On 6 February 2002, the anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, another group of Manchester United youth team players took part in an FA Youth Cup match against Hartlepool United.
One of those players truly honoured the memory of the Busby Babes; everyone at Old Trafford knew he was the best player on the pitch and stood out like a beacon. I thought to myself this player has a chance of making it. That young man was Darren Fletcher who had turned 18 just five days earlier.
It was a freezing cold night at Old Trafford, absolutely freezing, the kind of night when you wonder if you’ve made the right decision to go and watch the youth team when you could have gone home or to the pub. I didn’t think much of the United side that lined up against Hartlepool. They didn’t seem to be of a very good level at all and Hartlepool were always in the match. However, Fletcher was outstanding covering every blade of grass and almost single-handedly dragged the team through the match.
United recovered from 0-1 down to lead 2-1 and I was praying United would hang on and it wouldn’t go to extra time because of the extreme cold weather. Towards the end of the match, Hartlepool inevitably equalised late on to force extra time. The only good thing about that was it gave us 30 more minutes to watch Fletcher play, something he would go on to repeat many times for the first team.
Hartlepool were pretty much playing for penalties but United managed to force a 3-2 win. I said to my mate after the game that I wasn’t very impressed by United’s youngsters and he said but what about Fletcher. I had to agree he was superb. We had all seen a player who definitely had a chance of making it as a first team United player.
For him to go on and make 341 appearances for United and earn himself the nickname ‘big game Fletch’ proves he went on to fulfil all the promise that everyone at Old Trafford that night was lucky enough to see.
During Fletcher’s peak years (2008-09 to 2010-11) he scored 12 goals and 19 assists from 119 appearances, just over half of his career totals of 24 goals and 37 assists over 341 matches.
In those early years of Fletcher’s career, he was actually prevented from making his United debut at 16 by Premier League rules and then further hampered by injuries including a broken foot before he joined United’s first-team squad.
With the bowel condition he suffered from 2010 to 2013, Fletcher missed a fair amount of his United career. Ulcerative colitis has cost him at least 102 matches.
To put this into context from 2009-10 until the last 17 matches of 2010-11, when Fletcher first started missing matches due to his illness, United played 99 matches and Fletcher was in the matchday squad 83 times. He started 69 of those 99 matches. From the illness starting in 2010-11 to 2013-14, he missed 102 matches out of 180 only starting 28.
It’s a terrible shame how things turned out in the latter years for that young lad who stood up to be counted in a Youth Cup tie but let’s remember the good times.
For added nostalgia, I found this rating below of Fletcher in the 3-2 over Hartlepool in the FA Youth Cup by Old Fart on Red Issue’s news-list.
“8. Darren Fletcher – much has been said about his lad since he hit the headlines a couple of years ago. He is a tall lad with quick feet and a good range of passing. Last night he was the link man in everything constructive we did. He was constantly showing for the ball and bringing others into the game. My man of the match.
Man of the match – Darren Fletcher. Everything he did was top-drawer. He tired in the second period of extra time but the lad had run his socks off and had an excuse to be knackered.”