Darren Fletcher: 10 Reasons to Believe He Can Star Again for Manchester United

Terry CarrollContributor IIISeptember 18, 2012

Darren Fletcher: 10 Reasons to Believe He Can Star Again for Manchester United

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    Darren Fletcher is 28 and at a critical time of his career. Even as recently as three months ago there was serious doubt about whether he would ever play again for Manchester United on a full time basis. If he does, he could provide the missing link in midfield.

    Suddenly, it seems, he has regained weight, fitness and probably optimism that he can reignite his career. The next few months could be make or break for him.

    The interest of the United fans in his welfare and Sir Alex's concern has been more than just sentimental.

    Darren Fletcher had established himself as one of United's senior and most influential players. There have been many reasons advanced as to why United failed to win the Premier League last year. In its own way, Fletchr's absence may have been just as pivotal as that of Nemanja Vidic.

    If he suddenly returns to the fold, as good as he was before, he could be the lynchpin for the recovery of the Championship.

    He is not the most talented player at Old Trafford, nor even the best midfielder, but he brings a set of qualities that complement every other player in those departments in different ways.

    Darren Fletcher returned to the First Team squad last week after playing 90 minutes with the Reserves. While we all hold our breath, these are some of the reasons why we want him back.

The Academy and the Early Years

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    Darren Fletcher is something of an enigma. 

    He had first been scouted in Edinburgh and joined United's Academy at the age of 11.

    For many years the fans couldn't understand what Sir Alex Ferguson saw in him. There was all sorts of speculation among fans as to nepotism, favouritism and other reasons why he had "God's eye". Maybe it was just because he was Scottish?

    And yet in May 2000 he had been all set to become United's youngest ever Premier League debutante at barely 16 years old, until FA regulations intervened.

    He was seen originally as a right-sided midfielder in the David Beckham mould. Ironically, despite his early promise and due to various injuries and loss of form, he didn't actually make his debut until 2003.

    He didn't establish himself in the United First Team until the season 2003-2004. Indeed he probably was more established in the Scotland team before United, getting his first cap in late 2003.

    He became the youngest Scotland captain in 118 years in May 2004 at the age of 20, having only played 22 Premier League games for United.

    It could be said that the Red Devils' fans can be fickle at times. Some players are readily accepted almost immediately. That is likely to be the case with Buttner and Powell, as well of course as Van Persie and Kagawa.

    For some reason, the likes of Fletcher, O'Shea, Gibson and others took years to be accepted, if at all. 

    If nothing else, United fans love a whole-hearted player who will leave everything on the pitch. Once he starts to make critical tackles, or score crucial goals, the road becomes easier.

    Despite his early promise, there has only been one season so far when Fletcher has started 30 Premier League games.

    He has in some senses been more important in Europe, having played a total of 59 matches to date, including two at the age of 19 in season 2002-2003.

    Sometimes you only really realise what you have lost after they have gone and that seems to have been the case with Fletcher.

    Sir Alex has gone on record that he will give Darren as long as is necessary to recover. If he does recover fully this could not be more timely. He is now as popular as he has ever been since those early years where he had to fight to get any recognition at all from the fans.

United Breakthrough

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    Darren Fletcher was one of the players Roy Keane had in mind when he publicly criticised his team-mates in October 2005, following a 4-1 defeat by Middlesborough.

    That outburst may have been the final straw that led to Keane leaving the club.

    Without United's talismanic leader and midfield destroyer, an opportunity opened up in central midfield and Fletcher grabbed it with both hands.

    Weeks later he scored the only goal in a vital win over Chelsea and his ultimate acceptance had begun. By that time he already had 20 full caps for Scotland, mostly as captain.

    Throughout this difficult first few years as a United professional, he required the utmost fortitude. It was fortunate that he had the undying belief of his manager, because the fans could be added to Roy Keane in questioning whether Darren had the pedigree to command a regular place.

    Like Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher is rarely dazzling, but he also hardly ever lets the team down. It is to his credit that he never stopped trying.

    That is the ultimate quality that will have brought him through the biggest crisis of his life and will make him invaluable if he does indeed re-establish himself at the core of the team.

    Despite the early doubts, it is also the quality that the fans themselves were eventually forced to recognise. For every Eric Cantona or Wayne Rooney, there needs to be a Darren Fletcher, working tirelessly in the engine room, driving the team forward.

Scotland's Captain Fantastic

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    First cap at 19; captain at 20; 58 caps and five goals so far.

    He has already trained with the Scotland squad at the end of August. This was the first real sign for the supporters that he might be on the road back.

    The early responsibility vested in him by his country may have been the making of him. He has been a tigerish captain for Scotland, driving forward from midfield and leading by example.

    Since the decline of Barry Ferguson, Fletcher has been official captain until his illness hit him some 10 months ago.

    Scotland have drawn their first two matches in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Craig Levein wants Fletcher back every bit as much as Ferguson does. As he has shown for United, he can sometimes make the difference in important matches.

    Ironically his first reappearance in United colours was in Scotland, in a friendly against Aberdeen which was the last preseason match.

    He came on to a massive ovation which he can expect to be matched if he returns at Hampden Park for his country, or Old Trafford, anytime soon. 

Winning Round the Fans

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    Fletcher may have started on the road to acceptance on that fateful evening in November 2006, but it was always going to be a long one.

    That goal ended Chelsea's unbeaten 40 match run, much to the anger of Jose Mourinho, guaranteed to please United's fans.

    It wasn't enough to win Fletcher a permanent place in United's midfield the following season, however. Hardly surprising with an established quartet of Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick and Giggs.

    This continued in the 2007-2008 season with him getting even fewer games. But why change a winning combination?

    The 2008-2009 season was probably his breakthrough but even that was characterised by highs and lows. He started to get regular starts, due to injuries to other players.

    He also suffered the heartbreak of being wrongly red-carded in the semi-final of the Champions League against Arsenal, thereby being condemned to miss the Final, where he would almost certainly have made a difference.

    He had been an unused substitute the previous season when United triumphed over Chelsea in Moscow, with only the consolation of a winners' medal having played sufficient matches in the earlier rounds.

    That Final ban in 2008-2009 also helped to win the supporters' hearts, both because of its gross injustice, and with Fletcher's having been a key player in United's defeat of Arsenal.

    By 2009-2010, however, he was established as a firm favourite and that was cemented when he scored in the memorable last minute 4-3 win over City, early on.

    With Giggs and Scholes not getting any younger, it was beginning to look like Carrick and Fletcher would be first choice at the heart of midfield for the foreseeable future. 

    Towards the end of 2010-2011, he was struck down by what turned out to be ulcerative colitis. United at first officially announced that Darren had a mystery virus, partly because there was some uncertainty as to his condition and partly to save his embarrassment.

    It was wretched luck that, having had his career disrupted by injuries so much in the early years when he was so highly regarded, he was to be sidelined for so long having won the fans' hearts.

    If he is selected against Galatasaray on Wednesday night,there will be a massive roar of approval when his name is announced. 

    Nobody would wish him any ill. On the contrary, they would love to have him back at the heart of United's midfield for the grudge match against Liverpool next weekend.

Defensive Midfield

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    One of the most common moans in these columns is the lack of a defensive midfield at United. Many fans don't seem to understand that Sir Alex doesn't want to play that way. Carrick and Scholes, for example, play deep, but Carrick is more of a holding midfield.

    It seems ironic at the same time that commentators on the game are wondering why YaYa Toure, who is a defensive midfield for City, doesn't play as an attacking midfield all the time. When he comes out of that deep position, they look far more dangerous.

    It would be surprising if the young Darren Fletcher hadn't looked at the great trio of Robson, Ince and Keane as his role models. But none of those were defensive midfields either. They were all complete midfielders.

    They led by example; were tigerish in the tackle; could make great passes and set up attacks; and often popped up in the penalty box to score, or lashed in an unstoppable drive.

    Darren may not be as good as these, but he possesses all their qualities. When he plays alongside Michael Carrick, they often alternate their responsibilities.

    So the style of United's play doesn't utilise a defensive midfield, but if there is one person fitted to that role it is Darren Fletcher. Fortunately he can do the others as well.

Relationship with Michael Carrick

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    Like Darren Fletcher in his earlier years, Michael Carrick is "Marmite Man". You either love him or hate him.

    And yet it could be argued that he is one of the key players for United going forward over the next few years. He is a rock in the middle of the field, who has become much more important as Scholes' star begins to wane.

    Carrick allows Scholes to be his best in his "dog years". Fans get on his back because he is undemonstrative.

    To my mind he is an utter professional and reminds me very much of the great Johnny Haynes, who I watched as a boy for England.

    People were purring over Buttner's performance and Powell's goal against Wigan. But Michael Carrick hardly misplaced a pass, broke up play in midfield, hit some exquisite forward passes, had the vision to see Nani to his left and play him in for what produced the Scholes goal.

    Darren Fletcher can also break up play and be that rock in midfield. He and Carrick are similar but not the same. Fletcher goes forward much more, but it is his understanding with Carrick that allows him to do that.

    It would be no surprise (if Fletcher returns fully fit at some stage) to see this partnership at the heart of midfield in Europe and the big matches in the Premier League.

Underrated Goalscorer

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    With Scotland being so disappointing in recent years, Darren can be all that he wants to be for his home country. 

    He can sit deep, break up play or storm forward, score and make goals.

    He is arguably Scotland's best player when fit and he can be one of United's most influential also. He has a knack of scoring critical goals. Unfortunately his well-taken chance against City at home last season was merely a consolation prize but, at 3-1, could have been pivotal if others had played more responsibly.

    He has the knack of arriving at the right moment, as Bryan Robson used to do.

    No doubt Sir Alex would like him to score more. So far, he has 23 in 302 matches for United and five in 58 for Scotland. 

    He does have good skill, as well as strength and pace, however. With United's skill and pace all over the pitch and the fluid interchange of roles that Sir Alex is trying to achieve, Darren is good enough to feed off class players like Van Persie and Kagawa.

    Let's hope he is soon fully fit enough to test that particular hypothesis. Certainly he would have been a useful addition against Everton. That would have been just the sort of situation he thrives on.

A Foil for Young Players

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    Even in preseason it was clear to me that Nick Powell is going to be a top player. My own view has been that he is Michael Carrick's natural successor; the Boss thinks he can emulate Paul Scholes.

    But who's going to emulate Darren Fletcher? Maybe Ryan Tunnicliffe?

    It was no surprise, when the full extent of Darren's condition became clear, that Sir Alex asked him to join Paul Scholes in working with the Reserves (now the U21s). He stayed on in that role after Paul returned to first team action.

    Although Fletcher won't have been particularly comfortable being reduced to that role at this stage of his career (especially with the unpredictable condition he has had), he seemed to thrive on it.

    Darren is probably the most intelligent and articulate captain Scotland have had for some time. Equally, it was no surprise when he was made vice-captain at United shortly before his first absence due to illness.

    He is captain's material and will surely be in the shake-up when the armband passes from Nemanja Vidic. Much will of course depend on his long-term prognosis.

    If he does return fully fit, you can expect Fletcher to be used alongside youngsters in the League and FA Cup squads. He will be adept at bringing them on and "putting the arm round the shoulder" when needed. He surely has a future on United's coaching staff, whether his career is curtailed or later?

Potential Captain

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    So much hinges on whether Darren fully recovers. If he does, he may become the best he has ever been. His time away from the game will have been intensely frustrating but also will have made him reflect on what is important and what goals he still has in the game.

    Fully fit, he can be expected to join the likes of Robson, Keane, Scholes and Giggs in playing well into his thirties. As long as the engine is there he will have a role for United.

    He is arguably one of Scotland's best modern day captains. He sets an excellent example in the way he conducts himself and in his leadership on and off the pitch.

    He only knows one way to play and that is to leave 110% on the pitch. This doesn't mean to say that he can't be subtle and measured as well. Every Nani needs a Fletcher alongside him; every Evans a Vidic.

    When you look at the candidates for captain when Vidic steps down, there are a few who stand out:

    Michael Carrick would do an excellent job but isn't vocal enough for some and notably the Boss hasn't given him the armband before.

    Wayne Rooney's 10 years at Old Trafford; his growing maturity; and status as one of the senior professionals give him a chance.

    Robin Van Persie was captain at Arsenal and cannot be ruled out.

    Many people have touted Phil Jones as a future captain and his time will surely come.

    There are plenty of people who think the captain should be in midfield. Add to that the requirement to be a first choice player and that reduces the number of candidates.

    Rooney would relish the added responsibility but this might inhibit the role we really need him to play, up and around the box, scoring and making goals.

    If he returns fully fit, it would be surprising if Sir Alex hasn't pencilled in Darren's name. That might of course depend on who succeeds the Scottish Knight.

Staying for Good

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    Like Gary Neville, Darren Fletcher is a one-club man.

    Ironically, he will almost certainly have won a new army of fans because of his unfortunate, debilitating, forced absence. He certainly has the sympathy vote.

    Whenever he runs onto the Old Trafford pitch next, even if it is just a testimonial, there will be a wave of emotion across the terraces.

    Darren Fletcher has rightly won converts after a tough first few years. He has done it by dint of hard work, determination and guts in the face sometimes of open hostility. Now he has truly arrived.

    If he returns fully fit, Darren is the sort of unassuming guy who will give every last drop of his blood for the United cause for as long as he his picked for the First Team. And even after that.

    He would not be ashamed to drop down into the U21s as senior player to coach and guide the next generation until his playing days are spent. Then he will forge a career in coaching at Carrington.

    In many people's eyes he is already a star. Certainly in the country he loves, he is a God. Everybody has been scanning the columns and listening to the Boss's comments to see if or when Darren is coming back.

    He's played several times recently, including a full 90 minutes for the U21s last week. He has put all his lost weight back on and has found a way to manage his condition, as Sir Steve Redgrave did.

    From the second he steps on that Old Trafford pitch he will be as big a star as he is ever going to be for the Red Devils. If United go on to win the EPL or ECL this season, you can bet that Darren will have given his all to get them over the line—if he's allowed to.

    God bless you, Darren.