Darren Fletcher’s break from football – Where does it leave United?

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By Tony Mogan

Just as things seemed to be looking up after a tumultuous month, Manchester United were rocked by the news that Darren Fletcher will be taking an extended break from football, after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel condition.

Following a Champions League exit and the news that Nemanja Vidic will be ruled out for the remainder of the season, gloom had descended upon Old Trafford. But after an uplifting, goal laced victory over Wolves during the weekend and the welcoming sight of Manchester City’s lead at the summit of Premier League being narrowed to a mere two points, signs of positivity began to creep in to United’s season once again.

But the crushing news that the tenacious Scotsman will be hanging up his boots for the foreseeable future has shaken Old Trafford, and has perhaps given things a bit of perspective. Recent incidents in the world of football have highlighted how some things are more important than the game, and Darren Fletcher’s personal health is one of them. His struggle with a mysterious virus has been well documented over the past nine months, which has seen him dip in and out of the first team as he has struggled to find fitness, and the dazzling form that had him regarded as key player of Manchester United’s engine room. A dynamic midfield performance marked by a goal against Benfica had many, including myself, convinced that he was over the worst of it, but sadly that hasn’t been the case.

Typical of Fletcher to want to put United ahead of himself, the move to step away from the game followed some much needed convincing from medical staff. The statement read,” Darren’s continued desire to play and his loyalty to both his club and country has probably compromised the chances of optimising his own health and fitness.” Long term health transcends footballing matters. Although it will be difficult for the perennially dedicated Fletcher to sit out, recovery and treatment must be well and truly at the top of the agenda.

Fletcher’s withdrawal comes as a significant blow to Man United’s already dwindling midfield. While Tom Cleverley has exhibited real moments of class and whose return will be greeted the most warmly by fans, his first half of the season has been one dogged by injuries. Despite an encouraging start to the season, Anderson picked up his worryingly frequent trait of being consistently inconsistent, before picking up the cruciate ligament injury that will see him ruled out until February.

While Ryan Giggs and Park Ji Sung have both occupied central midfield positions this season, they are not what you would call conventional. Phil Jones’ performances in central midfield against Aston Villa and Wolves were full of promise, not to mention full of the drive and enthusiasm epitomised by Darren Fletcher. But with a gaping, Nemanja Vidic-shaped hole in central defence, 19-year-old Jones may find himself occupying the Serbian’s spot. Rio Ferdinand’s recent fitness streak has been welcomed, but in would be unfair to paint someone as a pessimist for doubting how long it will last. Jones may find himself stepping back into United’s back four at any point.

Darren Fletcher’s treatment is obviously the biggest cause of concern for all football fans, United or not, but questions on how his departure will effect an already depleted United squad inevitably rise. Following yesterday’s announcement, United are now left with just two fit midfielders in the current squad. Michael Carrick and Darron Gibson. Sir Alex Ferguson has been very careful with the involvement of prodigies Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba this season. Will the current situation force Sir Alex’s hand and have the young duo appear more frequently? The sheer lack of numbers suggests this may be the case, but Ferguson’s measured and meticulously considered approach to the inclusion of his young stars is one that cannot be rushed, and as much as many will want to see Pogba and Morrison thrown into the first team, Ferguson may keep to his original bedding in plans, despite the number of available midfielders dropping. With his prior success in this department, who are we to argue?

United’s perceived need for a new midfielder has been warranted this season, now it is an absolute requirement. After missing out on Wesley Sneijder, Samir Nasri and Luka Modric for whatever reasons during the summer transfer window, many wondered whether United’s midfield possessed the steel and craft to retain this season’s Premier League. Hating to fall back on cliché’s, but the phrase when it rains, it pours, comes to mind, and as United’s list of withdrawal’s has increased, so has the need for the manager to delve into the January transfer window. Despite Sir Alex’s prudence when it comes to the widely-reviled January window, it’s hard to envisage no moves being made. United’s exit from Europe’s biggest competition means that no potential targets will be cup tied for the tournament as United simply aren’t there, a depressing truth. The players are simply not there for United at the moment. With Anderson’s return still considerably far off, United will have Carrick, Gibson, Cleverley (providing he suffers no setbacks) and Jones as ‘established’ midfielders. Despite their being unwelcomed fact that United will seemingly not have to worry about balancing domestic challenges with Champions League football, the list of midfield options is a short one.

But what this news means to United is really a secondary issue here. The seriousness of Fletcher’s condition and the hopes that he will one day play for United again are uppermost in the thoughts of Ferguson, United, and the fans, despite the immediate ramifications the situation will have on the club. The importance of Darren’s personal recovery is paramount, and while fans will be hoping to see him back in a United shirt as soon as possible, he must stay away from the game for as long as it takes, as to not compromise his health.

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