BACK in the summer, when Liverpool and Manchester United were about to square up in a pre-season tournament in Miami, Darren Fletcher said that Brendan Rodgers’ men had set an example that he and his team-mates would be hoping to follow.
The Anfield side had come off the back of a poor season, where they had failed to qualify for Europe, and had turned things around, pushing Manchester City all the way to the final day of last season in the title contest. Fletcher said it proved that the Old Trafford team could be Premiership contenders this term, despite the fall from grace experienced since Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial abdication.
They won that match and, while their form may be patchy and their performance levels far from perfect as they head into the first competitive tussle of the campaign with Liverpool, Louis van Gaal’s men are still in the chase, occupying third place, and will be hoping to extend their current winning streak to six games at Old Trafford this afternoon.
But not everything is going according to Fletcher’s plan. In August, the Scot was a key man. Back to his fighting weight and full fitness following his lengthy battle with ulcerative colitis, he had amassed more pre-season game time than any other Manchester United player. He started the first three league matches but, with one defeat and two draws against Swansea, Sunderland and Burnley, there was a reshuffling of the pack. New signings were made, and Fletcher has featured in only six of the subsequent 12 league games – a measly 48 minutes of action.
From the moment the transfer window closed, the 30-year-old has been a bit-part player, the kind the gaffer calls on to warm up and head on with just a minute of regulation time remaining to help wind down the clock.
It’s not a role he will be happy to play for much longer, according to Gordon McQueen. Famously the man who claimed that “99 per cent of players want to play for Manchester United and the rest are liars”, he believes that his fellow Scot will already be coming to the conclusion that his playing career can only prosper if he moves away from the club he has called home since his youth.
Having come through the ranks under the watchful eye of Ferguson, Fletcher will show some loyalty to the employers who exhibited such patience and offered him so much support when he was sidelined with illness. But that spell on the fringes will also be exacerbating his frustration as he sits on the sidelines now, according to McQueen, who himself had to face up to life after Old Trafford when he was ultimately usurped by Paul McGrath.
“I don’t see how he can be happy just now,” added McQueen. “He is a footballer who just wants to play. He always has. It’s not about the money for him, it’s about playing and, although I don’t think it will impact on his Scotland career and Gordon Strachan will continue to include him in Scotland squads, all this time on the sidelines will be killing him.
“I had two lengthy spells out with injury, when I was 24 and 27, with Leeds and then with Manchester United, and I know what it is like to be desperate to get back playing. He won’t have worked so hard to get back to train all week and then get two or three minutes at the weekend.
“He will want to be involved in every game – especially the big ones – but, when you see big ones against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal and Manchester City come and go and you’re not starting, you know what that means. Players know when they are down the pecking order and no-one likes it, but when you have been used to playing on those big occasions or when you have been out for a long time or when you know that you are getting on a bit and time is running out, then you don’t just sit around and take it.”
Looking at the situation, McQueen, who works as a pundit for MUTV, believes the irony of the current situation is in the fact that, while Fletcher was always a favourite of Ferguson, the Old Trafford fans took their time to be won over, only really recognising the value of the lad from Midlothian when he was ruled out through illness. Now they want him in the team but the new manager and the coaching staff are apparently less enthusiastic.
“The fact is he is down the pecking order and, if you believe all the rumours, that’s not going to improve,” added McQueen.
While the defence was neglected, midfielders were enlisted in the summer, and Kevin Strootman and Christoph Kramer are allegedly on Van Gaal’s January shopping list as he looks to give himself even more options in that area. That would leave Fletcher further and further from a starting berth.
“He’s too long in the tooth not to recognise that. But Darren is a good person. He won’t be rash, he won’t make a song and dance about it, but I do think he will realise that he has to move on if he wants to play football and I think he does still want to play football.
“It will kill him to not be involved in games like this one against Liverpool. These are the games you love. He will believe that Manchester United will win, that’s the way you think when you play there, especially when you have played there as long as he has and had as much success as he has, and you don’t want to watch these big games for 88 minutes and then strip off for the final couple of minutes. He wants to play football. But he’s not daft, he knows he’s not going to get to do that at Manchester United any more.”