Since their formation, way back in 1886, exactly nine-hundred men have pulled on the shirt of Manchester United for a competitive match. Two-hundred-and-four of those have pulled it on over a hundred times. Six men have pulled it on over three-hundred times since their debut the club this century alone. And three of them have captained their country. Only one man has done all this whilst struggling with the severe illness of ulcerative colitis that left him with the fear that he may not play again. And that man is Darren Fletcher.
The West Bromwich Albion captain and proud Scotsman played only ten times in a period of twenty-five months between 2011 and 2013 when fighting ulcerative colitis, a condition that left him struggling to live an everyday life around the house, let alone train and play with the dominant team in English football. But against the expectations of family and friends, coaches and players, Fletcher managed to resume a career on the field, and has since gone on to stand as an inspirational player to those around him.
What immediately strikes me about Darren when we meet is his enthusiasm and his passion for the game, a love that has not been dimmed by the travails of time spent getting up at silly o’clock for training. Thirteen years after making his professional debut, the Mayfield-born man still radiates a boyish joy at being able to do what he does for a living. Football is in his blood. He inherited his raw talent from his father, who played at a semi-professional level in Scotland, and left his family behind at a young age to take up the chance of breaking it at United. He still has great love for his parents; indeed, when we begin to delve into the roots of his fascination with the beautiful game, he pins it on his upbringing.
“My dad was my best coach,” he responds, quick on the draw, when I ask him about his influences. “Even now, the first person I’ll phone after a game is him, so he can tell me honestly how I’ve played. I don’t have to read the paper to find out that somebody’s given me a five or six out of ten – my dad’ll tell me, because he knows when I’ve had a good game.” He pauses, and looks wistful for a moment. “He did a lot of hard work and sacrifice.”
His respect for his family was matched by his love – and Darren found it difficult when he left home at fifteen for the promised land of Manchester. He stayed with a family called the Longshaws who he credits with easing the transition. “I think it was great to be in that environment because I’d left my close family back home, with three little sisters, so it was difficult. But at the same time, I was lucky to go to a good family, a family who looked after me, who were always there for me, and I think that helped my mum and dad as well, knowing that I was living with people that would look after me.”
Darren is at pains to point out that such analogies do not necessarily represent all interactions in professional sport, but, after coming up through the ranks myself – I know that a core confidence is needed to put yourself amongst it. “I was always self-confident, but I kept the confidence inside me. I didn’t tell anybody that I was a good player, I wasn’t one of those lads who bragged or gained. But inside, I was always super-confident, I was determined. When you’re young, everyone tells you things to challenge you, but I was never one to back down from a challenge at the end of the day. But at the same time, I kept my head down and worked hard, and I wasn’t really confrontational; I kept all my confidence and belief inside me.” Cycling back round to the influence of his parents, he ties his attitude into beliefs instilled by them at a young age. “When I was going through school, and going on all these club trials, my dad said that nobody needed to know that. It was inbred in me that you don’t brag, that everyone you meet on the way up, you’ll meet again on the way back down. You don’t have to tell anyone, as long as you know it, and that’s all that matters.”
What were the challenges then, of coming to the most iconic club in football at such a young age? “The biggest thing for me was the dressing room environment. it’s challenging. The biggest challenge is being accepted into that. Once you’ve got your confidence in there, I think that helps a lot on the pitch. When you gain the courage to stand up for yourself, yet be respectful… once you get to that level, the rest of the lads accept it because they know you’re a good lad. It shows true character. Your survival instincts always kick in – you’ve got to bat for yourself, and become one of the men. You’ve got to grow up fast.”
One thing Darren despairs about is the simulated culture of childhood these days – and growing up in Morley on the edge of a council estate, it’s something else I can relate to. When I bring up playing rugby or football with other kids, he chuckles ruefully. “That was the best. I had no interests in anything outside of football. I didn’t listen to music, and I didn’t really play any other sports. I just wanted to play football. And if my mates my own age weren’t there – if they were on holiday or they weren’t home from school – I knew that there’d be older lads somewhere else that I could go and join in with. There was a bit of scraping but nobody really got hurt.” You can tell when someone takes to a gaze to think nostalgically and it’s exactly what he did. “I think that generation is gone now,” he acknowledges with a quiet disappointment, “and it’s such a shame, but I think it’s just the world we live in. Everything is now, for kids, in a controlled environment; it’s the way of the world now. I would have it my way, rather than this way.”
There’s no doubt that Fletcher’s way has been pretty good. He won all four domestic honours with Manchester United – a total of ten combined times – and was an unused substitute in their 2008 Champions League final victory, for which he is still credited. He was named in the PFA’s Premier League Team of the Year for the 09/10 season and with Scotland, he won the Kirin Cup in 2006. Is there anything that he wished he’d achieved in his career. He grins ruefully, a snatch of disappointment running across his features. “It was always the Champions League games. We made it to the final in 2011 – and I came back for the second leg of the semi and got a place on the bench for the final, but that was another year of my unlucky streak of missing champions league finals (Fletcher was an unused substitution in United’s 2008 win over Chelsea in Moscow). My dream was to play in a Champions League final and I’ve been on the bench for two but never on the pitch. I got wrongfully red carded in the semi-final in 2009 too and missed that one as well. That one game, I’ve just not managed to get onto the pitch.”
Darren admits that he’s lucky to have got back onto the pitch though, after his struggle with illness. As the conversation turns towards this inevitable topic, he does not clam up; rather, his posture relaxes and he suddenly becomes even more open than before. This, you can sense, is something that he had struggled with. But you feel like he knows he is better for it. There seems to be an added edge to his character from the adversity he had to suffer.
“Yeah, it was difficult,” he answers when I ask about the challenge of dealing with such a career-threatening illness. “Because I was battling my health. Everyone was telling me to forget about football, but deep down, I couldn’t let it go. Everyone I spoke to – my doctors, my wife, Sir Alex Ferguson – they were telling me that football didn’t matter, and that I had to get well first. But I could never accept that.” There was something that struck massively with me which he said next: “It’s probably stupid looking back but I had to get back playing football… because that was me”. This is something that I have noticed when I look back on my career and more importantly my adopted lifestyle to become a pro rugby player. All of those sacrifices, all of those choices which you make consciously and unconsciously – they make you who you are. They are your identity. So it’s no coincidence that Darren didn’t want to let everything that he had worked for his whole life and who he had actually become slip.
“I felt like I was too young; I never accepted the mind-set of that I might never play football again. That was my drive, what stopped me from never giving in – If it had been, I’d probably have dealt with it when it came to it. It was hard for me, but I was so determined that I would get back that I gave it everything. He seems confident in talking about it, but also glad that the chapter has been put to bed. “It was tough; there were times where I thought I was never going to make it. It wasn’t financial; I never got into football for money, I got into it to play, to achieve things, to represent my country, to win titles, to play games. There’s no better feeling than training all week, then getting that game at the weekend, and I missed that buzz.”
Darren admits that he was reluctant to admit to himself and open up about suffering from his illness. “I hid it and didn’t tell people about it for a while, but you know you’re not yourself. I always felt I was living in my own little bubble though, and that I was fighting more battles just to get training, just to get out and play. I always found myself in my own little world, and eventually, that has it’s own consequences in a team. Once I managed to tell the others, it was such a big relief for me. I know people are worried how others react to such admissions out of embarrassment, but for me, it was just a release.
His initial hesitance to confide in his health issues was that, like many sportsmen, he disregarded them as something that would go away imminently. “The problem was that two or three months of being ill turned into six months, then into a year, and eventually, you gradually start to realise that this is something serious. I think at the beginning, you believe there’s no point panicking people by telling them, because you’re convinced you’re going to be alright in a few months. But once that didn’t come to fruition, you realise that it is what it is and that you have to start telling people. If you don’t, you keep playing, you keep battling. I think as a sportsman you take that to the extreme when you are ill, and stupidly, you suffer the consequences.”
Did he think that the stresses of playing football in the most competitive league in the world had brought on or affected his illness?
“No, I don’t think so. When I stopped, the doctors thought maybe it was the pressures of playing football but I knew that it wasn’t that for certain. In a way, for me, that was such a relief that my illness wasn’t caused by football. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t the pressure, because I’ve never been one to feel it. I got excited by the idea of playing football in front of big crowds and big occasions. The bigger the occasion, I enjoyed it more. So that was a big relief for me when we eventually found out that football wasn’t making me worse, and then I just had to concentrate on finding a way to fight the illness.”
Such an experience has made Darren appreciate every moment he can get on the pitch. Now captain at West Brom, he values every moment he has, in training and on game day, after being robbed of two potential form years in his career. “At the time I got ill, I was flying. It probably took away my peak years from me – I was looking really powerful on the pitch and then the illness wiped that out. But at the same time, I was always one who appreciated the position I was in, and I try to enjoy it a bit more now. After all this, I try and enjoy every moment. I love training all week, I love games – that’s what it’s all about for me. Going out on that pitch and playing, putting yourself against fellow players on a weekend for ninety minutes – that’s what I love. It hits home how much I missed it and I just try to keep on enjoying it as much as I can.”
We shift to his current club – and country – and I ask if there’s anything left he’d like to achieve. He’s quick on the draw with his answers. “I still want to qualify for a major tournament with my country,” he responds before I’ve even finished asking the question. Even at West Brom now, the questions are there – can we get to a cup final? Can we win a cup final? Can we get to Europe? There’s no reason why we should set any limit. I want to look back on my time at the club and say that I achieved things. All the stuff I’ve done with Manchester United is great and I loved every minute of my time there, I couldn’t have asked for a better time. But now, all my goals are trying to achieve success with West Brom and Scotland, play as many games as I can, keep playing. I missed a lot of football and want to make up for that time too.”
I steer the conversation into a side-tangent – and one that is close to my heart when I ask for his views on Leeds United. He chuckles, and smiles wryly. “I think my second ever away game for Manchester United was against Leeds. It still sticks in my memory as one of the best atmospheres. It still rings as one of the most hostile environments I’ve played in. The rivalry between United and Leeds is big. It’s amazing how it’s stuck with me after all these years. Leeds is such a massive club –and they should be in the Premier League, and hopefully they’ll get back to it one day because it’s another great rivalry for Manchester United. It’s a big club, loaded with a great Scottish connection – everyone in Scotland knows about Leeds United. “
As we start to wrap up and head off our separate ways, I drop one last question into the mix – I ask Darren what it means, after all this time, after all he’s gone through, to be able to captain his club and country, and I ask for a detailed answer in what it physically is to be captain. His answer is illustrative, considered and shows the mark of a man aware of the legacy he wishes to leave behind.
“You’re the one walking out first, leading your team. Everyone is watching, the whole country is watching, you know that your mum and dad and all those fans who paid are watching and you’re the one at the front, leading. The rest of them follow you – they’re your players. You’re the one who has to bear the brunt, who has to take responsibility. I’ve kept every cap I’ve earned for my country; I take great pride in it and I enjoy it. I probably carry the pressure of it too much sometimes, but that’s fine, I love that. I take responsibility for defeats a little bit more but I don’t see a problem with that. I probably shouldn’t, but I do, because as captain, you take that extra responsibility.”
I can take the pressure. I just tell the younger players to enjoy it and play, and to let me handle the pressure. You want young players to go and flourish, to enjoy themselves. I think that’s what captains do, what leaders do – you relieve that pressure, because one day, they will be the leaders – and you’re leading them by example so they can do right by the next group.”
Article Composed by Stevie Ward with Andrew Steel