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Darren Fletcher: An underrated Manchester United Legend

Old Trafford has been home to a number of great central midfielders over the years, including the likes of Bryan Robson, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Michael Carrick, to name but a few. Yet one great central midfield player that tends to be overlooked in this discussion, is Darren Fletcher.

Fletcher first joined Manchester United at the age of 11 and played his way through the academy ranks, featuring for the reserves as they went on to lift the 1999-2000 Manchester senior cup. The same year, Fletcher was almost set to become the youngster ever player to appear in the United first team. With the young Scot being selected for an end of season match against Aston Villa, however, his first team debut would have to wait with Premier League rules dictating that players on schoolboy contracts could not feature at senior level.

In the meantime, Fletcher continued his development with the youth team, before signing his first professional contract, the following season on his 17th Birthday. The next three seasons would see Fletcher’s involvement with the first team being limited by various injuries, yet during this period, he was still a familiar face in the reserve team. On the 12th March 2003, after waiting almost three years the young midfielder finally made his debut, coming on as a substitute as United faced FC Basil in the Champions League.

It was not until the following season though; the young Scot really began to break in to the United first team. With Fletcher making 35 appearances for and helping United lift the 2004 FA Cup, as they beat Millwall 3-0 in Cardiff.

However, despite putting in some great performances in his earlier days Fletcher’s Untied carer did not get off to the best of starts.  This can be put down to the fact that he was often used out wide, a position that didn’t really suit his skill set and build.  It was when Sir Alex Ferguson started to use, Fletcher as a central midfielder that he began to get the best out of him. It soon became apparent to the United faithful, what the Gaffer had seen in Fletcher from the start and he quickly became known as a reliable player who always gave his all in a United shirt.

Fletcher always remained professional and patient while at the club, despite often struggling to get in the starting line-up. Always being ready when called upon and proving time and time again that he was a big game player. One of Fletcher’s most memorable appearances came against Chelsea in the 2005/6 season, in what would be a key league game. With the Scot scoring the only goal, a brilliant looping header as United ended the blues 40-match unbeaten run, and It was not only Fletcher’s goal that proved vital in this match but his all-round performance with his work rate too much for Chelsea to handle.

Fletcher best season in a United shirt though was the 2008/09 campaign and is the season that he finally began to get the recognition he deserved.

Fletcher was key became key for United as the season progressed, going on to make 41 appearances in total, helping United reach the Champions League final. A game his absence was felt greatly in, with Fletcher unable to play after receiving a harsh red card against Arsenal In the semi-finals. In the end, United were beaten 2-0 by a truly brilliant Barcelona side that Including the likes of Lionel Messi and David Villa.

At the time though many fans and pundits believed that if Fletcher hadn’t been suspended, then United might have had a better chance at beating Barcelona.  Yet while it’s hard to know for sure how Fletcher’s presence would have affected the game, the fact he was so badly missed, shows just how important he was to the team that season.

The following season, Fletcher continued to be a big game player and well and truly consolidated his place in the United midfield. Perhaps his most memorable game of the 2009/10 season came in the Manchester derby, with the Scot scoring twice against Manchester City as United secured a 4-3 victory.  Fletcher also went on to captain the side in a league game against West Ham and his consistent performances earned him a place in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.

Although sadly the next few years would be riddled with Illness, with Fletcher diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. After missing the end of the 2009/10 season and losing his place in the team, he valiantly made efforts to continue to play for United and made sporadic returns for the following two and half seasons. Before it was announced by the club in January 2013 that he would undergo surgery and miss the rest of the campaign.

After nearly a year out of football and having suffered from a career-threatening illness, Fletcher made a truly remarkable return to the club and made his first appearance in almost a year against Aston Villa in a 3-0 league victory.

In the post-Ferguson era, Fletcher was a great squad player for both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal and was made the vice-captain in 2015, after impressing during in pre-season tour.  However, he was never really able to get a consistent run of game time upon his return to first team action and constantly sitting on the sidelines must have grown incredibly frustrating for the Scot. In February 2015 with a heavy heart, Fletcher made the tough decision to leave United, joining West Bromwich Albion, where he was soon made captain, becoming a key figure on and off the field. Fletcher now plays for recently relegated Stoke City and continues to be a hardworking and important first team regular.

All in all, it’s clear that Darren Fletcher is definitely the most skillful and exciting footballer to walk through the doors of Old Trafford and he is certainly not in the same bracket as Scholes or Keane. Yet his professionalism, work rate and big game mentally alone, not to mention his years of contribution to the club certainly merit him the same recognition as some of United’s most legendary central midfielders.

Written by Jamie Mackinlay

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