“That’s what you dream about as a small boy. Playing in the Champions League is great, but the World Cup holds the edge.” Darren Fletcher’s view would doubtless be echoed across the globe. So he has returned to competitive action in the nick of time with Scotland seeking inspiration to kickstart their Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign.
The national captain has had to draw on every ounce of resilience to overcome ulcerative colitis, a debilitating disease which hits the large intestine and can affect the immune system. It denied him almost a year of his club and international career but he is finally back in the Scotland squad to face Wales on Friday and Belgium next Tuesday. His knowledge and influence for two vital World Cup qualifiers cannot be underestimated.
Manchester United, who value Fletcher as a key player, granted him as much time as was necessary to regain full fitness after he announced he was taking a break from football late last year. He returned in last month’s Champions League victory over Galatasaray, gracing a stage he knows so well from years of experience at the top level in Europe. Yet, as the above quote from a previous interview details, there is a higher plain which Fletcher is still striving for.
Captaining Scotland to a World Cup finals would be the pinnacle for the kid from Mayfield, Midlothian, who became an international superstar at one of the globe’s biggest football clubs. After home draws against Serbia and Macedonia in the opening two qualifiers for the 2014 finals, Scotland’s task is onerous as they head for Cardiff. Having Fletcher fit again – allied to the returns of his namesake Steven and Scott Brown – provides a timely lift.
“Look at the standard of games he’s played in,” says Peter Houston, Scotland’s assistant coach. “James Forrest has played in high profile games in the Champions League for one so young, but Darren Fletcher has probably been through ten times as many as young James. From Scotland’s perspective it’s great having Scotty Brown back, Darren Fletcher back and Steven Fletcher back, their qualities are top notch.
“Darren is as good as anything in midfield. If he and Scotty Brown had been fit for the last two World Cup qualifiers, it’s likely they would have started those games. That’s how big a miss they’ve been and how much they’re thought of. They are number one picks for the middle of the park. Before Darren’s illness, he played every game under Craig when he was fit.
“He’s a calming influence, he’s a good captain, he’s a talker and a guy who is very humble in many ways. He is respectful of everybody. If a young player comes into the squad, he’ll go and chat with them. If it’s an experienced player, he’ll give them respect. What he has gained from that is huge respect from others because of the way he treats people. His humility goes a long way for a guy who is at such a big and famous club. It’s great to have him back.”
The pressure-cooker into which Scotland will step tomorrow night and on Tuesday is not for the faint-hearted. Lose to Wales and Belgium and the rest of the Group A fixtures could effectively become dead rubbers. Fletcher plays with expectation on his shoulders every single week at Manchester United and, consequently, is hardened to the intensity of it all.
“He’s used to it because every game at Man United, whether it’s a Premier League match or in the Champions League, they are expected to win,” continues Houston. “Like Celtic are expected to win each SPL game because they have the biggest squad, budget, etc. Darren has played against the best in the world for Manchester United in the Champions League. Nothing fazes him because he has no fear, playing at that level.
“I think his experience can help others round about him. Darren’s guidance and ability to talk the likes of James Forrest through games would be vital. Darren is still a young man but the amount of game time he’s had at the top level can only help the young players with Scotland.”
Fletcher’s return may well solve a conundrum for Craig Levein, the Scotland manager, over who should play the holding midfield role. Gary Caldwell, a centre-back to trade, was deployed there against Serbia and Macedonia but isn’t the type to instigate attacks from deep. Fletcher has spent recent seasons doing exactly that at Old Trafford after initially playing wide on the right.
“Darren might have played that holding role for us in the previous two games had he been fit,” admits Houston. “That’s easy to say now but he knows that position, you wouldn’t need to tell him what his role was. Darren would do that naturally. He has the talent and the passing ability to manage that easily.
“Alex Ferguson has recently used Darren as a sitting midfielder, which allows the other youthful legs to do the running. That is the guys who have maybe played more often than Darren over the last year. Darren has become a holding midfielder for Manchester United but he has great versatility. He can also play as the guy who gets into the penalty box to get on to balls coming into the area.
“Versatility is a big thing in football. Managers like players who can play different positions. I don’t think Alex Ferguson thought Darren was a winger when he played him wide right. I looked upon him more as a wide midfield player who was a good passer of the ball. I wouldn’t call David Beckham a winger who goes down the flank and gets crosses is. He is a great crosser from deeper areas but not taking people on with pace. Fletcher is similar.
“You could play Darren Fletcher at right-back and he would do a good job. When he gets a wee bit older, you could probably use him as a centre-back because of his experience. He’s just the type of player who can play in a number of positions, and play them well.”