A statistic Darren Fletcher rightly takes pride in is that, since his move to West Bromich Albion from Manchester United in February 2015, he hasn’t missed a single league game. In spite of all the grim predictions, Fletcher is the fighter who refused to be floored by the bowel disease ulcerative colitis that essentially wiped out two years of his career before being alleviated by an operation in early 2013.
Yet in a Scotland context, the blunt truth is that 32-year-old hasn’t really come back following his illness. We erroneously tend to think he still isn’t quite himself because he is on the periphery of the international set-up. The reality is that he is as fit as at any stage but simply unable to fit into Gordon Strachan’s plans.
The 71-times capped player has made only four starts for his country since resuming his career free of debilitating health problems back in December 2013. He is set for his fifth start in just under four years when Scotland face Italy in Malta’s Ta’ Qali Stadium this evening. It might be at a friendly at the end of a gruelling season, but grander aims ensure the ever-motivated, ever-professional Fletcher brims with enthusiasm for tonight’s encounter, and the confrontation with Euro 2016 hosts France in Metz next Saturday.
Miserably for a Scotland side that endured bitter qualifying failure, their two opponents over the next week will see these match-ups as mere leg-stretching exercises before they click into tournament mode, a mode that Fletcher has never known in his 13 years wearing dark blue. As he attempts to translate his West Brom renaissance on to the international stage, Fletcher see this end of season double-header as potentially a fresh start. The potential for Scotland becoming cannon fodder for big guns with loftier ambitions is not in his thoughts.
“It’s a chance to test ourselves against two teams who are really well fancied to do well in the tournament,” he said. “I’m not thinking about disaster. I’m thinking really positively that these games can really kick-start us for the qualifiers. I’m really desperate to impress the manager to get in the team for the World Cup campaign. I don’t want a six-week holiday at my age. I want to keep playing.
“It’s a challenge [to prove myself again] I was prepared for after everything I went through, and that’s the situation I’m and I’m desperate to rectify it and get in the team. I still feel great. I’m enjoying my football and I have come off a good season at my club and I’m desperate to get back in and be an integral part of helping Scotland qualify for that major tournament.”
Fletcher understands that many felt the challenge of playing at the top level after all his problems was destined to prove beyond him. Indeed, he says one reason nothing came of interest from Celtic – apart from the “obscene” wage differentials that could mean “having to take a 15 or 20 grand” cut to move north – was that he wanted to show he could still be “a good player” in the English Premier League , which he has “done”.
“It’s a weird mindset because I played so long ill and knew I wasn’t myself but still doing all right. I felt if I could get through the illness there was no reason I couldn’t get back,” he said. “There were doubts whether I could do it physically but I had no doubts. I believe in myself. I probably didn’t realise how long it was going to take me to get back to the level I have. I was probably a little bit naive, especially for the first year to 18 months, when I was almost playing off memory. I was doing all right but it’s only when you go up another level again that you realise you weren’t quite at the level you were at before. “
Fletcher has been able to rationalise his stunted progress with Scotland as a wider positive. “Not sounding too cocky but that speaks volumes of the quality in the squad. For me, it’s the most talented squad we’ve had. We have had different squads over the years. Going back to the time we nearly qualified under Walter [Smith] and Alex [McLeish] we were strong, really physical with a sprinkling of quality with Faddy [James McFadden] in advanced areas. Whereas now, I feel we’ve got a lot of quality and competition for places, real good players and the manager wants us to play, to take the game to teams. In terms of ability, it’s the best squad I’ve been around as a Scotland player without a doubt.”
His inability to make a real impact within it might have caused lesser men to give up committing such time and effort at the advanced stage in his career when club commitments in themselves are sufficiently draining.
“You think about it, you are constantly thinking about things but I still feel young. At 32, I feel I can make up for the lost time and add on to the end of my career. In terms of physical injuries, touch wood, there’s not been many. Being out of the game was an illness so it wasn’t my muscles or my joints or anything like that. They actually had a bit of a rest in that time period. The motivation is still there because people did doubt me and said I wouldn’t get back and I’ve still to prove people wrong in that respect.
“I don’t want to not play, stop and hang up my boots just because I am not being picked and I’ve got to be on the bench and wait while people in my position have played well. I’ve got to be patient and maybe when I’ve been given my chance I’ve not done well enough as well. Maybe I have to do something extra special to get back in the team, I’m starting to realise.
“I look back to the first game [of the Euro 2016 campaign] away to Germany. I didn’t have a good game. I had a fantastic week’s training before it and felt on top of the world, but I wasn’t on the physical level that I am now, looking back. It didn’t quite happen for me.
“I didn’t have a bad game. I just didn’t do as well as I thought I could. Personally, that’s how I felt and that affected the rest of the campaign. You’ve got to remember the manager was in charge for a year and the boys did well.
“I had my chance and then the manager reverted to the players who had been in the team before that. That was it and I was on the sidelines looking out for the rest of the campaign. I played well in friendlies here and there but there wasn’t really a chance to play in the qualifiers. I played the first and last qualifier [away to Gibraltar] and that was my input in the campaign.
“Arguably, two of our best performers in the campaign were Broony [Scott Brown] and James Morrison who played centre midfield. Me and James McArthur were fighting to get in there. It shows the quality in the squad and hopefully by us being on the bench that pushed those two lads and they knew they had to perform. That’s what I have been used to all my career at Manchester United and it does put the performance level up and through the roof.”
Fletcher has noted and struggled with one change from his days at Old Trafford, when the club would be battling on so many fronts. “I don’t feel I need a rest. It’s actually felt strange having just one game a week and having plenty of rest. It’s been a new experience for me, having days off. I don’t actually know what to do with myself and have started hitting a few golf balls which is something I haven’t been able to do for ten years. Days off have actually been a challenge, finding things to do.
“I don’t feel I need a rest but I’m sitting here now saying that – I might lose my head, if I’m not playing in the first game, and chuck it. I’ve not had a controversial moment in my career yet so you never know. The influence of Joey Barton in Scotland will maybe affect me.”