Darren Fletcher will leave Manchester United as a bit of a hero, a fans’ favourite, which is something not even the most ardent supporter of the Scotsman could have believed a decade ago.
Billed initially as ‘the next David Beckham’, the skinny 11-year-old, who played on the right, joined United after Sir Alex Ferguson was personally responsible for signing him. Injuries halted his progress, with a broken foot the most costly of all of them. He came back too soon and broke it again, before missing another three months with an ankle injury. In total, he missed around two years of playing time when still a youngster.
United’s former manager clearly thought very highly of him though, even if supporters couldn’t work out why, and regularly threw him in to the first team as a teenager.
"Darren has a chance," Ferguson said after the midfielder’s debut against Basel in 2003. "He has had a difficult start to his career at the club. He was also physically very immature. He is still skin and bone really but he has very good ability and there is a lot of common sense about his play."
Roy Keane spoke for everyone when he asked why everyone in Scotland raved about Fletcher, in the interview that MUTV never aired and ultimately lead to the former captain’s departure. United had just got batted 4-1 by Middlesbrough and Fletcher was especially useless.
United’s next league game following that fateful thrashing was against Chelsea at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho’s team were 13 points ahead of seventh placed United and the odds didn’t look good. The decline of Manchester United was a popular topic in the media, with the belief that their glory days were over and they were about to enter the wilderness, as Liverpool had before them.
Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien started in the middle of the park for Chelsea, while United cobbled together a line-up including the likes of Alan Smith and Darren Fletcher in midfield. If football matches were played out on paper, United would have been well beaten that day.
This game was Fletcher’s 53rd for United and after Keane’s criticism, he had a point to prove.
Darren Fletcher celebrates victory after Manchester United’s win at Villa Park
With half an hour played, a 20-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo whipped in a great cross to the back post where Fletcher was waiting. He pulled away from Essien and managed to head the ball back across the face of goal, over a scrambling Petr Cech and a leaping John Terry, in to the top corner.
These were dark days for United fans. The Glazers had just taken over, the club had finished the season before empty-handed after losing in the FA Cup final to Arsenal on penalties, and they were below the likes of Wigan, Bolton and Charlton Athletic in the league.
The euphoria when the net bulged at Old Trafford that day had been absent for some time. That goal suggested the club weren’t dead and buried, as people had presumed, and when the final whistle blew to give United a 1-0 win, the atmosphere was incredible.
This result spring-boarded United in to their comeback season, which then set them up nicely for almost another decade of dominance.
Three weeks after beating Chelsea, United were second in the table and Fletcher was seen differently by some of the fans. Maybe Ferguson had been right after all.
“I'm not sure one goal changed people's view of me,” Fletcher reflected, years later. “It takes a longer process than that to show them what you're about. I'd like to think so anyway. If I could score one goal and become a hero then great, but I think it would have to be in a European Cup final. It was an important goal, though, because it was against Chelsea, a huge rival, and stopped their 40-game unbeaten run. It gave us a massive three points at a time when there was a little bit of doom and gloom about the place and helped my confidence a lot. But a consistent run of performances speaks more than a one-off goal.”
Of course, it would be foolish to try and pin all of United’s glory since then on Fletcher, but he did have a role to play by scoring that goal.
It’s what he did a few years later though, when he eventually did get a consistent run of good performances, that will be remembered as more important by the fans. While he didn’t win everyone over, he was seen as an important player for the club, and one regularly relied upon for the big games.
Darren Fletcher insists Manchester United will have the perfect response to criticism
It was another game against Chelsea, almost four years later, when Fletcher really began to turn from a player praised for a one-off goal to one putting in great performances. United were three points behind Chelsea ahead of kick-off, having played two games less after going to Japan to win the FIFA Club World Cup.
Fletcher had Smith for his central midfield partner before, and in this game it was Ryan Giggs, leaving supporters’ hearts in their mouths. But the Scotsman was fantastic. He bossed the midfield, had Lampard in his back pocket, and United battered Chelsea 3-0.
Still, this shouldn’t have come as a big surprise, as when he was faced with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Cesc Fabregas or Lampard, you’d fancy Fletcher to put in a good shift
"I love challenging myself against all the best players in the Premier League," Fletcher said in 2009. "When we play them I say to myself, ‘Right, I’m going to see how good you really are. I’m going to get against you and see how you like it. And when you’ve not got the ball I’m still going to get about you and see how you like it.
"I’m going to ask them, ‘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. And when we have the ball I am going to run you into the corner and you’re going to follow me. Are you ready for that? Because that’s what’s going to happen’."
It was his games against Arsenal, over the years, where this method was particularly useful, leading Arsene Wenger to brand him “anti-football” after United’s 2-1 win in 2010.
“That's where Arsène lets himself down," Ferguson said in Fletcher’s defence.
"Everyone knows that Darren Fletcher is not a dirty player. There have not been many big games that he has not played in over the last couple of years and it had maybe taken a while for the fans and press to appreciate what the boy has.
"I can understand that because he is not a stylish player by any means. He is ungainly and gangly but he is a fantastic player. His movement, energy and commitment in every game is wonderful to see. He must run more than anyone and when the team needs the ball he moves."
Darren Fletcher is looking forward to the new season
Still, for all the big games where he thrived, the biggest game of Fletcher’s career never happened and it was his energy and commitment which lead to his downfall.
After beating Arsenal 1-0 at Old Trafford in the Champions League semi-final in 2009, United were 3-0 up in the return leg. As defending champions of Europe, they had booked their place in the final again.
With 15 minutes left to play, Fabregas was on the ball in the box, and Fletcher made a fantastic challenge, which the ref deemed to be a foul, giving Fletcher a red card and awarding Arsenal a penalty. After the game, Wenger called the decision to send the United man off “very harsh”. Still, red card decision appeals can only be made in Europe in a case of mistaken identity, meaning Fletcher missed the final.
United got battered by Barcelona in Rome, with Xavi and Andres Iniesta running the show, leading to some delusion from the Red faithful. For weeks, months and even years, some supporters talked of how that night might have been different if Fletcher hadn’t been wrongly suspended.
As important as Fletcher was that season, he was no match for those Spaniards at their peak. But the occasion would have probably been far less humiliating if Fletcher had played in the place of Anderson or Michael Carrick, who incidentally played with a broken toe that evening.
Fletcher was robbed of his moment in a Champions League final, but he was also robbed of the best years of his career too. He was just 27 when he took an “extended break” from football because of ulcerative colitis, a chronic bowel disease which could, and probably should, have ended his career.
It has, essentially, ended his United career though. He has played just 40 games in three seasons since returning from his break, and of those 40 games, just 15 of them were Premier League starts, and 11 were for the full 90 minutes. Sadly, he hasn’t been able to establish himself in the team again.
“You look at it as a step down if you leave,” Fletcher said five years ago. “If you’re lucky enough to stay, you’ll have played at the top for your whole career and it doesn’t get much bigger than Manchester United. Players who left say, ‘think twice before you leave, because there’s nowhere like Manchester United. Everything about the club makes it the place you want to be. No-one really thinks about leaving when you’re here.”
Of course he would have liked to see out his career at United, but when he had the vice-captaincy taken off him, with Carrick put in his place, he had to know the writing was on the wall. He had to know his future wasn’t at United anymore.
Still, if the terms of his deal with West Ham are accurate, a reported £75k-a-week for another three and a half seasons, he would have been daft to turn it down.
As much as supporters can wish him well and agree that the decision to leave is the right one, Fletcher will be missed at Manchester United. The ultimate professional, completely committed, desperate to win, always keen to improve and humble beyond belief.
The ending of his football story was supposed to be at United, and it may yet will be if he returns to the club in a coaching capacity in the future, but maybe the fairytale finale is that he gets to play football at all, even if outside Manchester, when so many people believed his career to be over.
For a lesser player and person, maybe this transfer to West Ham wouldn’t ever have been possible, so there will be nothing but good wishes and good luck from the United fanbase.
Scott Patterson is the founder of Republik of Mancunia.