Dad was my hero: Darren Fletcher on his battle with illness

Former Scotland captain says his father’s support was vital

Darren Fletcher: 80 caps for Scotland
Darren Fletcher: 80 caps for Scotland

Wherever Darren Fletcher’s career has taken him, from the highs of leading his country and celebrating Champions League glory with Manchester United to the misery of his battle with serious illness, he has never strayed too far from his Midlothian roots.

For the former Scotland captain, his principal guiding light throughout the years has always been the frank advice and unflinching support of his father, Bobby.

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When Fletcher was at his lowest ebb as ulcerative colitis effectively robbed him of around two years of what should have been the prime of his career, it was to the family home back in the village of Mayfield he would turn for the backing he needed to get through it all.

The 36-year-old, without a club since leaving Stoke City last summer as he sets his sights on a move into coaching, has paid an emotional tribute to his dad on the latest episode of The Lockdown Tactics, the health and wellbeing podcast hosted by his former Scotland team-mates, Kris Boyd and Robert Snodgrass.

Fletcher can cite many major influences from a career in which he made almost 500 senior appearances for United, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke alongside winning 80 caps for Scotland. But for all of the gratitude and respect he holds for the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and Tony Pulis, his old man tops the list.

“I had good family around me and good support (when I was sidelined by the illness),” says Fletcher. “I’d sometimes talk to my wife but you are also focusing on trying to stay strong for her and our kids.

“My mum is great but my dad was the one person that every day I’d speak to and show my emotion. He’d pick me up when I was down.

“I trained with Hearts, Hibs, Celtic and Rangers when I was a kid. Dad would take me everywhere. We’d be in the car for hours and hours every week and we’d be open and honest. As a kid, he guided me, helped me make decisions.

“Then, he was the one I could open up to about my embarrassing illness and the challenges I was facing mentally. He is the one I ran to and got everything off my chest. My dad is my hero.

“When you are a footballer you think you’re invincible. I was in the prime of my career, in the first team at one of the biggest clubs in the world, then all of a sudden I was struck down by illness.

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“Mentally it was tough. The biggest thing for me was that the illness was defeating my body. At first I tried to stay positive and reassure myself that the next medication will work. Slowly but surely, the medication wasn’t working and that’s when it started to hit home.

“I had to give myself a little pep talk every morning because I thought to myself that if I go (under) mentally here, I’m probably not going to recover. I’d tell myself to put a brave face on, stay positive, and that I was going to beat it. I had to do that every morning.”

Fletcher owed his eventual recovery from the debilitating bowel condition to the skills of specialist surgeon professor Peter Sagar in 2013, allowing him to resume his career and defy previous medical opinion.

“He was the first surgeon to tell me that if the operation was a success, he thought I’d be able to play again,” recalls Fletcher. “That’s all I needed to hear.

“Other doctors had told me I’d never play again, that it would be impossible.

“I kind of knew I wasn’t going to be the same player when I came back and that was the case. But I was willing to play at any level.

“A coach called Michael Clegg, who used to work at Manchester United, I went to see him. Once I was back and knew I was close to playing again, I decided to see him. He was away from United by then.

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“He is great at training for reaction and speed. It’s more like brain training and psychological training. I knew he’d get me in a mental position to be ready.

“He knew the football stuff would come back but it would be amazing how much I’d lose with my reaction time.

“I’d like to thank him. If I didn’t spend that time with him I probably would have struggled. But I wanted to get back as close as possible to where I was before the illness and, thankfully, I didn’t do too badly in that respect.

“I still have my challenges, but I’m in a great place and I’m grateful. There are thousands of people suffering from ulcerative colitis, from young kids to adults. It’s a very difficult illness to deal with.”

As footballers across the world try to adjust to the reality of lockdown and uncertainty over when football can be played again amid the Covid-19 crisis, Fletcher is appreciative of the greater understanding of mental health issues throughout the sport. “People are now more aware of mental health and football clubs prepare young footballers for it,” he said.

“The generation we grew up in were being prepared for a career physically and ability wise, but it wasn’t there mentally.

“ It was tough love and you were told to get on with it. Those were the messages we (generally) got (as young players).

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“But at Man United we had a great guy called Dave Bushell, the head of education. He was fantastic at spotting when you were down.

“I had a lot of injury problems at United between 16 and 18 and he’d recognise my mood. He’d sometimes pay for my flights to go home for a period. He’d also have a good chat with me, take me to a game.

“In football, you bottle everything up.It’s dangerous because to perform at your best you need to be mentally ready. Always speak up, because people do want to help.”

The Lockdown Tactics is a brand new podcast, hosted by former Scotland stars Robert Snodgrass and Kris Boyd. Every week TLT will talk to big names with its core focus being on Mental Health and Wellbeing. Its chosen charity partner is The Kris Boyd Charity.

To watch the full interview with Darren Fletcher go to YouTube and the various Lockdown Tactics social media platforms. It will be available from 12:00 on Tuesday.

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