Manchester United and Scotland star Darren Fletcher has spoken for the first time about the crippling illness that forced him to put his career on hold.
The Dalkeith-born Manchester United midfielder, who was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2008, described how he kept his condition secret from team-mates for more than three years and how it affected his life.
He said he had been dismissive of the illness at first. “I was blase about it,” he said. “In my own mind I was still top of my game, strong, playing in the Premier League. I felt invincible.’
But when the condition flared up, he was forced to tell the club doctor and manager Alex Ferguson.
Fletcher said he would always be grateful to Ferguson for giving him his chance. “But he was also a really caring, kind individual who did everything to help me and protect me when I was ill. For me and my family.
“He gave me the time off I needed, told me not to worry about contract situations. He was constantly there for me. There were times when I went in looking terrible and he told me I looked great. He’d just try to give me a bit of confidence.”
Ferguson helped Fletcher keep the illness from the other players. Fletcher said: “We decided to just play it down as a random illness, like a bug, but that became very difficult as time went on.”
He had side-effects from the medication he was taking, a mixture of drugs to treat the illness and steroids to control the symptoms. “I would suffer with something they call moon face,” he said. “You’re slim all over but your face becomes very bloated. Then there were the pounding headaches, and the constant need for the bathroom. I wouldn’t go to restaurants because I might need to go to the toilet five or six times. I was conscious of being recognised and people wondering why I was up and down all the time.”
And he was distressed, too, for his wife Hayley. “I was diagnosed very soon after we got married,” he said. “I always felt she had got married and I wasn’t the person she married. She never once complained that we never went out.”
Eventually, in December 2011, he decided it had become too big a secret to keep from his team-mates. “I didn’t tell everyone,” he said. “Just a group of lads I’m particularly close to. We were sitting having a meal after the game — Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand were there — and I knew they’d pass it on to the rest of the lads. I just said I was going to have to take a break because of this illness, and they were so sympathetic and understanding. Just brilliant.”
Three major operations later, Fletcher said after six years battling his illness he is now living a normal life again.
“The last operation was in August 2013 and by October I was back in the reserves, and by December playing again for the first team. My weight was coming back on every week and I was feeling better and better.
“I’m probably slightly different to normal people but I feel normal. I don’t feel ill any more. It’s not an issue in my life at all now.
“I’m going out for meals with my wife and I love being on the touchline watching my boys play football.”