On February 16, 2008, I was visiting a friend in England. We hung around the city of Leeds that day and made sure to be home by 5:15 that afternoon to watch Manchester United take on Arsenal in the fifth round of the FA Cup. A
t the time, Arsenal were ahead of United in the league, and both teams acknowledged that this match had more on the line then a regular FA Cup match. This was the most important match at the time that season.
As the teams took the field I looked at the TV and saw Darren Fletcher emerge from the tunnel. At this point I screamed, "What is Darren Fletcher doing on the field? Why is he out there? Are we TRYING to lose this game?" My friend's roommate then said, "It could be worse—it could be John O' Shea."
That was the logic that got me to calm down, and it was the truth; it could have been worse. But back then that was the way United fans looked at Darren Fletcher. He was very average and he played for a team that had a wealth of central midfielders.
That February, United had many options for a central midfielder besides Fletcher. They had Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, the young, exciting, newly-signed Anderson, Owen Hargreaves, and John O' Shea. Many of them were more exciting options then Fletcher so why, oh why was Fletcher playing in the most important game of the season?
Well, the joke seemed to be on me that night as Fletcher scored two goals and United won 4-0. Fast-forward another year when Fletcher was influential in seeing off Arsenal in the semifinals of the Champions League. When he was sent off in the second leg, United appealed to UEFA to allow him to play in the finals.
Now move to this season. Fletcher has become a lock to make the starting XI in any big match. He has received much criticism from around the league about the way he plays, including recently from Arsene Wenger claiming that he ruins football.
Fletcher has become one of the most important player in the United team. Of United's five losses last season (I'm not counting the two losses against Chelsea since those would not have been losses if Chelsea had to play by the same offsides rule as everyone else) and Fletcher was only a midfielder in one of those matches.
Three of those losses came with Fletcher filling at right back, while the others came with him on the bench. A trip to Anfield saw Lucas and Mascherano run wild on Scholes and Carrick. However, with the inclusion of Fletcher in the return fixture at Old Trafford, United were able to control the midfield and end their three-match losing streak to their rivals.
Fletcher has undoubtedly grown and improved during his time at Old Trafford. A name that fans used to cringe at when they saw him on the team sheet, now along with Paul Scholes he forms one of the best midfield pairings in England.
He has become a tremendous pest in the midfield who not only takes the ball away from opponents but can pass it off to teammates as well. Fletcher's play is beginning to remind me of another great United midfielder, Roy Keane. Is it any coincidence that the emergence of Fletcher has allowed Scholes to keep consistently playing at such a high level when people thought he would have faded by now?
Fletcher has not only been a pest in midfield but has become a great weapon for United as well. He scored the two big goals in the aforementioned Arsenal game, as well as a very important two goals in the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford last season. Fletcher also added an incredible goal against Everton as well as his first Champions League goal against AC Milan.
While Fletcher's name used to be a frightening sight on the United team-sheet, his hard work at Old Trafford has made him one of the most important players in the squad. When a big game comes for United, Darren Fletcher is needed on the pitch if United are to win.