them came in friendlies.
Looking through the full-backs in that era, it is not surprising chances to impress were in short supply with competition for places intense within the Irish team, with players such as Stephen Carr, Gary Kelly, Steve Finnan, Denis Irwin, Ian Harte and Steve Staunton all vying for a place in the squad during Fleming’s career.
“At the time we were inundated with full-backs, we probably could have had a team of full-backs and it wasn’t like they were average players, they were all playing for the big teams in England.
“I was playing in the Premier League on a constant basis or at the top of the Championship – if you do that now, you are probably in contention to play for your country.
“Having said that when I was playing with Pat’s when I was 21 or Belvo when I was 18 or playing with my school Joey’s in Fairview, I never ever thought I would get one.
“I had calls to play for Jamaica – who went on to play in the 1998 World Cup – because my father was from there. I was asked to play but I wouldn’t.
“I was brought up Irish and I am mad about Ireland, so I wanted to wait. I knew if I just got one cap for Ireland I would be buzzing and luckily enough I got 10.
“And making my debut against Portugal was an amazing feeling. Standing there singing the national anthem with the shirt on – being one of the 11 Irishmen that can play – for me that was a dream.
“I gave up my wedding, it may have been a once in a lifetime chance, I had to take it. We were due to get married in Las Vegas but I got a call from Mick McCarthy, so we ended up getting married in the Middlesbrough Registry Office.”
Fleming, who ended his career with spells at Crystal Palace, Darlington and Shelbourne, was still playing non-league football at the age of 38 with Billingham Synthonia before going into coaching.
Now a first-team coach with Championship side QPR after leaving his position as assistant manager at Hartlepool United earlier this season, the 48-year-old has a wealth of coaching experience, having started at Middlesbrough’s Academy before stints at Livingston, Bolton, while also briefly working alongside R’s manager Ian Holloway at Crystal Palace.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to coach initially. I came to the professional game quite late; I didn’t go over to England until I was 22 or 23. For about 10 years I still thought I was going back to Ireland, whether I was good enough or not.
“I always had that drive in me that I felt I needed to work harder and harder. At that time, I wasn’t really thinking of anything else.
“But as you can imagine, it is never a dull moment working with Ian, every day is enjoyable.
“He brought me in because he wanted a bit more organisation with what he was doing. As you can see with Ian, I sometimes have to calm him down, but he has been brilliant to work with.”
Fleming’s focus is certainly with QPR for the foreseeable future but that is not to say becoming a manager is not on his radar further down the line.
“I think so, but there are only so many jobs at this level. You have to work really hard. I was at Crystal Palace for two-and-a-half years and the same at Bolton, and Hartlepool for a year, and now I’m at QPR for a few years hopefully – then we will see if something comes up.
“I am learning everyday – exactly like I did as a player – I am always trying to improve.
“I don’t think I’m brilliant or I know it all, but I honestly think something will come up and I will make a breakthrough. Like everybody else my big goal is to be involved with the national team, whether that may be with the U18s or U21s.”
Although black footballers are widespread in the game, the fact that there are still very few black managers at the top of English football is a concern for Fleming, with fellow Irishman Chris Hughton the only black manager in the top two divisions.
A supporter of the charity Show Racism the Red Card as well as a patron of Justice First, Fleming has become one of the leading voices on the issue in the UK, which even took him to the House of Commons.
“First and foremost, I think myself as a coach that happens to be black, but I don’t think of myself as a ‘black coach’. I love my football. I was a footballer – not a black footballer – I was just footballer that happened to be black.
“What we have to say to black men and women is get your qualifications. I know when I go into an interview, I have got my Pro Licence, I’ve played at a very good level, I’ve worked my way up and coached at a very good level. That may or may not get me the position but it’s increasing the chances of me getting the job.
“Some players have come out and said they want to be a coach and they want to do this and that, but it is like any job, you’ve got to do your apprenticeship. It’s very hard to just walk into a job.
“There are lads out there for years doing their stuff. I was in Middlesbrough’s academy for five or six years before I got a chance.
“I went to Ajax years ago on my Pro Licence with the FAI and their U12s coach was Denis Bergkamp, and Patrick Kluivert was also there coaching kids. They were putting their foot on the ladder doing their groundwork.
“They are saying there should be different ethnicities and genders interviewed for jobs now. I think it is something that has to come because I do think sometimes people judge a book by its cover.”
Although the Dubliner experienced racism while playing in the League of Ireland – he doesn’t believe that it was as bad as other black players experienced in England at the time.
“There was racism there – no doubt about it. It did shock me and did surprise me when I was younger, but I think at the time people thought it was acceptable.
“I played in a couple of games where I got some monkey chants with people saying ‘Go back to the jungle’ and ‘Go back to where you’re from’ and I was thinking: ‘Where? Ballybough? It’s not far from here.’
“At the conferences I go to I am told it happened every week in England, but I didn’t have that here.
“My teammates such as Johnny McDonnell, Pat Fenlon, Damien Byrne were all really good blokes and they wouldn’t stand for that, and it didn’t happen too many times.
“But I think the work we do will help promote and let people know they have a chance if they do all their badges. I won’t tell people there are no jobs for black coaches because I do not like that mantra. You have got to break the glass ceiling. Just keep going.”
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