Talking about his nightmare condition was first step in Scotland star’s recovery
THERE have been so many significant moments in Darren Fletcher’s recent life that it is difficult to select only a few. But one low point was struggling to focus on television pictures of the England v Scotland clash in August while heavily sedated. He was preparing to undergo surgery he hoped would save a career he had originally planned to relaunch at Wembley.
The attractive idea of making his Scotland return in that game was a “false hope”, he admitted yesterday, just four days after another significant milestone – his 30th birthday. The long-awaited comeback was only delayed by the surgical procedure he underwent in late summer to counteract the debilitating effects of ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel condition that has robbed Fletcher of nearly two years of his career with Manchester United and Scotland.
“I have a mindset of wanting to make up for lost time,” he noted yesterday, the day after he was added to the United squad for their last-16 Champions League clash with Olympiacos later this month. Along with the eight appearances he has made for David Moyes’ side since his comeback in December, this is another sign that he is returning to full fitness, and that the chronic illness is being managed. The road back has been longer and perhaps more fraught than many realised. Even Fletcher admits he had to become humbled by a condition that he initially thought could be easily beaten into submission.
“I remember when I got first diagnosed I was very blasé about it. Looking back now that was very immature,” he acknowledged. “I was a young footballer playing in the Premier League for Manchester United. I felt on top of the world, I felt untouchable.”
It wasn’t until the symptoms returned in 2010 that he began what he described as his “real battle with ulcerative colitis”. And, after yesterday’s informative, revealing and, at times, emotional interview, it turns out that we didn’t know the half of it. For the first time, Fletcher shared in unflinching detail just what living with the illness has involved. While in its firmest grip, he was forced to go to the toilet “anywhere between 10, 20, 30 times a day, with not much time to get there”. It is not only dehydration which becomes an issue – there is also, perhaps horrifyingly for those unaware of how the condition impacts on a sufferer, a loss of blood. “You are so weak that you end up in hospital,” reported Fletcher. “I ended up on an IV drip a couple of times. Those are extreme examples, but it can happen.”
It is tough enough to handle for those not trying to play professional football with one of the world’s largest clubs, as Jon McLeish, son of Alex, yesterday confirmed. He, too, suffers from the condition. The 32-year-old, who first met Fletcher at a Scottish Cup final, is the inspiration behind United for Colitis, a new fundraising initiative in aid of the patient charity, Crohn’s and Colitis UK, with a gala dinner planned at Old Trafford next month. McLeish is one of thousands of unknown sufferers – or at least he was.
Fletcher and former England rugby captain Lewis Moody, who also helped launch United for Colitis at the Manchester United Aon training complex at Carrington, are the poster boys for the charity, if there can be such a thing. They have both felt the discomfort of having to open up to team-mates in the ultra-macho environment of the dressing-room. They both yesterday revealed frank details in public about an illness that is so difficult to talk about.
The news about Fletcher’s condition was finally confirmed by United in late 2012. Earlier there had been non-specific mentions of a virus by Sir Alex Ferguson to explain the player’s extended absence from the first team.
“I’ve had so many letters from mums and dads and children about how easy it’s made their life, that they can go to school,” said Fletcher, on the decision to disclose the real reason for his long spells on the sidelines.
“Instead of having to explain ulcerative colitis they can simply say ‘I have the same illness that Darren Fletcher has’. That’s made it so much easier in their lives. I drew inspiration from Lewis and Sir Steve Redgrave [the former Olympic rower is another high-profile sufferer]. Hopefully me adding my name to that list can help people.”
Fletcher now wishes he had opened up earlier, but then he was unsure of the prognosis, and what it meant for his career. “I stayed silent until around the end of 2011, 2012 because it’s not something that you generally talk about,” he explained, admitting that he even kept the condition a secret from his team-mates. “My close family and friends knew but no-one else knew at the club,” he added.
“I found it difficult making up stories for why I wasn’t at training, or looking ill or why I was rushing off to the bathroom. I found that very difficult, making up stories and basically lying to people’s faces. Once I started talking about it and made it public knowledge it was such a relief. It was the best thing I did.”
Another relief was discovering that football was not aggravating the condition. He was so determined to ensure his twin sons, Tyler and Jack, could rely on a father as close to full health as possible that he was prepared to retire from the game. “I stopped playing for six months to see if football and the physical stress of training every day was a reason why I was getting so ill,” he said. “But it turned out I was just as ill when I stopped playing football as I was when I played.
“The biggest thing for me is that it was just a relief when I played football,” he continued. “It didn’t feel like I had ulcerative colitis. For that 90 minutes on the pitch, I felt normal, I felt great. I dealt with ‘issues’ before the game, often right up to kick-off. But, as soon as I got onto the pitch, I never had an issue. It was my release.”
Life has a habit of moving the goalposts. Having made his debut for Scotland when only a teenager, Fletcher once spoke of wishing to emulate Kenny Dalglish by winning over 100 caps for Scotland.
“It’s something I would have liked to achieve, but you don’t know if that is going to be possible now,” he conceded ahead of what, fitness and form permitting, will be his 62nd cap against Poland next month. “The biggest thing for me now is playing in a tournament.
“I think that is my biggest aim now. To go with a Scotland squad that goes back into a major tournament is my goal now for the rest of my international career, without a shadow of a doubt.”
l Darren Fletcher and Lewis Moody were speaking at the launch of United For Colitis, a fundraising initiative in aid of Crohn’s and Colitis UK. The pair will host a gala dinner at Old Trafford on 27 March to raise funds and raise awareness of Crohn’s and Colitis.