AS DARREN Fletcher has come to appreciate more than most, defeat on a football pitch should always be placed in its proper perspective.
Simply by taking his place in the Scotland side narrowly beaten by World Cup winners Germany in Dortmund last night, Fletcher was claiming a major personal victory.
The Manchester United player’s career was not only put on hold but placed at serious risk during his battle to overcome the debilitating effects of ulcerative colitis.
So as Fletcher made his first competitive appearance for his country in almost two years, he was entitled to feel a sense of pride regardless of the outcome. Such is his competitive instinct, it may take time for him to see that bigger picture as he deals with the disappointment of a losing start to Scotland’s European Championship qualifying campaign.
But this was a special night nonetheless for the 30-year-old as he captained his country for the 24th time, moving ahead of another of the Tartan Army’s favourite midfield operators, Archie Gemmill, in the all-time list.
There are now only six men who skippered Scotland more often than Fletcher – the iconic George Young, whose tally of 48 may never be eclipsed, leading the way ahead of Billy Bremner (39), Gary McAllister (33), Barry Ferguson (28), Graeme Souness (27) and Roy Aitken (27).
Last night also saw him move into the top ten of Scotland’s most-capped players, his 63rd appearance allowing him to relegate Danny McGrain to 11th place.
But while finding himself among such illustrious company will clearly be a source of pride for Fletcher, there is one accomplishment he craves above all others in a dark blue jersey.
So far, he has been part of six unsuccessful attempts to reach the finals of a major tournament – some of them admirable and agonisingly close, others so wretched they are best forgotten.
Throughout it all, Fletcher’s commitment to the Scotland cause has never wavered. Neither has his belief that the day will eventually come when he will be wearing the armband while on duty at the business end of either a European Championship or World Cup.
Euro 2016 should offer him his best opportunity yet to get there, with the finals extended to 24 teams for the first time.
But this was a fixture which would underline just how difficult it will still be for Scotland to successfully negotiate a path to France in two years’ time. Those who believed this was the best time to face the Germans on their own patch, a view strengthened by their midweek friendly defeat at home to Argentina, had that opinion challenged almost immediately.
Joachim Low’s side were dominant from kick-off, hogging possession with almost contemptuous ease. Fletcher found himself almost exclusively restricted to defensive duties, attempting to offer much-needed additional protection to his back four in concert with his fellow holding midfielder Charlie Mulgrew.
It did not help to settle the Scots that their own ball retention was poor, Fletcher among those culpable as his first couple of passes went astray. When Thomas Müller contrived to direct a free header wide from close range in the eighth minute, the signs looked ominous for the visitors. It was a warning shot across their bows which was not heeded.
Before Müller did convert a header to give Germany their breakthrough ten minutes later, there was a teasing hint of Scotland’s potential threat on the counter-attack when a break led by Ikechi Anya ended with Barry Bannan’s shot being deflected wide for a corner.
But that was an all-too-rare example of Fletcher and his team-mates escaping from the stranglehold the world champions had placed on proceedings. David Marshall was provided with no shortage of opportunities to vindicate Strachan’s decision to prefer him ahead of Allan McGregor in goal for the Scots.
The Cardiff City No 1 limited the damage sustained by his team before half-time, making a smart stop to keep out a well-struck shot from the excellent Marco Reus and then reacting well to prevent Grant Hanley from scoring an own goal.
The first period did end on an encouraging note for Scotland with another raid allowing Anya to post their first attempt on target, albeit the little Watford man had to stretch to get away his left-foot shot from the edge of the area which was comfortably held by Manuel Neuer.
There was a noticeable effort on the part of the Scots to press Germany higher up the pitch at the start of the second half and it almost reaped an immediate dividend with Alan Hutton’s burst forward helping to create a chance for Steven Naismith whose low shot clipped the outside of Neuer’s right hand post.
This was a re-energised Scotland, but there were signs of fatigue from their captain. Strachan had observed earlier this week that it will take several months before Fletcher returns to optimum form and condition following his well-publicised battle to overcome illness and it was a demanding pace being set in Dortmund.
It is remarkable to recall that Fletcher first captained Scotland ten years ago in a friendly against Estonia in Tallinn. At 20, he was the youngest skipper for more than 100 years. He became first choice captain for the first time in 2009, in the wake of ‘Boozegate’ and Barry Ferguson’s subsequent departure from the international scene.
Fletcher had been in the Westfalenstadion before, but as a spectator back in 2003 when Scotland lost 2-1 in a Euro 2004 qualifier. He was part of the under-21 squad who had recorded a famous 1-0 win over their German hosts just down the road in Ahlen, Fletcher setting up the decisive goal for Shaun Maloney.
He was fast-tracked into the senior squad by Berti Vogts before the end of that qualifying campaign and has been an automatic choice, when fit and well, ever since. When Scott Brown, such an effective captain and performer for Strachan’s side during Fletcher’s absence, returns to action, it will be intriguing to see whether the manager automatically decides to accommodate both of them in his starting line-up.
For now, it was simply gratifying to see Fletcher back in action, even if his involvement ended before the hour mark as he was replaced by James McArthur as part of a double substitution by Strachan. It was the introduction of another of the Fletcher clan, Steven, for Bannan which proved telling as Scotland grabbed a stunning 66th minute equaliser. On the balance of play at the time, it did not flatter them as the Sunderland striker brilliantly held the ball up before playing a perfectly-timed pass into the path of Anya who raced clear to coolly slot a right-foot shot beyond Neuer.
Frustratingly, it was a parity Scotland could maintain for just four minutes as woefully-indecisive defending at a corner, with McArthur and Hanley both unable to effect clearances, allowed Muller to score his second of the night from close range.
Charlie Mulgrew’s needless dismissal for a second bookable offence in the closing minutes, ruling the Celtic man out of the next game against Georgia at Ibrox on 11 October, rubbed salt in Scottish wounds. The toughest test is now behind Strachan’s men but major challenges still lie ahead.