AHEAD of another European Championship qualifying campaign, which for Scotland starts this evening in Dortmund against Germany, manager Gordon Strachan has made it his business to accentuate the positives.
There is no more reassuring sight for a player, he said last week, than looking in front of them in the tunnel and seeing Darren Fletcher with armband strapped around his arm, ready to go.
Sadly, this was not the case at the start of the previous qualifying campaign. Fletcher was absent as Scotland stumbled in the opening two matches against Serbia and Macedonia. Craig Levein, the then manager, was forced to go without his skipper, and one of his most influential players. Two disappointing home draws left Scotland with everything to do in the group.
Levein is perhaps due some clemency since his reign coincided with the start of Fletcher’s illness struggles. The player clearly wasn’t able to operate at full capacity, when he was able to operate at all. But then Strachan, too, has been denied the midfielder’s services when it mattered. Tonight stands as the pair’s first competitive game together.
At the start of the last campaign, Fletcher was already struggling with the debilitating affects of ulcerative colitis, the bowel condition.
Although he very deliberately pointed out yesterday that he never played when he ought not to have done, it is fair to speculate that he wasn’t 100 per cent fit on those few occasions that he did appear. How could he be? He played only two matches in the campaign, against Wales and Belgium. Both ended in defeat. He has not appeared competitively for Scotland since.
“I knew I wasn’t at the top of my game and was suffering, but being out on the park was a release for me,” Fletcher reflected yesterday.
“But, you know, it became the norm for me. I don’t want to sound like I was playing when I wasn’t ready to play or I shouldn’t have been playing because it wasn’t the case. I was never in such a low way that I couldn’t play. It was when I stopped, that’s when I was at my lowest.”
It is not a case of simply hoping these days are gone now. They are gone. “I’m past all the sentimental stuff,” he stressed. “I’m just back to where I was, competing and trying to win things. I don’t have the condition any more. It’s not even a case of being on top of it. I just don’t have it. That’s a result of the operation. I feel fantastic now.”
This is music to the ears of not only Fletcher’s teammates, but also Strachan and the Scotland supporters. The manager has been careful not to apply any undue pressure on Fletcher.
Although he mentioned that anyone would look at the Manchester United skipper and think “I’m glad he’s on my side”, Strachan also pointed out that Fletcher’s rehabilitation cannot possibly yet be complete.
The manager predicted that it will take at least another two months for Fletcher to be back to his very best. The player’s bid to reclaim full match fitness has been helped by Louis van Gaal’s decision to name Fletcher as one of his key men. Not only has he been appointed vice-captain by the Dutchman, but Fletcher has also started every Manchester United league game this season.
“I feel very good but it’s all about getting consistent games under your belt,” mused Fletcher, when Strachan’s view was put to him. “I think he was looking at it from that point of view. You see players when they get ten, 12 games, and really find their form.
“I’ve had a pre-season where I’ve played a lot of minutes. I’ve started the first three league games so I feel fitter and stronger all the time. But I can definitely see where he [Strachan] is coming from. The more games I get, the fitter and more confident I’m going to get. I feel fantastic. I feel I’m in a good place now.”
So, too, are Scotland, after six games without defeat. However, there are few more challenging places to seek to maintain an unbeaten run than inside the steep slopes of the Westfalenstadion, where Germany have chosen to play tonight’s game.
Perhaps surprisingly, Fletcher has not played in the stadium before, nor has he watched a game there. He has, though, tasted victory in Germany before in a Scotland shirt, playing a part in the winner Shaun Maloney scored in an Under-21s fixture in 2003, the night before the full international side fell to a 2-1 defeat in Dortmund under Berti Vogts.
“It is one of the most famous arenas with that big stand behind the goal,” he said. “I was here with the Scotland Under-21s. We were going to be watching the full team but I had to fly back instead. I’m looking forward to playing in that stadium. It’s another famous one to tick off the list.”
There is something else Fletcher is desperate to cross off from his bucket list – an appearance at a major finals. At 30 years old, France 2016 could be his last opportunity. With 24 sides competing at Euro 2016 in France, qualifying is theoretically easier. The second-place finishers in each group all qualify automatically, as does the best third-place side from the nine groups. The other eight third-place teams can qualify through playoffs.
“I wouldn’t say that going to a major finals is all I want to achieve but it is something I want to do,” said Fletcher.
“It would be disappointing if that didn’t happen, but you do the best you can as a team to get there. It’s a collective group. It’s not just about me getting there, it’s about the team and the country and everyone getting there.”
There is a hope that Fletcher can reclaim the time he has lost due to illness at the other end of his career, so perhaps he might yet be able to lead Scotland to the World Cup finals as well. But if not, he has already reached the stage of acceptance. Indeed, he feels blessed that the career-saving operation he underwent late last year has proved so successful.
“Hopefully I can add a couple of years at the end of my career, I’d like to think so,” he said.
“Maybe my joints and muscles have taken a rest. I consider myself to be very fortunate to be sitting here. I am very fortunate for everything I don’t really feel cheated. It was disappointing. But I am not really looking back. I am looking forward now. That’s the best way to be.”