Darren Barr Fletcher has come a long way since FA rules precluded Sir Alex Ferguson from including him in United’s squad for the Premier League trip to Aston Villa in May 2000. Fletcher, gangly 16-year-old schoolboy, the next great creative talent to follow David Beckham and Paul Scholes into United’s midfield. Nearly a decade later and Fletcher has transformed himself into the vital destructive heartbeat of the United side. No longer the love that dare not speak its name.
Injuries meant that Fletcher wasn’t able to make his full United début until 2003, making 35 appearances in the following season. Through the following four seasons Fletcher flitted in and out of the United side, often appearing out of position on the right flank. Fans, unconvinced, cruelly dubbed the Dalkeith-born Scot The Scottish Player. Roy Keane went further and singled out Fletcher in his now infamous 2005 MUTV putdown: “I can’t understand why people in Scotland rave about Darren Fletcher.”
The signatures of Anderson and Owen Hargreaves in the summer of 2007 came close to ending Fletcher’s time at the club. Fletcher’s loyalty to United and Sir Alex tested by years of warming the bench. Few fans would have blamed him for leaving, or indeed shed many tears.
But injuries to Hargreaves and the inconsistent form of Anderson have offered Fletcher a chance in his favoured central midfield role. How the Scot has taken it – Fletcher made 42 appearances in all competitions last season and is now almost always picked for the biggest games. That the Scot missed last season’s Champions League final was not only desperately unlucky for the player, but for the team too.
“People ask me why I do well in those games but I don’t think I do anything differently,” Fletcher told The Daily Mail in an interview earlier this season. “I think I always play like that but it is only when you are up against the best teams that people notice the work being done in midfield.”
From gangly teenager, to midfielder pariah, to an “automatic pick,” according to United legend Paddy Crerand. Such is Fletcher’s current form that Owen Hargreaves will struggle to get back into the United side should he ever return from fitness.
“For the big games I think the manager would pick Fletcher, he’d be first on the team sheet. Darren has made the point that he wants to be the number one choice in midfield. And he’s playing well enough to be number one. I almost don’t need to make the point for him, he’s making a strong enough case himself.”
Indeed, Fletcher has started the new season in outstanding form with man-of-the-match performances against both Wigan Athletic and Arsenal. “He’s been playing like that for quite a few years now. I think the fans are starting to appreciate him, that’s the only difference,” says Crerrand.
While fans have long underestimated the merits of Fletcher’s passing, the Scot was too often used out of position on the right flank, without the requisite pace or skills to make the best of the role. When Fletcher did get the chance to play in central midfield, he often played as if he had yet to find his true vocation. Fletcher the gifted teenager took time to mature into the midfield terrier of his mid-20s.
Crerand goes further, claiming that United fans unfairly placed Fletcher alongside the greats of United’s midfield of the early naughties.
“For a long time Darren was a scapegoat. When he came through he played alongside Roy Keane and Paul Scholes and there aren’t many players in English football, never mind for United, who’ve been as good as those two,” argues fellow Scot Crerand.
“He’s a tremendous passer and doesn’t get the credit for that sometimes. All you hear is that he gets in at people. But he is enthusiastic and whole-hearted, and fans love that,” said Crerrand.
Indeed they do and Fletcher is winning over more by the week. Fletcher puts his improved performances down to hard work and the right attitude.
“I’m the only one still here from my year group. There were others who could control, pass and shoot the ball as good as me but I think football is played in your head,” Fletcher told The Mail.
“It is the way you deal with everything: being at Manchester United, the expectation, the crowd, the nervousness, all of that pressure. The game is played up there before you go on the pitch, and I had that strength.”
Roy Keane would approve and Fletcher deserves huge credit for his improvement.