From Norwich City football hero to teaching assistant here’s Robert Fleck’s inspirational story
PUBLISHED: 10:39 13 March 2016 | UPDATED: 16:26 14 March 2016
Archant Norfolk 2016
Goals have changed for football hero Robert Fleck who has now netted a hugely-rewarding new career as a teaching assistant at a school for children with complex needs.
There was a time when tens of thousands of people would rise to their feet and roar with joy every time he touched the ball.
Today, the noisy delight of children released from the classroom soars across a school playground as he chats, calms over-exuberance, rolls a stray ball back into a game.
Almost three decades ago Robert Fleck was the darling of the Canaries. The free-scoring Scot, who is still Norwich City’s fourth-highest goal scorer in history, was a hero to football fans across Norfolk and beyond. In the first season of the Premier League he was bought by Chelsea for £2.1 million, then the highest price the club had ever paid for a footballer.
Today he is a teaching assistant at a Norwich school for children with complex needs.
“I love it,” he said, with the wide smile and broad Glaswegian accent familiar to a generation of football fans.
The man who once played in the World Cup, and the English First Division and Premier League, now helps children with learning disabilities with their schoolwork and with life skills including shopping and crossing roads.
Parkside School in Norwich is a world away from the top echelons of world football in terms of celebrity status and salary, and until he was told about the job, and urged to apply, Robert had no plans to work in a school, or with disabled children. Now, aged 50, he is as passionate about helping these vulnerable youngsters learn life skills as he ever was about showing off his impressive soccer skills.
I first met him about 15 years ago. His playing career was over and he was running football sessions for children. I knew my profoundly deaf five-year-old would love the “Football with Flecky” after-school sessions and phoned to find out whether he could enrol. I was amazed to be called back by the man whose crowd-pleasing flair had made him a Carrow Road hero, to say yes, of course. And as a coach Flecky was a revelation – charging up and down with the children, joining in with the losing team, involved, energetic, enthusiastic, encouraging, larking around, loving the football.
Even then he was focusing on opportunities for all, rather than elite football. “My priority was to get the children who weren’t going to get into the academies and development centre. I just wanted to make football fun,” he said. There were holiday and after-school sessions in Poringland, where Robert still lives, and in Norwich, where he hired the hall at Parkside.
It was his first contact with the school he would eventually join as a member of staff.
“At the end of term they would ask me to come and do some football with some of their children,” said Robert. “Whether they saw something in me then, I don’t know, but one day one of the teachers, who lives in my village, came knocking on my door and said there was a job coming up.”
The post was as a teaching assistant, working right across the curriculum at the school for seven to 16-year-olds. Robert agreed to apply.
When he was invited to an interview, the man who had been Norwich City’s leading goal scorer for four seasons, then Chelsea’s most expensive player, and played for Scotland in the 1990 World Cup, was terrified.
“This was literally the first interview I had ever had. Was I nervous? That is an understatement. I was sweating, I could hardly speak. I never had an interview in football, not as a player or manager so I’ll never forget walking into that room, there was the headmaster, the deputy head and a vicar. And the deputy was from Edinburgh and I’m from Glasgow and I thought ‘I’m not getting the job!’.”
But staff at the school had already noticed that the fast-paced, instinctive thinking and communication needed to play top-level football, translated into a talent for supporting, encouraging, motivating and calming children who are struggling to understand the world around them.
Robert got the job, and the man once scored for fun was now committed to making learning fun for children who find it particularly difficult.
Parkside’s pupils have learning disabilities and many also have communication, behavioural, social or medical problems.
“I really enjoy helping the children, whether it’s working with them in the classroom or with life skills out in the city. And I try to make things fun. Life doesn’t have to be too serious. I try and bring a bit of sunshine!” said Robert.
That is both the highlight of his job, and the hardest part of it. “When the children get angry with themselves you want to put your arms around them and reassure them,” said Robert. “I enjoy working with the older ones best of all. They are getting ready to leave and go into the big wide world and I can help them take those steps.”
He left school without qualifications to begin his professional football career with Glasgow Rangers and said: “I would never, ever have thought that I would be working in a school. I hated school! I wasn’t very good at anything except sport so I’m still learning now. It’s great - and more important than football!”
Not that he isn’t grateful for his previous career, which was also rewarding, but differently rewarding.
“We were paid a lot of money,” he said, “But people don’t always know what footballers do for charity. When I first came down here I got involved with a young lad who didn’t have long to live.”
Robert helped fund trips for the boy during the last 18 months of his life. Just 22 himself when he arrived in Norwich, it made Robert aware of his own good fortune and consider how else he might be able to help. “Since then, it has been something at the back of my mind,” he said.
Some of today’s Norwich City stars get in a week what a teaching assistant might earn in a year, although Robert admits that expectations have changed too, from an era when the physical requirements of football stars had not quite caught up with the financial rewards, and he could enjoy a Chinese takeaway and a couple of pints the night before a match.
He had loved football from childhood and his sense of fun shone through in many of the matches he played, although he was less keen on training. Now he rarely goes to see Norwich City play, and spends more time watching national rugby games than football.
“My wife and daughter aren’t interested in football – although I used to make Olivia come along to my football schools when she was a little girl!” laughed Robert, who has lived in Poringland, near Norwich, for many years, with his hairdresser wife, Jayne. Their daughter, now 26, works as a beautician in Norwich.
After retiring as a player he ventured into management, with successful spells at Gorleston and then Diss. There was a time when he thought he would develop his managerial career further, but it would have involved uprooting his family.
“We had already decided that we would end up in Norwich. Jayne is a Norfolk girl but moved for me,” said Robert, “She did that for me. And Norfolk is a lovely place. Everyone here tells you that!”
So now his football is limited to a playtime kick-abouts with Parkside pupils, and helping a mate who runs the reserve team in the village of Mattishall, near Dereham.
But he must be tempted to show the children a flash of that old Flecky style, a flamboyant touch or audacious shot? “My body can’t do anything like that!” laughed 50-year-old Robert. “It takes me 20 minutes to get up to a jog!”
And did he celebrate his 50th with a VIP party for fellow Norwich City Hall of Fame celebs? Of course not. “It was quiet. I’m not one for parties. I said to Jayne, ‘Don’t do any surprises for me because I shan’t go!’”
Now, if Robert is recognised in the street or supermarket, he is as likely to be greeted by a past pupil as a former fan. Few of the children know about his previous life as a professional footballer. But surely some of the parents must be a little star-struck? “No, I’m Robert, the teaching assistant,” he said. “It’s like that was a different person. This is my ambition, being here. I’m quite happy to do what I’m doing.”
His goals now are all about helping children who are challenged by everyday life, learn how to read and write, manage their emotions and interact with each other and work towards independence.
But there are similarities with his previous life too. “I never could sit still, and here you are on the move all day,” he said.
“It’s always busy, there’s always something going on.”
As well as working in the classroom and playground, Parkside staff, take children out to practise life skills.
At the school’s city centre White Lion Café, in White Lion Street, pupils a learn how to plan, budget, shop, cook and serve, helped by professionals and school staff.
Once a week Robert takes a small group shopping. “It gets them used to choosing food, knowing how much things cost, using money…” he explained.
As we walk through the school at the end of another busy day, he is greeted by name by office staff, teachers, cleaners, fellow teaching assistants. Robert is obviously a popular member of this team too.
The man who once had tens of thousands of Chelsea fans chanting: “We all live in a Robert Fleck world!” has quietly won a new set of fans – in and out of the classroom.