Darren Fletcher has finally left Manchester United to kick start his career at WBA
Guest Author: Doron
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Darren Fletcher’s move to West Brom is the end of a career-long battle at United. He has overcome rules, injuries, doubt, criticism and illness to make nearly 350 appearances for the club. He leaves having won the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League and Club World Cup; he’s done the lot.
It seems such a long time ago that Darren Fletcher first came to prominence as United romped to the title in the 1999/2000 season. As an U16 schoolboy, he had already been identified within The Cliff as a player who could go all the way at the club and this was reflected by Alex Ferguson’s decision to involve him in an away match at Aston Villa, a few months after his 16th birthday. However, league rules stipulate that schoolboys cannot play first team competitive games and there would be no exceptions made. In the end, it would be over 3 years until Fletcher’s eventual league debut, in September 2003. For some context, and this may surprise some people, his debut came over a month after Ronaldo’s.
To reach the point of being on the cusp of the first team at the age of 16 but then not feature for over 3 years at first seems an anomaly; why would a manager want to play a 16 year old but then wait three years to actually do it? The answer, as is often the case when the body is growing and changing, is that young players become susceptible to injuries and Fletcher suffered his fair share. When the injuries finally curtailed and his physical development somewhat settled, Fletcher did finally make an impression on the first team squad whilst still a teenager, finishing the 2003/04 season having played 35 games, often on the right hand side of midfield.
Over the next couple of seasons he was firmly part of the first team squad and seemed to be favoured in European games in particular. His hard work and discipline hadn’t gone unnoticed and whilst sometimes the ingenuity and craft of Ronaldo was preferred in the league, tight games required a player with a maturity that the young Ronaldo didn’t always display. However, not everyone was convinced; many fans felt he wasn’t good enough for United, the media questioned his ability and even club captain, Roy Keane in his infamously banned MUTV analysis, earmarked Fletcher for criticism. Despite this, Fletcher persevered and his winning goal against Chelsea in November 2005, the league game after the Roy Keane rant, was as big a moment for Fletcher as it was for a club on the cusp of a crisis of confidence.
The doubts over Fletcher as an individual had coincided with a drastic period of change for United as a club. Chelsea, in the post-Abramovich but pre-Mansour/FFP world, had become the new force in English football and United were in a minor barren spell of silverware. The midfield in particular had been allowed to slide; Nicky Butt departed; as did Roy Keane, and the likes of Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Liam Miller all came and left without troubling the scorers. A weak midfield was reflected by a generally weaker side and fans were quick to identify easy scapegoats, of which Fletcher was one. Eventually the holes were repaired as first Carrick, then Anderson and Hargreaves joined; now many will scoff at the latter two but when United lifted the Big Cup in 2008, most fans would have been content with a selection of Scholes, Carrick, Hargreaves, Anderson and Fletcher to pick from.
Fortunately, Ferguson’s faith in Fletcher was unwavering and although suddenly demoted to fifth in line in the summer of 2007 he stayed at the club. The sudden influx of players saw his game-time pretty much halved but he was still on the bench for the European Cup final in Moscow and collected a winner’s medal. The players that had limited his appearances now presented an opportunity. Hargreaves was crocked; Anderson picked up injuries and struggled to replicate the form shown in his first season; and Scholes, whilst getting older, began to have his contributions ‘managed’.
For two seasons, 2008/09 and 2009/10 he became as crucial to the side as anyone. His energy levels seemed superhuman and coupled with sensible use of the ball and a maturing footballing brain, he grew into the midfielder that United needed. In what became an age obsessed with skills and technical players, Fletcher was terribly underrated outside of Manchester, particularly by fans. The United faithful had now had his back though, early doubts were replaced by the “Darren Flether football genius” chant. The reality was that Fletcher had few weaknesses, but that his strengths (running, stamina, courage and bravery) were of the variety that garner few garlands; they are attributes that many tend to mock because they’re not what our European counterparts excel in and, to a degree, are associated with a bygone period of British football that is out of step with the nuances of the modern game.
Ironically, if there’s one thing on the pitch that Fletcher could undo it would be at the scene of his greatest performance in a United shirt; a sultry, sticky, sensational night in North London on 5th May 2009. It was peak-Fletcher; a Champions League semi-final 2nd leg, away to Arsenal with a 1-0 lead from the first leg. United blew Arsenal off the pitch with Fletcher as good as anyone, strangling the Arsenal midfield and giving Park, Rooney and Ronaldo the platform to pick the petals off. However, with 15 minutes to go he conceded a penalty despite clearly taking the ball from Fabregas. Worse, far, far worse, he was sent off. A complete travesty. Not only was it a terrible decision but there was no right of appeal and he would miss the final in Rome. It was Fletcher’s best chance of appearing in a Champions League final, he’d have started the game without any doubt. Typical of the man, he didn’t complain, at least not publicly. For United it was a massive blow. With Fletcher they may have had a chance of beating Barcelona, such was his importance to the team at the time.
Arsenal always seemed to bring the best out of Fletcher. They had become a team who craved non-contact football (incredibly ironic, given the physicality of their fantastic side(s) between 1998 and 2004) and that played perfectly into his hands. Never the most gracious or observant in defeat, Wenger took to questioning, albeit indirectly, Fletcher’s ‘anti-football’ style of play. If anything, the criticism hardened Fletcher further and he fought off criticism and targeting by referees to be named in the PFA Team of the Year for the 2009/10 season. Despite United not winning the league, in the post-Ronaldo landscape, Fletcher had been at the heart of most of the good things they had done and his influence on the team was recognised with the captain’s armband on occasion.
Having overcome so many obstacles, it was in the 2010/11 season that he met his biggest challenge. As his performance levels began to dip, he missed the remaining months of the season with a mystery illness. This meant he’d never appear in a Champions League final and he was only an observer at Wembley as United succumbed to an improved, awesome Barcelona side. Later that year his loss of weight and strangely lacklustre performances were explained when his Ulcerative Colitis was made public. Between then and the summer of 2013, his football deteriorated and although he scored a few goals, his high points tended to be the returns from a break, greeted by rapturous applause by the fans.
The decision to have surgery was a brave one. He was willing to sacrifice his football career to be healthy again. To eventually be able to return to the first team in December 2013 was nothing short of a miracle. Despite reading about the illness and the risks attached to the surgery he had, it’s difficult to comprehend what he’d gone through. The battle going on inside his body was just one part of it. The doubts about his long-term career and the subsequent fight he’d have to go through to play again show how tough a character he is. It’s why the “if Fletcher scores, we’re on the pitch” chant was a more than just a bit of fun. This is a player adored by United fans; a player who every single fan would, or should, want to congratulate and wish the best of health. Had Fletcher scored away from Old Trafford in the months following his eventual return, there’s no doubt there would have been a pitch invasion.
As happy as people have been to see Fletcher return to football fit and healthy, it’s taken plenty out of him. He was a player whose game was based on stamina and strength and those are the things he seems to struggle with the most right now. At nearly 31 they won’t ever return to the levels they were at, and are unlikely to improve further. Ironically, a midfielder like he was in his prime, is exactly the kind of player our side has been calling out for the last few years.
His departure is sad but the right decision too. You feel guilty for being critical of him on the pitch because you know what he’s been through off it but this is top level sport and it’s brutal at times. Pre-season gave us hope but the pace and rigour of the Premier League when playing for United has been a step too far and unfortunately he’s been a liability on the pitch more often than not in 2014/15. With opportunities therefore limited, his decision to move on is understandable; picking up wages for doing nothing just isn’t his thing.
We will miss him though, make no mistake about it. He’s a long-serving popular player who helps all kinds of people in the club, from the younger academy players through to the new expensive signings; the perfect role model and a big character. We can’t let his current footballing ability cloud our view of this nice man and humble footballer. He leaves with our thanks and best wishes, in the knowledge that he’ll almost certainly be back one day as a member of staff. But hopefully not just yet, Darren, enjoy the years you have left playing football wherever it takes you. There are battles still to be fought.
Thanks to @KarateJesus82 for editing