Transfer deadline day was for most fans mundane at best. It didn’t quite capture the imagination as the summer windows closing hours did, which of course is to be expected. January 31st did see a Manchester United stalwart depart for pastures anew in the Black Country. Darren Fletcher’s Manchester United career is an example to all aspiring footballers of what commitment can lead to. From doubters both within the club and outside in his early years Fletcher drove himself to prominence within Manchester United which has been exemplified by the outpouring of tributes paid to the midfielder by current teammates, past teammates and journalists alike. Now he has moved on to West Brom and new challenges await the Scottish international, it is worth though looking at the hurdles he faced while at Man United and asking “What could’ve been?” Or rather addressing ‘What should’ve been’.
Sir Alex Ferguson signed up a young school boy aged 11 from Dalkeith, Scotland in 1995. Darren Fletcher was brought into the youth system that had/was producing a generation of talent the likes of which English football hadn’t seen before. Pegged early on as a right midfielder potentially in the mould of fellow academy alumni David Beckham, clearly his talents were highly regarded from within United. Setbacks occurred for Fletcher at early age as; Premier League rules blocked him from becoming the youngest player to ever appear for the club and reoccurring visits to the physio room with a variety of injuries, including the severity of a broken foot. The combative player we grew to know would not be deterred as he battled on to eventually make his first team bow for Ferguson’s side in March of 2003. It was from this point on we witnessed a young Scottish midfielder spend years forcing himself into the team sheet amongst a rotating cast of Star-studded, worldwide renowned footballers.
In the decade prior to Fletchers debut, Manchester United had produced a class of Academy graduates who played key roles in not only domestic success but a Treble winning season including the clubs return to the pinnacle of European football after their first Champions League success since 1968. To say that there was a high bar set for players rolling off the United academy conveyor belt is an understatement, instantly Fletcher would be measured against some of world footballs most household names. Not only that, but these players before him played key first team roles from the ages of 17,18,19. It wasn’t just that you were expected to be world class, you were expected to be world class instantly.
What Fletcher lacked in pure footballing ability he made up for with his combative, workhorse approach to his midfield position. With fans not buying into what Fletcher could offer the side, especially when Manchester United had the resources to go out and buy a ready-made world class talent, Ferguson’s support of his fellow countryman he signed at the tender age of 11 never wavered. Fletcher outlasted and saw away plenty of would be superstars who attempted to make a United central midfield berth their own. Players like; Juan Sebastian Veron, David Bellion, Kleberson, Anderson and even Owen Hargreaves all came through the doors at Old Trafford with price tags attached and high hopes, each of them exited Manchester without creating a name for themselves at the club like Fletcher has. This with the injuries and health issues he has faced while at United.
This is a reflection of the type of player he was and remains to be. He knew what he had to do to remain at the club he loved and outlast those who wanted to compete for the position he was determined to make his own. By the time Fletcher was 24 he had become a key man in the United line-up. It even got to the point that arguably his name was the first on the team sheet, perhaps barring Wayne Rooney. He had grown into the midfielder many argued that Man united had loss after Roy Keane’s departure. A ball winning, in your face player who did not hide on the big occasions, if anything he took the high stakes games as his ultimate test that he regularly passed. It was indeed Darren Fletchers single goal against Chelsea in November 2005 that ended Chelsea’s 40 game unbeaten run in the Premier League.
You needn’t look further than the 2009-10 season where Fletcher received recognition from his fellow professionals when he was selected in the PFA Team of the year, beating the likes of Gerrard and Lampard to one of the midfields spots which is no small feat. Couple this with the fans reaction when he was banned from the Champions league final in 2009. After being what most believed to be unfairly dismissed in the semi-final against Arsenal Fletcher was unable to line-up against Barcelona in Rome. Fletcher had come so far in the eyes of the fans that many believed that although his presence may not have guaranteed a victory against an impressive Barcelona side, the consensus was that he would’ve been able to help United get more of a grip of the game in midfield against superstar duo Xavi and Iniesta. Even Mourinho who was Inter Milan coach at the time was quoted as saying “Fletcher is more important than people think. His work in midfield, especially in the midfield ‘wars’, in crucial matches is very important. Man United will miss his pace and aggression in defensive actions: he ‘eats’ opponents in defensive transition. I believe Xavi and Andres Iniesta are happy Fletch is not playing.” His stock had risen and his ceiling had been broken with his place amongst the squad secured. Not only that but now he wasn’t just in the squad he was a key component to what united were trying to achieve, they hadn’t only found a player to replace Keane in a positional sense arguably they had found their future club captain.
Unfortunately, Fletcher’s United career in recent years was halted when he contracted Ulcerative Colitis. A disease that many expected would end the Scotland captain’s career took Fletcher out of the game really for two almost three seasons. After a first attempt at a comeback and eventual surgery, Fletcher didn’t just fight off the horrible illness he was suffering but worked his way back to fitness and onto a football pitch wearing the red of United like he only knew how. Having read reports on the disease it’s been said that many can struggle to get out of bed due to the disease, whereas Fletcher was putting himself through training sessions not allowing this to be how he bowed out from the game and team he’d played for since age 11. His comeback was something Man United fans were joyed to see, but also one they probably expected. Even though the odds seemed to suggest his career was over I think there was an almost subconscious belief that it’s nothing that Fletcher can’t overcome.
Here’s an interview with Darren Fletcher regarding his move to West Brom thanks to Audioboom:
Although, he made his comeback and was even awarded the vice-captaincy by Van Gaal in the summer his time at Manchester United has come to an end. The tragedy is that Fletcher is still highly thought of by both fans, staff and players at United but he could’ve been much more than his current legacy will read. Van Gaal awarding him the vice-captaincy showed the high regard he was held in. The Dutchman obviously realised on arrival the presence that Fletcher had in the dressing room, even the way he conducted himself with the press amongst other qualities. There is a reason he was made Scotland captain after Barry Ferguson, because Fletcher is a captain and a leader. Had it not been for the unprecedented illness that struck Fletcher I would argue that he would be the player holding the club captaincy at Manchester United over Wayne Rooney. In his time at Manchester United Fletcher was able to amass a trophy haul including; five Premier League titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups, a Champions League and a FIFA Club World Cup and not forgetting his 2009-10 PFA team of the year spot. On top of that he made 342 appearances for United, more appearances than previous greats like; Cristiano Ronaldo, Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath. Yet, he should be remembered as a player that could’ve achieved even more. He will always be fondly remembered by the club and supporters, but the path he had put himself on prior to his illness was leading to him potentially being one of the greats and being considered in the same vein as his predecessor Roy Keane. Maybe he would’ve been even more highly considered than Keane because his exit wouldn’t have been amidst as much animosity.
A poignancy to Fletchers exit to West Brom that most seemed to have missed is that he is the last of a breed we arguably won’t see at Manchester United again. With Fergie gone and Van Gaal leading United’s charge back to European qualification and beyond, the club have shown they are willing to spend heavy to obtain their goals. Furthermore, with FFP in play it has been recorded that the only team that can spend more than United while complying with FFP is Real Madrid such is the clubs commercial dominance over those in the Premier League. This means that the club will always be able to outspend its rival’s at least in the immediate future. This could spell an end for the home bred talent United had become famous for under Sir Alex. Fletcher is one of the few in recent times that survived from the academy to a prominent position within the first team. Jonny Evans is still there but no offence to Jonny I don’t see him being as highly revered at the end of his United days as Fletcher has been. With Fletcher’s exit has the last of Fergie’s legacy at the club left with him as United embark on a truly new era for the club?
I look forward to watching Fletcher regularly appearing for West Brom and securing a starting berth back in Strachan’s Scotland side, the player he is deserves to prolong his career at the highest level both for club and country. The word from those that know him professionally is that he is the consummate professional, which for a supporter that has followed his career from day one is easy to believe. Manchester United have lost a potential great and West Brom have possibly gained a potential future one.