A Paralympic star jailed for punching a homophobic thug who was threatening him and his gay friends has spoken of his prison nightmare, and how he has been handed a fresh start and a possible return to international competition.
George Fletcher spent four months in prison, but he and the friends who were with him insist he was merely protecting them all from a “horrible and aggressive” stranger who had targeted them on a night out in Liverpool’s gay quarter.
He has spoken exclusively to Disability News Service about his time in prison, his anger with the criminal justice system that almost ruined his life, and his determination to play international football again.
And the Great Britain cerebral palsy seven-a-side star – who represented Britain at the London 2012 Paralympics and has also represented England – has pledged that the injustice he suffered will not prevent him returning to his previous work with vulnerable people, and launching a new business.
Fletcher (pictured playing for England) was released with a tag on 1 February, four months after being jailed at Liverpool Crown Court for grievous bodily harm.
Even though the judge had told the man Fletcher punched that he had been “the author of his own misfortune”, the Paralympian was still jailed for 15 months.
The incident happened in the early hours of 1 September 2014 on the edge of Liverpool’s gay quarter, an area notorious for homophobic incidents and assaults, and just a couple of streets away from where trainee police officer James Parkes was beaten and left in a coma after another homophobic attack in 2009.
It had begun in a takeaway, with Fletcher and three friends peacefully eating their food inside when a stranger approached and began shouting “vile and horrible” homophobic abuse at them.
He left the takeaway, but the four friends bumped into him again minutes later as they tried to find a taxi, and he again began screaming homophobic abuse at them.
Fletcher says CCTV footage shows the man aggressively approaching him and his friends, and how he twice had to push the man away when he tried to grab his friends.
The stranger then began bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, with his arms wide open, shouting: ‘Let’s have it!’
“When he got too close to me I threw a punch,” Fletcher says. “The law says that if you feel like you are in danger or feel threatened you are allowed a pre-emptive strike, so what did I have to do to prove that to the jury? I felt like I was in danger.”
Unfortunately, the man, who was six feet four, fell backwards after Fletcher struck him a second time, and struck his head on the pavement. He was left seriously injured, needed emergency surgery, and was reportedly left with brain damage.
Fletcher believes he was right to defend himself and his friends, although he regrets the injuries he caused. But he is still angry that he was convicted.
He says the jury told the judge – after hours of deliberation – that they were unable to reach a verdict, but came back minutes later with a guilty verdict after they were warned that the courts were about to close for the day.
And he says that listening to the Crown Prosecution Service claiming he had set out to take his revenge for the homophobic abuse his friends were subjected to had made him feel “disgusting”.
“I don’t believe in the criminal justice system anymore,” Fletcher says. “I thought my life was over, that my football career was over, and my work with vulnerable people, which I have always cherished.
“It was all gone, everything was taken from underneath me, and it completely destroyed me.”
When he arrived at Brinsford Prison, a young offenders’ institution near Wolverhampton, he knew it would be tough, particularly when he realised he was the only Scouser in the prison. He was tested almost immediately.
“I was jumped by quite a big group of lads,” he says. “You have a choice: you either fight back and take a bigger beating or you let them do what they want to do but know they are going to come back and do it again later.
“My decision was to fight back, which I didn’t want to do because the reason I ended up in there was because of throwing a punch.
“But it’s a completely different world. There are no rules. You have to put a face on, you have to pretend to be someone else, you have to stick up for yourself, otherwise they will just pick you off.”
It was his experience as an athlete that saved him from the repeated beatings he endured during the first month in prison.
Eventually, the other prisoners noticed the incredibly tough and professional gym sessions he was putting himself through, and started asking him for help with their own training regimes and for advice on what they should eat.
This “strange bond” he developed with them meant that life inside became easier, and he even developed friendships and has kept in touch with many of his fellow inmates.
He says he now understands the aggressive behaviour he was confronted with when he arrived at the prison. “This is all these lads know. They have been in for three or four years. They don’t know any different.
“Some of these lads have just made a mistake once in their life and have been punished for it.
“When you get to know them they are genuine, easy-going lads, but they just know nothing but jail.
“When they open up, they are no different to you or me. All we thought about was what were we going to do when we got out to make our lives different.”
Fletcher says that the only rough treatment he received because of his impairment was being asked him why he “walked funny”; he told them he had a sore leg.
“No-one ever used it against me. They would have a laugh, but no-one saw my disability as a target.”
While he was inside, his fellow inmates didn’t know he was a Paralympian, because he didn’t tell them. “I was there to do time,” he says, “not to brag about stuff I had done in the past.”
When he was released after four months, he says, it felt unreal. “The feeling coming out of the gates was the best feeling of my life. I realised how thankful you are for your freedom and how precious it is.
“Even though I was only in there for a short time it made me realise how important family was and how important freedom was, and all the good things that have happened to me in my life, like my football career.”
As he walked through the prison gates, he already knew that his friends and colleagues had not turned their backs on him.
Jeff Davis, the FA’s national football development manager, who had first discovered him on a scouting trip when he was just 15, had written to him in prison, and even tried unsuccessfully to visit him.
Davis rang Fletcher two days after he was released to tell him that he still had a future in the England squad.
“That was a stepping stone for me,” he says, “to think my life might not be over, that people who really know me are going to give me a second chance in life.”
He has also been offered his old part-time job back by the YMCA in Birkenhead, where he is a lifestyles officer, responsible for running programmes like football, cycling, and “chair fitness”, for those who can only do their workouts sitting down.
He says the chief executive of the YMCA told him: “We don’t think you are the person that they made you out to be in court.
“We want you back working with the people we know you can inspire to greater things.”
Fletcher says: “It’s like I’m being given another chance by people who actually know who I am, and don’t just see the tag.”
As well as working with YMCA, he is also about to launch his own business, G Force Fitness, as a fitness consultant.
He came up with the idea in prison, and plans to offer training to anyone, but particularly hopes to work with vulnerable and disabled people.
Now he says he can’t wait to set foot again in the FA’s national training centre, St George’s Park, although it is likely that he will have to wait until at least next year to play for England again, as he is not allowed to leave the country until 2017.
“I can’t wait to set foot there again and put my boots on and surround myself with England players,” he says.
“The England atmosphere and the English football coaches and the way we are treated as athletes… I just cannot wait.
“One day I will put that England shirt on again, I will represent England again. That’s when I will feel like I have closure.”