Heartbreak hostel; GAME ON: SKY BLUES: Closure means more than just redundancy for Sky Blues Lodge couple Maria and Roy Fletcher.
THERE have been many unsung heroes at Coventry City over the years - people who work tirelessly behind the scenes with little recognition.
But there can be few who have given as much as the loving family that have run the Sky Blue Lodge, being foster mum and dad for young boys leaving home for the first time for more than 20 years.
Sadly, however, as they admit themselves, all good things come to an end and that is exactly the case for Maria and Roy Fletcher, and Maria's sister Ros Cooke who, along with the hostel's chef, Jonathan Heggarty, have been made redundant as more cutbacks take hold at the football club.
For Maria, Roy and Ros it is the end of an era and the loss of a partnership that really made a difference when it came to signing talented young players.
The promise of a new stadium, good wages and playing for a particular manager have lured many a player to City over the years, but when it comes to getting the best young players in the land, this particular trio have been a secret and effective weapon in the cut-throat business of youth recruitment.
Many a time has a talented 15-year-old, leaving home for the first time, opted for the Sky Blues rather than a more glamorous club, largely due to the fact that they had visited the lodge and felt right at home in a such a caring environment.
Mother figure Maria was always there to lend a sympathetic ear and comforting arm round the shoulder while Roy, with his distinctive Geordie accent, was a friend, confidant and voice of authority when needed to every teenager that stayed with the couple.
"It is hard for the boys when they leave home at such a young age," said Mrs Fletcher, 50, who first started out as landlady of the club's first hostel in Catherine Street next to the Highfield Road stadium.
"They are leaving their mums and dads for the first time and often come from different parts of the country and it is important that they feel at home.
"It is a real shame and the end of an era for the hostel which first started out in Catherine Street and when they moved us up to Ryton we thought it was wonderful to be out in the countryside.
"The club were really forward thinking in those days and were one of the first, if not the first, in the country to set up a hostel for trainees.
"We feel very honoured to have been involved with the hostel all these years and have loved every minute of it.
"We have seen so many characters stay with us, lads like Chris Kirkland and Lee Fowler, and many of the boys still keep in touch with us and have expressed how sorry they are to hear the news. Even the parents of some of the boys still keep in contact and we have even been invited to some of the boys' weddings.
"We are also leaving our idyllic home. We have a lovely flat here surrounded by football pitches. It is really quiet and a haven for lots of wild birds."
She added: "I am just concerned for the lads now because they have got nowhere to go as yet. They need to find somewhere quickly so that they can get settled before the season starts again."
Roy, 62, is a trained chef with the RAF and was based at Gaydon when he met Irish-born but Coventry bred Maria, and the pair used to do all the catering for the trainees for many years when they enlisted the help of Ros, the aunty figure of the family with a wicked sense of humour.
Liverpool goalkeeper Kirkland is possibly the most high profile player to come under their guardianship and he and his parents still keep in touch.
Chris's dad Eddie said: "I am very saddened to hear the news that they are closing the lodge which I believe was set up by Jimmy Hill.
"Roy and Maria were a tremendous comfort to me and my wife when Chris left home to join the club.
"Although we were not too far away in Leicestershire, Chris was very homesick for the first couple of months but Roy and Maria helped us all through it.
"They were like a mum and dad to him and guided him and looked after him for two years."
Facility was down to Hill's vision
THE Sky Blue Lodge was the brainchild of the visionary Coventry City manager Jimmy Hill.
As far back as the early 1960s, Hill set the wheels in motion for a training facility and hostel for the club's young trainees away from Highfield Road, and later saw his dream become reality as chairman when the club acquired the land at Ryton in the mid seventies.
The club bought the land on a ten year lease for pounds 20,000 and are now looking to cash in on the site and move their training headquarters elsewhere.
Chartered surveyor Harvey Williams, who is also the club's property consultant, helped acquire the Ryton site.
He said: "I assembled the site from 24 holdings originally. It was like a big jigsaw which was bought over a period of 10 years, interest free to the club.
"It all started in 1963 when Jimmy insisted that he didn't want to train at Highfield Road and wanted a separate complex for the kids where they could go through the system.
"The biggest headache we had was wondering whether we could grow grass on the excavated mineral gravel pits. It was also green belt land and it was a miracle that we got permission to build what we did at the time."
FROM BOYS TO MEN: Chris Kirkland and Lee Fowler are two of the more recent "graduates" from the Sky Blues hostel at Ryton; END OF A SKY BLUE ERA: Maria and Roy Fletcher have dedicated the last twenty-plus years to running the hostel at Ryton but now it'ss time to find a new home and job after this week's announcementIDEA: Jimmy Hill
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|Publication:||Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)|
|Date:||Jun 18, 2005|
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