THE road back has been long and torturous and there is still some distance left to run.
Darren Fletcher’s return to football, originally pencilled in for next week’s Scotland versus England clash, is not quite so imminent, sadly.
However, the Scotland skipper yesterday recalled how hearing Sir Alex Ferguson mention his name in his farewell speech boosted his rehabilitation process, which has become as much about his mental state as his physical condition. Boosts such as the one Ferguson gave him in May have helped enormously.
Even many with no personal association to Ferguson found themselves wiping tears from their eyes as the Manchester United manager made an unscripted speech from the Old Trafford pitch immediately after the victory over Swansea. From the hundreds of players who have played under him, Ferguson made direct reference to only two: Paul Scholes and Fletcher. Ferguson wished Fletcher a “speedy comeback” from the chronic bowel condition that has so severely blighted the past two years of his career.
The player, watching at home on television, was “blown away” when he heard his name. “For him, at that moment, to take the time to think and to speak of me was fantastic and it just shows the measure of the man I have been dealing with all my career,” says Fletcher.
“It speaks volumes of him to think of other people when the whole occasion was about him.”
It also speaks volumes of Ferguson that he hasn’t stopped caring now that David Moyes has replaced him as manager, and despite post-retirement adventures such as a luxury cruise up the west coast of Scotland. Ferguson has also had a medical worry of his own in the form of a hip replacement operation. However, he has still found time to phone Fletcher, which gave the player a further fillip.
“He is speaking as someone who cares, and who believes in me as well,” the midfielder says.
This being Ferguson, the call was as much a pep talk as a catch-up. “He can’t help himself,” smiles Fletcher. “But these moments are inspirational, there is no other way to describe it. When he speaks to you he is not speaking as someone who is my manager any longer. He is speaking as someone who cares, and who believes in me as well. When he says things like that it gives me great confidence and belief in getting back, and not only getting back, but getting back to a level that I believe I am capable of being at.”
Along with the support of others, it has helped that Fletcher is a naturally positive character. “I can never get beaten by it psychologically,” he vows. “Although physically, it was maybe dragging me down at times but psychologically, the biggest side of it, I conquered it. I still am conquering it and I still will have to conquer it in future. I’ve got full belief I will be back and back to a level that I was at before. I know I have got to prove that to people. I know there will be doubters out there.”
He describes the lonely battle to build-up his base fitness. Because he has still not been given the green light to return to training that involves full physical contact he has stayed away from the club’s training ground. Instead, he has been pounding the streets and parks around his home, hat pulled down to just above his eyes in an effort to ensure anonymity. He prefers to get the work done “at night, when it is quiet and there are no dogs chasing me down the local park”.
He adds: “I am in the hands of the surgeon and the medical team just now and I am just waiting for the all-clear to start physical work.”
Next week’s match with England has come around too quickly for Fletcher. “When I stopped playing in January that game was my target,” he says. “I was like: ‘I need to get fit for that, I am desperate to get fit for that’.
“Unfortunately I have missed that. I am so envious of the players playing in that game.”
While he is still unsure whether he will be able to attend the game himself due to rehabilitation commitments, Fletcher also relished a trip to Glasgow yesterday to welcome the latest intake of Performance School pupils to Hampden Park.
“This sort of programme means a lot to me because it gives the kids a fantastic opportunity,” he says.
There was no greater inspiration in the building than Fletcher himself. Scotland could not ask for a more committed skipper, and he agreed to interrupt his rehabilitation schedule to speak to the pupils even though it meant also having to participate in a round of media interviews, which are something he has understandably shied away from in recent times.
There are few more qualified to speak about striving to make the best of yourself, while overcoming obstacles on the way. He has, he smiles, been given a further incentive to reach his previous levels of performance. Even Ferguson’s inspiring words cannot summon the determination which rises inside Fletcher when his six-year-old twin boys, Tyler and Jack, wonder when will he be able to start addressing the most important thing: his Fifa computer game rating.
Fletcher’s lack of action – he has not played since coming on as a last minute substitute against Newcastle United on Boxing Day – has not been kind to him in this regard. “They are sick that my Fifa rating has dropped down,” he smiles. “They keep saying to me: ‘Why are you only 79 Dad?’ I keep telling them I used to have a good rating but I’ve not played for a while.
“I used to be an 82 or an 83. So I need to get back playing. I want them to be coming to places like here at Hampden to watch their dad play.”