With Darren Fletcher’s departure, the dressing room at Manchester United has lost one of the finest characters and role models in football today. The sheer passion, integrity and fighting spirit shown by Fletcher in the decades he spent at Man United across all ages encapsulated that vigor needed to succeed at a club of such magnitude.
Amongst the limited survivors from Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, it is Fletcher who stands out as the primary source of inspiration. The reason the Scot can now claim legendary status at Man United is down to the fact that his sheer boldness saw him go light years further than his ability would’ve ever allowed him to go.
March 2003 saw a bruising introduction to life at Man United for the young Scot. In the early stages of his life at the Theatre of Dreams he was singled out by Roy Keane, who claimed he had ‘no idea why everybody raved about him in Scotland’. The Man United supporters seemed to share this view that was initially brought to the surface by a problematic captain with insanely high standards. He was jeered by Man United supporters as they crashed out of the Champions League group stages against Lille.
What followed was one of the finest responses to adversity I’ve seen. In one match, Fletcher duly silenced any doubters and sparked wild admirations for his energy and purpose in a 1-0 win against a Chelsea side unbeaten in 40 games. The Scot was simply everywhere – stampeding across the pitch with passion and purpose and his headed winner was a fitting way to cap off a man of the match performance that was witnessed by Keane from the stands.
His ability to take big games by the scruff of the neck allowed Man United to have that stimulus to control matches against strong opposition. Rarely had this been so apparent in the Champions League semi-final against Arsenal back in 2009. It still remains to be a continued source of angst that he was unavailable for the final in Rome following a very harsh sending off 75 minutes into such a dominant display.
That night in Rome is something I’ve tried to forget for some time now. In a final where Man United never really turned up, it’s impossible to not feel tortured by the idea of Fletcher chasing after Messi and co as opposed to Anderson, who couldn’t influence the game at all. The outcome could’ve been so different.
After Fletcher was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, many couldn’t see a way back for him but not for the first time, Fletcher proved them wrong. His return to football after two years of being unable to do the slightest amount of fitness was testimonial of a player who simply doesn’t know when he’s beaten. A trait commonly attributed to the A grade students under Fergie. His return under David Moyes is up there with one of the finest acts of determination by any footballer.
Man United benefited from his return in December 2013 where they won eight out of nine games in which Fletcher started. His performance in the first hour at the Allianz Arena in last years Champions League quarter final evoked memories of the midfielder who single-handedly dominated big games with his unlimited stores of energy and desire. That opening hour in Munich was without doubt the finest of an otherwise very dire Moyes era; the visitors raced into a 0-1 lead before eventually being brushed aside by Bayern Munich following Fletcher’s substitution.
Louis van Gaal also worked hard to make use of Fletcher’s experience and know-how upon his arrival, promoting him to vice captain. However, the performances of the Scot were nowhere near what are expected of a Man United midfielder. His ability to take control of proceedings, sweep the ball up and get things moving has more or less diminished.
Having admired the midfielder’s spirit and determination for the best part of ten years, it really hurt to see Fletcher struggling in the way he was, It was like having a teacher who you really liked at school – you really get along with him and relate to his teaching methods but then you come across him ten years later and he turns out to be some unemployed loser.
Now that he has completed is move to West Brom, Fletcher has an opportunity to galvanise his career, to breath life back into his legs and Tony Pulis will give him every opportunity to do so.
Fletcher left Man United with his head held high, his trophy cabinet full and with a smile on his face. Hopefully he can now enjoy his twilight years playing regular football, albeit away from his home at Old Trafford.