At first glance, a 67-minute showing with the Under-21s might not look like much, but to Darren Fletcher the return to competitive football represents just the latest step in a recovery from ulcerative colitis he hopes will take him back into Manchester United’s first team.
“It’s been a long time so it’s good to get back tonight,” he said, adding, “I’ve been training for a few weeks now and the next progression is to get some match time. I enjoyed it.”
Fletcher, who last played a Premier League match on Boxing Day 2012, has participated in full training for just over a month and would represent a massive boost to the United midfield should his comeback take him into manager David Moyes’ plans.
At times this season the Red Devils have appeared unsteady in the centre of the park, and while Michael Carrick’s priority continues to be ball distribution, the England international hasn’t had a midfield partner alongside to help close down the opposition buildup.
Fletcher, at his best, is an accomplished ball-winner who makes excellent use of space. After breaking into the United first team in 2003 he quickly became a favourite of former manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
The outgoing boss rated his fellow Scot so highly that in his public remarks after his final match at Old Trafford he made sure to mention Fletcher, who used that encouragement as he looked to regain his health and fitness following January surgery.
“I was just blown away,” he told the Daily Record. “For (Ferguson), at that moment, to take the time to think and to speak of me was fantastic, and it just shows the measure of the man.”
He added: “Him speaking like that, after everything he has done for you, you want to get back as a thank-you almost to him and to the club for the way they have been with me.”
It wasn’t the first time Ferguson had singled out the Scotland captain for praise.
Following defeat to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final, he mused that the suspended Fletcher might have made a difference in taking space away from the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
“I thought before the game it may have been a problem,” Ferguson told The Guardian when asked about Fletcher’s absence. “I know it might count against us because (Fletcher) is such a big-game player. And he was a big loss for us.”
Thankfully for United, he might be back before long.
Addressing his chances of a quick return to the United first team following the Fulham match, Fletcher told MUTV: “You’ll have to speak with David Moyes. He’s been speaking to me regularly. He’s busy with the first team but has given me the time.”