Darren Fletcher kept faith in Hampden return

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RECOVERED from serious illness – check. Back playing regular first-team football – check. Captain of Scotland at Hampden again – check. Complete 90 minutes for Scotland for first time in more than two years – check.

As Darren Fletcher works his way through his ‘to-do list’, he can be both gratified and satisfied at the progress he is currently making.

Darren Fletcher led Scotland to victory over Northern Ireland. Picture: John Devlin

Darren Fletcher led Scotland to victory over Northern Ireland. Picture: John Devlin

Wednesday night was another landmark moment for the midfielder who has now put the ulcerative colitis condition which threatened his playing career firmly behind him and is thriving once more at club level following his recent move from Manchester United to West Bromwich Albion.

The 1-0 win over Northern Ireland was Fletcher’s first appearance at the national stadium for his country since September 2011 and also the first time he has played the full 90 minutes for the national team since November 2012.

“I always believed I’d be back playing at Hampden one day,” reflected Fletcher. “I had to have that mindset but I truly believed it as well.

“You are made aware by different people that it might not be the case but my mindset was always positive. Thankfully, that has been the case.

I’d take a 1-0 win against Gibraltar. Winning is the most important thing

Darren Fletcher

“Being back at Hampden and getting the victory maybe feels like a box ticked for me. But there are plenty more boxes to tick – even without all the issues I’ve gone through.

“It’s been a long time since I felt this good playing for Scotland – you are probably going back four or five years, to be honest.

“I felt good in the game on Wednesday. You always think you can do better but I enjoyed myself and the biggest thing is I felt really fit.

“I’m not thinking about fitness now, I’m just concentrating on the game. That’s when you know you’re really coming on. You are not think about managing yourself in the game, or that your legs are tired, or you’re blowing a bit. None of that.

“For me, that’s a great positive. Hampden is a big pitch but I enjoyed being part of what was quite a good team performance overall.

“I still think there is more to come as well. I feel stronger with every 90 minutes and hopefully that continues.

“I’m not missing a day’s training now. Once you get three or four 90 minutes in your legs, which I’ve had at West Brom, it makes a real difference. I felt like I could go again after playing against Northern Ireland. That shows I’m getting all my strength back. It’s been a while coming, but I feel it’s finally here.”

When Fletcher says he has remaining “boxes to tick”, there is little doubt as to which one tops his list.

Having been part of six unsuccessful qualifying campaigns during his 67-cap Scotland career so far, the 31-year-old is determined to help his country reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1998.

The expanded Euro 2016 finals offer a huge opportunity for Gordon Strachan’s squad who can enhance their already promising position in Group D when they face Gibraltar at Hampden on Sunday.

“Qualifying for a tournament has always been the main goal for me and it still is,” added Fletcher. “So it’s an exciting time right now. We are in a great position in our group but I think the hard work is still to come. I’ve been there personally before when we have been in good positions but fallen at the last hurdle. Getting the last point or points in the group and seeing it out is the difficult thing. All the lads know that and hopefully we can do it this time.

“I would take a 1-0 win against Gibraltar. Winning the game is the most important thing. You saw against Northern Ireland that when you create chances but don’t score it can become a long night. Fans get impatient, players get impatient.

“We have to take the game to Gibraltar and try and get that first goal as early as possible. The game becomes a little bit easier from there. But if it doesn’t come we have to show the patience we did on Wednesday night.

“We can learn from that game that we don’t have to force it at times, maybe play more side to side to create the gaps. Fans don’t want to see that but sometimes it has to be done.

“Also, though, you can see that we have people who have a real desire to keep going and keep trying. That takes great courage as well, when you maybe try and pass it forward and it doesn’t come off. You have to be brave to do it again and a lot of our players showed that.”

Fletcher captained Scotland for the 25th time on Wednesday but doubts remain over who will be given the armband by Strachan on a longer-term basis.

Scott Brown, who wore it during Fletcher’s absence through illness, was an unused sub against Northern Ireland but will almost certainly start against Gibraltar.

“There is a lot of talk about the captaincy from outside the camp but I don’t think it’s an issue inside the squad,” said Fletcher.

“Scott and I are both professional and take great pride in captaining our country. But we have a great relationship so there will be no issues, whoever is captain.

“It’s something I keep reading about, but for us there is no issue. It will be the manager’s decision and we’ll respect that. Whoever it is will do their best to lead the country forward.”

Fletcher’s decision to leave United, the club he had been with since leaving school, was not taken lightly last month. He revealed he leant on the counsel of former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and is now relishing his new challenge under Tony Pulis at West Brom.

“Sir Alex is always just a phone call away for me,” said Fletcher. “I bounced ideas off him, although it wasn’t a case of him telling me what to do. It was more about tapping into his knowledge.

“He always gives great advice and is always there for me. He does it with a lot of his old players and I feel very fortunate I can do it.

“It makes sense that if I’m playing regularly at club level, then I’ll have more chance of playing for Scotland.

“Tony Pulis at West Brom has been fantastic. He had a real desire for me to come to the club. When a manager puts a lot of faith in you, you really want to play for him. I really want to do well for him because he has done a lot for me.

“We have done well so far. We still have a bit of work to do, but our form and performances have been very good. That’s down to the manager and I’m enjoying every minute of working with him. He is a real man’s man and I’m responding to him so hopefully that continues.

“It has been a smooth transition and I think that is credit to the club, the manager, the players, the people around the place. There is a real family environment at West Brom and one I have enjoyed. It’s not been difficult at all to make the transition from United. I’m enjoying every minute.”

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