Happy 33rd birthday Darren Fletcher. Having fought off illness, the Scot has returned to the top of the English game. He has started all 22 of West Bromwich Albion’s Premier League matches this season and become a lynchpin for Tony Pulis’ side. The glories of Champions League nights and Premier League titles are a memory now, but his status in such successful Manchester United teams should never be forgotten. Fletcher is the standard bearer for the under-valued, indispensable, trusted squad member.
Alex Ferguson placed faith in Fletcher above all else. Whether it be a certain role in a big game or the guarantee of a good performance, Fletcher was one of a clutch of players that seldom received the plaudits, but were as key to Manchester United’s successes as anyone. Park Ji-Sung was another that Ferguson would throw into the line-up for the toughest of European nights in the knowledge that he was not going to cost his team the match with a rash mistake and stick strictly to instructions.
John O’Shea, Michael Carrick and countless others were in similar situations. Whether it be versatility or reliability, they racked up medals at the club and were as key to the success as anyone. The bit-part players are easily forgotten, but those bit-parts are so often the most crucial of all. Fletcher is the pinnacle of that crucial role– especially with Carrick’s importance now widely accepted – and he has continued in a similar vein at West Brom. The Baggies are enjoying an excellent season, it is no coincidence that Fletcher has been a regular starter. His numbers are often unspectacular, but his experience has been vital to the improvement of Pulis’ side.
These players often drift away from the clubs where they have been so important. John Obi Mikel, for instance, left Chelsea this winter as a multiple league title winner, European champion and as one of the highest foreign appearance makers in Chelsea history. Bemoaned for much of his career and rarely an every-game starter, Mikel was pivotal in many of Chelsea’s successes, none more so than their against the odds Champions League win in 2012. He, like Fletcher, will not get the praise he deserves, or the appreciation he truly warrants from Chelsea or the wider footballing world.
Fletcher represents so many players in a similar situation. Manchester United had many throughout the Ferguson years and Chelsea have had several of their own – Branislav Ivanovic and Ramires spring to mind. Each team has their squad members that split opinion, many are even forgotten about, but they remain integral to the history of a club. Mikel and Fletcher will not go down as ‘legends’ (for those who feel the need to categorise like that) yet their longevity and reliability makes them cornerstones of immensely successful periods for their respective clubs.
Some players get called under-rated so often that it is no longer true. Fletcher, Mikel and many others never enjoy that luxury. Footballers do not play the sport for praise, but the role of players so obviously trusted by their managers cannot be overstated. In some cases it can be the difference between success and failure.