There are two vital skill sets required to forge a successful career in such a cut-throat environment – the Manchester United train that stops for no-one- for a double decade:
You have the naturally talented, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, whose ability to weave in and out of five defenders and ping a sixty yard diagonal pass respectively were bestowed upon them as innate gifts.
And you have those, not as freakishly talented, but show steel, make the most of what they have, an infectious attitude to training and a determination to prove they can match their supposed superiors stride for stride. The likes of Gary Neville, no offence Gaz, resembled a raging bull to the elegant cheetah, but one thing for sure is that a raging bull loves a scrap and relishes the battle.
Darren Fletcher makes his first return to Old Trafford since his winter sale to West Brom. He falls into this category and certainly had to overcome his battles, in more than one sense:
The debilitating ulcerative colitis he suffered in 2013 did not merely threaten his livelihood, football was everything he had ever known, but also his life. To even attempt to make a comeback, after shedding over half his body weight at the height of the illness, deserves to command the utmost respect, from a purely human perspective.
As we had come to expect though, it was typical Fletch to not throw the towel in, as the going got tough so did he.
Back to the bread and butter of his footballing career and there were pretty significant questions being asked, but not just from the outside world: from his own team-mate and mouthpiece on the field. Fletcher was singled out with the most vehemence and ferocity from club captain Roy Keane-many believing Fletcher was not living up to the slightly hyperbolic billing of being the Irishman’s heir apparent.
Hardship only served to spur on Fletcher.
The post-Middlesbrough criticism was the nadir of the Scot’s early quest to establish himself and defy the neighsayers who branded him a ‘Ferguson favourite’, if you played centre-midfield and were not the next Keane or Scholes, you were automatically given short shrift, just ask Liam Miller. Fletcher’s development trajectory only went in one direction after that.
He upped his game to the point where he would infuriate the big boys for fun. Ferguson scowled with indignation when Wenger laughably claimed that Fletcher was the epitome of ‘anti-football’, ‘only on the pitch to commit fouls’ as if in a calculated, systematic way. You know you must be doing something right to get under Wenger’s skin. Fletcher was just doing his job, no questions asked. Understated yet effective, the story of his entire career.
In 2005, Chelsea looked an impregnable, imperious tour de force in Mourinho’s debut campaign in England. Yet the game at Old Trafford was decided by a goal of major significance from Fletcher. United, at the time, were undergoing another rebuild with Ferguson placing his unconditional trust in the younger brigade, trying to mould the next title winning side. Fletcher was a fulcrum in the masterplan; his looping header stole the headlines in a performance where he really came of age. It was a massive moment in his then opinion polarising career.
Another significant moment in the Scot’s career came on a bittersweet night at the Emirates, which led to those ill-judged comments from Wenger: Arsenal was the ideal dress rehearsal for the grand finale in Rome against Barcelona. Ferguson set United up accordingly, with Carrick, Anderson and Fletcher a blend of energy, harrying and guile designed to nullify Barcelona’s magical midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets.
United were cruising to Rome when Fletcher, victim of his own professionalism and human error, chose to tackle Cesc Fabregas through on goal. Despite clearly playing the ball, Fletcher was adjudged to have denied a goalscoring opportunity- his Rome dream and United’s game plan were left in tatters.
It is not as simple an equation as Darren Fletcher plays, Manchester United win. However, there can be no doubting we would have been better equipped to deal with the threat from their engine room had the Scot been allowed to take to the field. It was testimony to Fletcher’s rise and his importance finally recognised that such debates have filled Manchester pubs since Barcelona’s lions feasted on United as raw meat that night.
At the time of his illness, Fletcher was playing some of the best football of his career, a quite remarkable feat given the severity of the illness:
Michael Owen has been wining and dining off that derby winner for years- had it not been for that and a Rio gaffe, Fletcher’s name would be etched alongside the inscription ‘the greatest ever derby’. Those two headers are almost mythical in the fact that everyone, by default, remembers Owen’s strike as their abiding memory. Fletcher really was the man for the big occasion, which is why people ruefully allude to his absence in Rome. It was a major case of ‘what might have been’.
Fletcher can boast he brought the curtain down on Roy Keane and Nicky Butt’s United careers, two of the most revered players of our modern history. Not that Fletcher was a man for boasting, his finest eulogy was delivering on the football field, taking on the baton passed to him by such monumental names and characters and proving doubters far and wide wrong.
Fletcher will return to Old Trafford on Saturday to a hero’s reception, perhaps giving credence to the belief you never really know what you had til it is gone. He turned from scapegoat to favourite.
The chant ‘Darren Fletcher, football genius’ only gives the man half the credit he deserves.
Welcome back, Fletch.