There is one explanation for the fact that Darren Fletcher will earn his 75th cap for Scotland this evening: it feels much like the first for the restored captain of the national side.
The 32-year-old doesn’t feel that he has changed as a person, or a personality, from the proud and appreciative boy who 13 years ago made a first senior appearance for his country.
To Fletcher’s credit, he would receive no argument on that front and the Dalkeither is a man to make any patriot feel good about the Scots race.
The West Brom skipper lost three years, and it seemed, his international standing to an inflammatory bowel condition, and it is only Scott Brown’s retirement that has resulted in his wearing the armband again.
As Lithuania tonight pit themselves against Gordon Strachan’s side in a World Cup qualifier in Glasgow, Fletcher will captain his country in a competitive fixture at Hampden for the first time in five years. Yet, no subtext is required for his pulse to quicken when on the international scene.
“‘I still get the same excitement. Driving to Hampden today for training, you look at the stadium and you still get that little bit of excitement you did back then [in 2003],” Fletcher said. “I don’t think I’ve let anything get to my head. I’m quite level-headed – I’ve always tried to be like that. I think it’s in my make-up.
“There’s been a number of challenges. A lot of ups and downs. I wouldn’t change any of that. It makes you the person you are today. I’m still in the position where I’m still captain of my country in a massive World Cup qualifier.”
Fletcher is becoming a prime player in the pantheon of Scotland greats – in cap-amassing, at least. The former Manchester United man has played for his country in its darkest era, it being 20 years and nine qualifying campaigns since Scotland last appeared in a major finals.
“His desire to do his national service at all times across this era, though, has been a shining light. Should he play tonight and then in Slovakia on Tuesday he will move alongside Paul McStay on the 76-cap mark and be behind only Alex McLeish (77), Jim Leighton (91) and Kenny Dalglish (102). He “doubts” that he could come close to Dalglish’s record. As a boyhood Celtic supporter the prospect of matching McStay has a real piquancy.
“He’s someone I grew up watching and was something of an early idol, an early hero. Stuff like that makes you very humble. I genuinely don’t think too much about it, I’m just trying to qualify. The game against Lithuania, and hopefully a number of caps down the line, will be towards achieving that goal.
“I’m always on to the next one. That was always the mentality we had at Manchester United. You don’t look back. There’s always another challenge. It’s dangerous when you start saying ‘I’ve achieved this and that’. I’ve still got a great hunger and desire to achieve things.
“I still very much see it that I’ll probably look back on it at the end of my career with pride. I wouldn’t judge myself as I don’t think it’s a true mark really. It’s not like ‘I’ve had this many’ or ‘I’ve done this or that’. It’s just nice to reflect on your hard work and your dedication and to get nice rewards.”
Playing for Scotland in a major finals is the one notable reward that eludes him. Fletcher has no notion how long he will play, but there is every chance that the current World Cup qualifying campaign will be his last opportunity to end Scotland’s, seemingly, permanent tournament exile.
“I think there’s always that feeling when you get a little bit older,” Fletcher said. “Age is only a number though, and if you get selected and you still feel you can play a part then you come along and you go again, and you play until you’re not needed.”
Fletcher’s commitment certainly places him up there with Scotland’s best for that virtue.