Darren Fletcher has revealed when he went for the last of his three operations to solve his debilitating medical condition, he did not even know whether he would be able to live normally again, let alone play football.
For two years, Fletcher had battled to overcome ulcerative colitis, an extreme condition affecting the colon. The Manchester United and Scotland midfielder had taken two breaks from the game in the hope of finding a way of managing the condition. Nothing worked.
“I couldn’t leave the house,” he said. “Simple stuff, like taking my kids to the park, going for a meal with my wife. The nature of the illness meant I just couldn’t do it. There was the exhaustion side as well.
“I always believed one of the medications would work. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Ultimately that was the reason I went for the operation.”
Although Fletcher’s surgeon was confident surgery would prove successful, the consequences of failure were laid bare.
For a 29-year-old, supposedly in the prime of a career that had already brought him four Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a couple of League Cups, it was a bleak prospect.
“There was a day in May when we said ‘this is it’. Once I came out of that operation I would know whether it had worked or not,” added Fletcher. “There were no guarantees. If the operation was not a success there was no way I would be able to play football and my everyday life would have been very difficult. It was very emotional. There was a lot of fear and anxiety. I put all my trust in the surgeon.”
Liked and respected across the game, Fletcher relied upon the support of his wife Hayley and twin sons Jack and Tyler, plus the wider United community, including Sir Alex Ferguson.
There was clearly a life issue involved. But the drive to become a Premier League footballer once more was just as strong.
“I know people will say I should think about other things – and I was thinking about my children, my wife and family – but right there, right beside it was football,” he said.
“I didn’t want to give it up. I worked hard to be a professional footballer. I always have. I always kept that determination. I was doing this operation, not just to have a quality of life but also to get back playing football.”
Fletcher achieved his aim at Villa Park on Sunday, being introduced as a second-half substitute as United beat Aston Villa 3-0. In the increasingly cynical and cut-throat world he inhabits, this was a genuine good news story, with even the home fans offering applause. And yesterday, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan was one of many to hail the player for battling back to fitness.
Yet Fletcher, typically, ignored the sheer bloody-mindedness and refusal to be beaten that has typified his return to health to heap the praise on one man.
“Professor Sagar is the reason I am standing here today,” he said. “I am back to normal. I do not have ulcerative colitis. I am back playing football in the Premier League. I am just like anyone else.”
Fletcher does not want pity – and he certainly does not want to be eased back in. “I don’t want to take it easy. I’ve done enough of that,” he said.
Instead he wants to be thrust into the white heat of lifting United out of their present strife. “It is hard enough watching the lads win,” he said. “It is a lot more difficult when we are not.”
But Strachan, while revealing his joy at Fletcher’s return, has urged his captain to take his time before enlisting once more for national duty.
Strachan knows that there are nine months before Scotland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign begins. He can thus be relaxed about Fletcher feeling his way back into the demands of Premier League football before making himself available for internationals.
Fletcher’s value to the campaign that could define Strachan’s tenure at the Hampden helm is beyond question. The manager said: “We’ll just see how it goes now for the next couple of months. We’ll let him enjoy this and get in touch with him to tell him how happy we are for him. I’m sure a lot of people will be phoning him because everyone is so pleased.
“He adds to what we have in the middle of the park which is absolutely fantastic. But we’ll let him take his time. I think that’s what he wants as well. He’s a top player though. He moves people round about him. As he plays, he organises and not every player can do that.”
It was more than two years ago, in November 2011, that Fletcher announced he was taking an extended break from football. Yesterday, Strachan attempted to underline how satisfying it must have been for the midfielder to have been called off the bench on Sunday.
Speaking at a Vauxhall sponsorship lunch, Strachan said: “Darren’s probably had all sorts of different Christmas presents over the years since he was a wee boy. But I think this will go down as his best gift ever – to get back playing football.
“I was talking on the TV last week and was asked about Manchester United and how they were doing, and what they were missing. I think it could be him. People maybe took it for granted before his illness but any time they were in trouble at United, he played. I actually see him as being a leftover from that class of ’92. I know he wasn’t part of that group but he has that in him, where winning is the most important thing at the club.
“I was just thrilled to see Darren back. I was on the train coming up the road and I got a text saying he was getting on. I’m told he got clattered within minutes of going on. Trust me, that would have felt like heaven. He’s been through so much, but he’d have loved that. He’d have been lying there in the mud thinking: ‘How good is this?’”