Kieran Guilbert

Darren Fletcher: back from the brink

Created on 16 Oct., 2012 8:21 PM GMT

Just under a year ago, Darren Fletcher was told that he would never play football again. Told he would never again captain his country. Told he would never again step out to the adulation of 75,000 fans at his boyhood club. Told he would not even be able to kick a ball in the garden with his twin sons.

After an 11-month break from football in which Fletcher has battled with ulcerative colitis, a rare inflammatory bowel disease, the Manchester United and Scotland midfielder has defied all logic and exceeded all expectations by playing once more for his club and country.

The 28-year-old marked his astonishingly swift return to the game last month as a substitute for United in a UEFA Champions League tie against Galatasaray. The rapturous reception he received from the Old Trafford faithful showed the extent to which his tenacity, drive and determination had been missed. These qualities have long defined Fletcher on the pitch, but it is off the pitch where he has needed them the most.

The severity of ulcerative colitis should not be underestimated. The chronic bowel disease leads to frequent diarrhoea, stomach pains and a crippling lack of energy. It is a frustratingly inconsistent condition that comes and goes, often for months or even years at a time. At its worst, patients can be forced to go to the toilet up to 10 times a day and thus can never stray too far from the bathroom. According to Dr Ian Arnott, a leading specialist in ulcerative colitis, the life of a colitis sufferer is comparable to a never-ending cycle of severe food poisoning. 

In Fletcher’s case, he was first diagnosed with the condition around five or six years ago but took medication that initially kept it under control.  However, his health rapidly deteriorated over the last couple of seasons and after scoring in a 2-2 draw with Benfica last November, the Scotsman announced that he had accepted medical advice to take an extended break from football.

Looking back, Fletcher admits he was naïve to believe that he could deal with his condition through medication alone, but expressed his relief to be back on the pitch.

“The condition never goes away and that’s the thing I have to live with. Every day is a battle for me. I have to watch my diet and take certain medication or it could come back again,” he said.

“But the position I’m in now, compared to where I was? I’d gladly accept being like this for the rest of my life. It’s not ideal but it’s manageable.”

While he still has a long way to go in terms of regaining match fitness and putting back on the weight and muscle lost during his footballing hiatus, Fletcher has impressed on his return to football, immediately forcing his way back into the plans of Sir Alex Ferguson and Scotland manager Craig Levein.

Following his cameo against Galatasaray, Fletcher has played two full matches for Manchester United, a 2-1 win over Newcastle in the Capital One Cup and a victory by the same scoreline against CFR Cluj in the Champions League. In the former, Fletcher gave a disciplined performance, his holding role in a midfield diamond allowing Tom Cleverley and Anderson the freedom to forage forward and forgo their defensive duties.  In the latter, he again effectively shielded the back four and was responsible in possession, with 131 passes attempted at a 91% success rate.  Although Fletcher’s stamina and physicality will take some time to recover, he has lost none of his positional intelligence and ability to read the game as a box-to-box midfielder.

At United, the depth and quality of their squad means that Fletcher may struggle to break back into the first team. However, Ferguson’s recent shift in formation to a diamond midfield could mean that he will not have to wait much longer. Fletcher’s tactical awareness, maturity in possession and hard tackling no-nonsense make him the ideal defensive axis in a diamond.  He is younger and more mobile than Michael Carrick , and far more reliable than the erratic Anderson.  One criticism often leveled at United is that they can be overrun in midfield due to a lack of solidity and steel. The return of a fully fit Fletcher could well be the answer to address this apparent weakness.

Whereas his club is in a position to ease Fletcher back into first team football, it is not a luxury that his country can afford to take. After Scotland finished third in their Euro 2012 qualifying group (behind Spain and the Czech Republic), their seventh successive failure to reach a major tournament, the pressure has been on Levein to make a solid start to 2014 World Cup qualification.  A promising 0-0 draw with Serbia was followed up by a disappointing 1-1 with Macedonia, making last weekend’s encounter with Wales something of an early crunch match. Fletcher was flung straight into the foray, taking back the captain’s armband, but he could not prevent Wales from securing a late 2-1 victory and dealing a huge blow to Scotland’s chances of progressing from a group that also includes Belgium and Croatia. While the harsh glare of the media spotlight is unsurprisingly on Levein, one can only hope that Fletcher is allowed to stay in the shadows and given time to regain his form, rather than being saddled with the expectation of a returning saviour.

Over the course of his career, Darren Fletcher has never been the type of man to shy away from a fight. He has dealt with savage criticism on live television from his former captain Roy Keane, coped with widespread cynicism from United fans that doubted his ability as a youngster and now he has overcome a life changing bowel condition. Before his break from football, Fletcher told a club fanzine ‘United We Stand’ that he challenges every opponent with the following quips.

“Do you fancy it? Do you like getting kicked? Do you like the fact I am going to be at you for the whole 90 minutes?’

“As soon as you get the ball I am going to be in your face. You are not going to like it one bit. Are you ready for that because that’s what’s going to happen.”

Opposition midfielders in the Premier League should be wary the next time they face Manchester United. Darren Fletcher is back, and more determined than ever. 

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