Players come and go but football clubs are supposed to be perpetual; nevertheless, some departures are more deeply felt than others. In 2000 a young Scottish teenager born in Edinburgh joined Manchester United’s youth ranks and would go on to win the hearts of the Old Trafford Faithful with industry, tenacity and guile.
Darren Fletcher fought through early criticism to emerge as a midfield enforcer who’s energy and bite invariably saw him selected for the biggest games in which his work-rate complemented, and set a platform for, the creative talents in the side to truly express themselves.
As the Winter transfer window closed on Monday evening, it was confirmed that Fletch would be departing Old Trafford for pastures new in the midlands with West Bromwich Albion. In truth, largely through unfortunate circumstances the Scot has struggled to challenge for a place in the first team for quite some time, but few Reds will forget his contribution to the club both on and off the field.
The midfielder made 342 appearances for Manchester United, scoring 24 goals. He made his debut against FC Basel on the 12th March 2003 and it’s fair to say that his career in a red shirt struggled to take off initially. It is always hard, of course, when your predecessors are the likes of Bryan Robson and Roy Keane, but many were bemoaning a perceived lack of quality.
Fletcher’s early performances were beset by a lack of confidence and a style of play heavily reliant on bustling energy in the absence of decisive quality in possession. Nevertheless, Sir Alex Ferguson kept faith with the Scot and the manager’s patience was rewarded as the midfielder grew into the heartbeat of the side.
Numerous eye-catching performances followed and Fletch really became the man for the big occasion, capable of providing the rigidity and aggression needed in tight games against high quality opposition.
The Scot’s performances were enough to earn him a spot in the 2009/10 PFA Premier League team of the year; the fact that neither Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard made that side speaks volumes of just how far Fletcher had come.
How unfortunate, then, that Fletcher’s blossoming career was dealt such a huge blow. The midfielder began suffering from a chronic bowel condition, Ulcerative Colitis, which deprived him of what were surely to be his peak years as a professional footballer. Characteristically, Fletch fought the condition and became instrumental in ‘United for Colitis’, a charity which helps raise awareness for the illness.
Regrettably, with a game so reliant on fitness and energy, the condition was always going to prove a considerable obstacle. It is remarkable and indicative of the man himself that Darren Fletcher was ever able to play professional football again, and for that there can be nothing but admiration.
Whilst thoughts may always linger on the ‘what-ifs?’, there is no doubt that the midfielder enjoyed a fantastic career with the Red Devils. Few will forget Fletcher’s looping header which earned United a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford against Chelsea, ending the then Champions’ 40 match unbeaten run.
There were some notable lows too, when a particularly harsh red card after a fair challenge on Cesc Fabregas resulted in the Scot being suspended for a Champions League final he would undoubtedly have started in against an irresistible Barcelona. It was a cruel, unjust blow to a player whose performances had warranted the opportunity on the biggest stage.
Nevertheless, Darren Fletcher’s United career finishes with the player having won 5 League titles, 1 FA Cup, 2 League Cups, 1 Champions League and 1 FIFA Club World Cup; not bad, eh?
On the pitch the Reds will miss a warrior, but off the pitch Fletcher’s absence will be felt equally if not more so.
At the beginning of the current campaign the Scot was named as the club’s vice captain by new manager Louis van Gaal. Indeed, off the pitch there is no doubt that Fletcher is popular and respected; a true leader.
He encapsulates everything that is good about Manchester United’s propensity to give youth a chance. From a young teenager making his way, Fletcher had become a father figure in the dressing room, helping the new crop of talent to acclimatise to the biggest club in the world.
Illness deprived the club of a great player, but the gravity of Fletcher’s departure will be felt heavily inside the dressing room. A true United man; he will be missed, and I’m sure all would wish him every success in the future.