Manchester United star takes break from football as doctors say high-profile Scot will help in battle with bowel disease
Darren Fletcher’s fans had known for months that something was wrong. The weight loss, his lack of energy – it wasn’t typical of the sportsman they had grown to admire.
Speculation was made, the idea that some sort of virus was behind the Scotland captain’s demise was suggested. And then came the hammer blow this week – the country’s best footballer was suffering from a little-known bowel disease which threatens to derail his career, stunning followers of the sport across the globe.
Fletcher, 27, from Dalkeith, has been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory condition which hits the bowel, forcing him to take an “extended break” from football.
Most people may know very little about his condition, yet it has emerged that one in 200 people in Scotland suffer from either it – or the related Crohn’s Disease – making it almost as common as type one diabetes or asthma.
Medical experts have said it is “very much a Scottish problem” and research is ongoing into exactly why it hits more Scots than anyone else in Europe.
And despite reports following news of the distinguished midfielder’s illness alleging his career could be in doubt, Professor Jack Satsangi, an expert in gastroenterology at Edinburgh University and the Western General, has offered hope.
He points to the example of Olympic champion rower Steve Redgrave, who found out he had the condition just prior to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona but went on to win three gold medals.
“It is difficult to speculate without knowing more about the extent of Darren’s illness,” he explains. “But people, with the correct medication and treatment, can return to do the same things they did before being affected by the illness.
“It is a particularly Scottish problem. There is research ongoing as to why this is, but what we do know is it has increased five-fold since the 1970s, and it is continuing to rise, and affects about 0.5 per cent of the population, which makes it fairly common.
“Environmental factors are probably to blame, but it’s hard to say what those are. It could be dietary.”
The seriousness of the illness varies considerably, from people requiring mild treatment for pain and discomfort – but enjoying sometimes years of remission – to those who need their bowel removed.
Symptoms include having to go to the toilet often, without much warning, and regularly through painful diarrhoea.
That can leave the patient experiencing weight loss and reduced energy levels, two elements that have been notable in Fletcher over the past year.
In fact, his determination to maintain match and training performance could have damaged his system temporarily as his body tried to deal with illness.
Manchester United have not released any additional details about Fletcher’s health, yet his absence on the pitch will be felt by both club and country, with pundits and players lamenting him having to take time off.
Despite being a somewhat low-key player in a Manchester United side bursting with high-profile talent, in recent years he became one of the most important players in, at times, the best side in the world.
He is also captain of Scotland, winning more than 50 caps, and scoring in a recent crunch match with the Czech Republic.
Details of his diagnosis, and the reaction to it, have been watched carefully by the charity Crohn’s and Colitis UK.
“It is really sad for someone in the height of their career to be diagnosed with colitis,” says chief executive Richard Driscoll. “But it’s far more common than most people realise.
“Nothing more’s been said about Darren’s condition and how serious it is. It’s very hard to say as the condition really varies from one person or another.
“I’d suggest it’s in the serious category if he has had to withdraw from football for a period, but that could be because he has been trying to keep up and not been allowing his body to cope with it, and I sincerely hope that is the reason.
“As well as the pain and discomfort, it can be an embarrassing condition, too. People like to think they are in control of their bowels, but unfortunately it just is not always the case.”
But despite this blow for Fletcher, both Mr Driscoll and Prof Satsangi believe his case will help spread awareness.
“The diagnosis of a high-profile figure like Darren with colitis can have three affects. It encourages people who may be experiencing some symptoms to seek help from a GP; it helps raise awareness of the condition so people can be more informed or sympathetic towards it, particularly employers, because the chances are we will know someone who has it,” says Mr Driscoll. “And thirdly it allows people to talk about it more freely, particularly men.
“If they see someone like Darren going through it, too, it could allow them to speak of the symptoms.”