MIDWAY through a traumatic season in which Manchester United find themselves in the throes of a crisis far deeper than many expected, one of the few positives for their troubled supporters is the return from illness of Darren Fletcher.
Since his comeback as a substitute at Villa Park last month, when the visiting fans applauded his every touch, the 29-year-old Scotland international has made seven appearances, three from the start, in a side whose next assignment is against Chelsea this afternoon.
The significance of Fletcher’s re-emergence cannot be overstated. After a worrying, three-year battle with ulcerative colitis – an inflammatory bowel disease – he is not just back in the team, he is performing well and being hailed in some quarters as the solution to United’s acute midfield problems.
Those, more than anything, have been blamed for the team’s worst start to a season in 24 years. While the absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie from United’s forward line is only temporary, there are no heavyweights ready to bolster a midfield that has never identified a replacement for Paul Scholes.
Anderson, now heading for Fiorentina on loan, failed to fulfil his early promise. Phil Jones, who has been a capable deputy for the injured Michael Carrick, is primarily a defender. And Tom Cleverley, an England international, has contrived to come up short just when his club needed him most.
Recently, though, there have been encouraging signs. First was the return of Fletcher, then that of Carrick, who had been out for nearly seven weeks. Against Swansea City last weekend, they started alongside each other for the first time this season, instigating a 2-0 win that ended United’s run of three straight defeats.
Fletcher and Carrick formed a productive partnership four years ago. Some argue that United might have won the 2009 Champions League had the Scot not been suspended for the final against Barcelona. The following season, he was named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year. His illness got the better of him just when he was proving himself at the highest level.
He has had a few comebacks, all of them brief, but this one is gathering strength. In the Swansea game, his third start, and his second full 90 minutes, he dictated play in front of the back four, diligently closed down opponents and was confident enough to execute a cheeky backheel in the closing stages. While his performance was overshadowed by that of Adnan Januzaj, it did not go unnoticed by the club’s followers. “Like a new signing,” was the most popular sentiment on Twitter.
Heaven knows they need one. Marouane Fellaini was their only acquisition last summer, but so far, due to the loss of both fitness and form, the Belgian has repaid none of the club’s £27.5 million investment. David Moyes has struggled with the remaining players, from whom Sir Alex Ferguson squeezed every last drop. At the very least, Fletcher’s availability has allowed his new manager to begin the reconstruction of his squad with, for example, the release of Anderson.
According to Michael Stewart, the former Hearts and Hibs midfielder who started his career with Manchester United, the return of his former team-mate is a huge boost for the club. “He’s a valuable player, especially in a position where it is quite clear that United are struggling. They are in need of reinforcements so it’s a very timely return for him. There is an opportunity for him to play a big part in the rest of the season.”
Fletcher is more disciplined with United than he used to be with Scotland. Even before his illness, he was learning to complement the more creative Carrick. Against Swansea, his marking was tight and his possession tidy, so much so that 64 of his 69 passes were completed. Moyes has been pleasantly surprised by his quality on the ball.
While he will never be someone who routinely picks out team-mates from 60 yards, as Scholes did every day on the training ground, he knits teams together. He also reserves his best for the big games, which is why Sir Alex turned to him in the away legs of Champions League ties. It is also why his comeback is almost certain to continue at Stamford Bridge today.
“The biggest thing is his mentality,” says Stewart. “Throughout his career, he has stayed a very level-headed guy who doesn’t get too high or too low. And that’s obviously stood him in very good stead for what has undoubtedly been a difficult few years.
“It took a fair amount of mental fortitude to get through all that. Having spoken to him during it, I know that there were a few occasions when he was at a low ebb and there were serious concerns about whether that was going to be it. But given the person he is, he was always going to give it his best attempt.”
Fletcher will be an example to United’s younger, less experienced players at a time when they badly need leadership. He has been at the club all his life. He understands its ethos. He knows how unacceptable it is for them to lose a match, never mind three in a row.
Scotland, too, will benefit once again from his captaincy, even if they have managed rather well in his absence. “From Darren’s perspective, Scotland have come on leaps and bounds since he was last involved,” says Stewart. “That will make his comeback a lot easier. It will take a lot of the pressure off his shoulders.”
There must have been times when Fletcher wondered if he would ever play again, never mind be heralded as the saviour of United’s season. Last May, when Sir Alex wished him a speedy recovery in his retirement speech, a leadership role in United’s ailing team was probably not in the plans.
Still, after everything he has been through, this is an opportunity, rather than a burden, for Fletcher. He can be proud that, after all the uncertainty, all the sympathy, all the support from the club’s staff and supporters, the question is no longer what Manchester United can do for him, but what he can do for Manchester United.