A few years ago, Darren Fletcher was something of a laughing stock; Manchester United fans would routinely question his position in the squad and he was seen as nothing more than a stopgap till an adequate replacement was found for Roy Keane. Today he is regarded as one of the most important players in the United squad, and is constantly labelled with the tag ‘most improved player in Europe’; a quite remarkable turnaround.
Four years ago during Roy Keane’s infamous rant that has never been broadcasted, he apparently questioned why the Scottish media was so fond of Fletcher. Keane’s viewpoint was understandable; Fletcher was an inconsistent player who appeared to lack the technical ability to succeed at a club of such stature. For United he tended to play on the right of midfield where he provided good cover for the full-back but offered little going forward, especially when compared to the emerging talents of Cristiano Ronaldo. Michael Carrick’s arrival in the summer of 2006 pushed Fletcher further down the pecking order, though he still managed to make 24 league appearances. Despite the preferred central-midfield partnership consisting of Scholes and Carrick, Fletcher was beginning to forge a reputation for himself as a big-game player. Sir Alex Ferguson was beginning to show that he trusted Fletcher to perform in the important fixtures. The following season saw the arrival of Hargreaves, Anderson and Nani; limiting Fletcher to a mere 16 league appearances. At this point there were rumours circulating that a move away from the club was in the offing.
At the start of the 2008-09 season, injuries to Ronaldo, Carrick and Hargreaves meant that Fletcher was in the starting line-up for the first game of the season; he scored United’s only goal of the game to earn a point against Newcastle. This was the season that would see Fletcher raise his game and cement his place in the United midfield. In the absence of Hargreaves, Fletcher provided energy and drive. He has developed into a very good ball-winner, but his ability on the ball has also improved dramatically. Though he does not quite have the passing range of Carrick or Scholes, he rarely wastes possession and plays a key role during transitions of play; as United turn defence into attack, Fletcher is usually central to their play. A series of strong performances last year gained him more media attention; United’s performances last season were not as inspired as the season before. There was more grit and steel than attractive football and Fletcher played an important role in providing this. His sending-off in the Champions League final was extremely unfortunate both for him and his side. United sorely missed his harrying presence against Barcelona’s playmakers, though whether he could have changed the result of that game is up for debate; United were poor as a team on the day.
Fletcher’s influence has continued to grow this season, as shown by his man-of-the-match performance in the Manchester derby; he is starting to add goals to his game as he continues to develop. Now considered one of United’s most consistent players, he is one of the first names on the team-sheet for any game of importance; once Hargreaves returns, they may be able to form one of the most dynamic midfield partnerships in the league. At 25 years of age, United fans can look forward to a promising future with the Scottish captain operating in their engine room.