Under normal circumstances, a 1-1 draw against our Swiss nemesis of last year Basel on the 12th March 2003 would not be a match that would live long in the memory. Apart from two memorable moments: Firstly, that dead rubber encounter produced a moment of divine rareness- the Old Trafford were treated (albeit a heavily deflected shot with his normal standing leg) to one of the seven goals Gary Neville mustered for the club. The other longstanding achievement to commemorate was the debut of a fresh-faced leggy Scotsman, who was soon to forge an immediate rapport with the United fans and earn a justifiably stellar and honoured reputation.
Wearing the unfamiliar number 31 shirt, young Darren Fletcher’s moment of his life had suddenly sprung upon him, replacing David Beckham in the 73rd minute. It really is almost unimaginable to think that first sighting of the industrious Scot was 10 years to the day.
During Fletch’s unselfish decade of service under Sir Alex Ferguson, he has been a key cog in various Ferguson teams. Unlike some fledgling midfielders we all hoped would make the cut (Miller, Kleberson, Possebon and others) Fletcher has managed to survive the axe wield, his consistent dependability and reliability have ensured longevity in United red, appearing in over 300 matches, winning more trophies than most players only have on one hand.
His grittiness, determination and experience proved to be factors we could so desperately have required on in the run-in last season. Unfortunately, his sickening ulcerative colitis condition has curtailed his career and deprived United of a dependable, whole-hearted player who should have been in the pomp of his career. Of course, football is merely a game, and some things have greater significance and importance, what is paramount for Darren is taking care of number one and his health is the only priority.
So in commemoration of his sterling service and unparalleled commitment to Manchester United, which saw him transform from raw rookie to seasoned pro and midfield mainstay, here are my top 5 Fletcher moments, with some added extras. Hopefully one day, the Number 24 will be fully over this dreadful illness and can resume his playing career. Fletch, we salute you.
1) 3rd April 2004. United 1-0 Arsenal. FA Cup semi-final.
Having just celebrated his first year amongst the first-teamers, this match was where Fletch was christened with the complementary tag as ‘big-game player’. In this period, Arsenal and United were the two juggernauts of English football, and title rivals. Most of the games between the two hinged on who dominated the midfield battle. Arsenal had 2 brutes in their engine room in the form of Vieira and Gilberto Silva; United replied in earnest with their own midfield grafters Keane and Fletcher. It was a telling leap of faith from Ferguson to select the young Scot alongside our then inspirational captain. Fletcher held his own, harrying Vieira, biting into tackles, not shirking the dirty work required. In recognition of combatting the previously ‘invincible’ Gunners, Fletcher had won over the fans and his efforts resulted in the tag he went on to make his own.
2) 24th April 2007. United 3-2 AC Milan. UEFA Champions League semi-final.
At the best of times, it represented an uphill struggle trying to shackle Milan’s trio of midfield magicians. At the time Pirlo, Kaka and Seedorf were an opposition’s worst nightmare. On one of those memorable Champions League nights under the floodlights, Fletcher put in a man of the match performance. Although Kaka was devastatingly clinical on the night, Pirlo and Seedorf’s influence was limited by the tenacity and grit of Fletcher, ensuring we managed to get a stranglehold on the game in the second half after trailing 1-2 to complete a memorable comeback.
3) 6th November 2005. United 1-0 Chelsea. Premier League.
On the eve of this crunch match, United had crumbled at the Riverside (losing 1-4) and 0-1 in Lille resulting in Champions League elimination in the Group Stage- something unacceptable under the name of Manchester United. This led to a ferocious in-house interview from that man Roy Keane, which conveniently never made it to air and all but sealed his fate at United. Add to the melting pot, that fact this was Mourinho’s express train we were coming up against and the odds were firmly stacked against us. In typical ‘never say die’ fashion, Fletcher put the smiles back on our faces with the only goal of the game, a looping header at the back post. The victory instilled hope that better times were ahead.
4) 20th September 2009. United 4-3 City. Premier League.
Of course, this was Michael Owen’s defining moment in a United shirt, but people tend to forget that Fletch bagged a crucial brace of headers which gave us the lead twice in the match. Fletcher more than played his part in one of our most memorable Premier League wins and certainly one of our biggest ever derby wins.
5) 24th November 2012. United 3-1 QPR. Premier League.
This match was in the middle of an uncharacteristic trend of conceding the first goal. Having done just that here too, the equaliser from Jonny Evans was followed by one of our more memorable moments of the season. Wayne Rooney swung in a corner, and arriving onto it was surprise starter Fletcher who powered a header past Julio Cesar to give United a crucial lead and set us on the path to victory. The noise was deafening as his header rippled the net, as he wheeled away in front on the Stretford End, all his hard work and bravery in taking the first steps after illness had been worth it, just for that scoring sensation.
Other Fletcher highlights:
• 22nd October 2006. United 2-0 Liverpool. Premier League.
Takes the man of the match award despite the lasting memories of this match were Scholesy scoring on his 500th United appearance, and Rio’s left-foot worldie followed by that god-awful ‘brap’ celebration.
• 16th February 2008. United 4-0 Arsenal. FA Cup 5th round.
In another typically bullish and industrious display against Arsenal, Fletcher again took the man of the match prize for his performance which comprised of two headed goals again. Fletcher characteristically never allowed Arsenal a moment’s peace, something that was his bread and butter.
• 21st November 2009. United 3-0 Everton. Premier League.
Along with his solitary strike in that 1-6, Fletcher’s goal in this routine win over Everton must rank up there with his best. The ball sat up awkwardly around 20 yards from goal, Fletcher didn’t see it as a problem as he hooked a volley into ex-Red Tim Howard’s top corner. The game was deadlocked at that point and set us on our way to collecting maximum points.
• 10th March 2010. United 4-0 AC Milan. UEFA Champions League 1st Knockout Round.
David Beckham’s return home was the talk of the world on the eve of this 2nd leg after United had famously triumphed 3-2 in the San Siro (a match where Fletcher stood tall again). Fletcher seemed to save his best for the big occasion, particularly Arsenal and AC Milan. He shackled the talents of Ronaldinho and Pirlo with typical endeavour and capped off the proceedings with a diving header at the back post.
• 26th September 2012. United 2-1 Newcastle. League Cup 3rd round.
As two midfielders aiming to emulate Fletcher’s longevity got on the score-sheet in Anderson and Cleverley, the night belonged to the Scot. This was Fletcher’s first step on the road to recovery; it was his first start in 10 months. As a mark of respect and honour after all the tribulations he had been through, he was deservingly made captain for the first time in his career and received a rapturous reception from our supporters. He played the entire 90 minutes and just to see him on a football pitch again was nothing short of heart-warming.
What are your best Darren Fletcher moments?
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