And can we indeed expect him back at all?
Darren Fletcher has been an exemplary servant for Manchester United and, in other circumstances, could be expected to play for many years. There must still be a possibility that he will never return to playing.
Background to his indefinite absence
Let's review the background of a sad state of affairs that we may have first noticed with Darren's decline in performance and appearances until finally he was withdrawn sine die.
While the younger players are delighted to have him around, he has cut a forlorn figure in the dugout for Reserve matches in the latter part of the season.
Imagine what it must be like for him?
He was Scotland's captain; a midfield dynamo for his club and his country. He drove his colleagues on with seemingly unending energy, finishing for example with a top-class goal in the 6-1 Manchester City debacle.
On March 6, 2011, Fletcher played against Liverpool in a League match, after which he was ruled out with a "virus," following severe weight loss. This "virus" was nine months later revealed as ulcerative colitis.
Although Fletcher played 10 matches in season 2011/12, he had not played from March 2011 until August when he returned in a Reserve match against Arsenal, after missing United's preseason tour.
On 22 November, 2011, he played his last match and in mid-December United announced that he was taking an extended break to recover from the colitis.
He has not played since, although he has worked regularly with United's Reserves in a coaching capacity.
Sir Alex Ferguson's support
As well as affording him all the support and medical help he needs, Sir Alex has gone on record as saying he will give Darren the time he needs to recover, but still has no idea when that might be, if at all.
It is a moot point whether Fletcher will be on United's preseason tour. He certainly won't be playing, as he is nowhere near returning to first team training.
The harsh truth is that he did not play from March to August last year. He then played a total of 11 matches for United and Scotland in the space of three months or so, before withdrawing once again for what has been a further eight months.
Given that he had lost weight before the Liverpool match in March 2011, we can safely assume he has had this condition for at least 16 months and maybe much longer. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a very widespread condition and it may be that doctors assumed this was Fletcher's problem before the much more serious ulcerative colitis was finally diagnosed.
It seems certain that the "virus" explanation was a smokescreen to protect Fletcher in the early days and provide a plausible reason for his extended absence. After such an extended period of what frankly is an illness and which is clearly not expected to end any time soon, the portents must be deeply worrying.
In some ways, Fletcher was a prodigy of Sir Alex. He was given much more game time than the fans thought he merited in the first few years of his first team career.
In fact George Burley, the Scotland manager, appeared to have more belief than United fans, not only giving Fletcher an extended spell in the team but also appointing him Scottish captain when he was only 20.
Eventually United fans warmed to Darren and he has become a firm favourite as a committed midfielder, rewarding Sir Alex's faith many times over. He was gutted to unfairly miss out on a Champions League Final place in 2009 when he was wrongly red-carded.
Sir Alex has always been loyal to his fellow Scot, but this is not an injury, like Nemanja Vidic's knee ligaments. It is more akin to Owen Hargreaves' tendinitis in the likely career threatening consequences.
In the end, Sir Alex bowed to the inevitable with Hargreaves. On the other hand, when it comes to Darren there may be no more than a private conversation and a permanent change to a coaching role before the ultimate heart-breaking decision is announced much later.
Career threatening condition
Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that affects the lining of the large intestine and rectum. It can affect any age group. One of the peaks is ages 15 - 30. It is believed that Fletcher has suffered from this condition for at least 16 months.
Apart from the obvious and embarrassing consequences, there can be a range of symptoms, including swelling or pain in joints.
Half of patients have mild symptoms, but Fletcher's condition has prevented him playing for some time now. It can be assumed, therefore, that his condition is more acute.
If so, there is no easy cure, except removal of the large intestine. It is hard to see how he could continue to play in such circumstances.
While some famous sportsmen, like Sir Steve Redgrave, have this condition, they have also had to give up intense exercise. Given the style and energy of Fletcher's play, it seems possible we shall not see him in a First Team shirt ever again, except for an inevitable testimonial.
Can he return at all?
Darren Fletcher is a fighter by spirit—a warrior on the football field. The way he plays has inspired fans and team mates alike. He will not give up easily on his personal dream. If he returned to playing he will become one of the senior pros in the next era for United; an inspiration for younger players.
It is no surprise that Manchester United have been very guarded about the situation as, apart from anything else, it is a very embarrassing condition.
Furthermore, it can be aggravated by stress and Sir Alex is notoriously generous in giving his players whatever time it takes to recover from injury or illness.
But as long as information is scant coming out of Old Trafford there will remain those who desperately hope he may return and those who fear his playing career at Manchester United may be over.
Fletcher is a very physical and committed player, often the driving force in midfield; a true "box to box" player. The work-rate of players at United is as high as at any club in the Premier League, especially as Sir Alex bases the tactics around skill and pace.
From that point of view, therefore, my own opinion is that Fletcher could be retired to the United coaching team before the end of the year, unless he himself expresses a wish to play elsewhere, where the demands may be less great.
Whatever happens, he will surely get a highly emotional testimonial at Old Trafford before he finally hangs up his boots?
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