The announcement in December of last year that Fletcher was to take an ‘extended break’ from football was received with regret by his club and international teammates. It might be surmised that the reaction stemmed, at least in part, from the nature of the affliction that has necessitated the break.
To a certain extent, footballers are conditioned to accept the possibility of injury at some point during their playing career. It is an occupational hazard that can be encountered at any moment on the pitch or during training. Fletcher, however, was not the victim of a poorly timed challenge but a sort of internal treachery.
It was revealed that he is suffering from ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel condition. That this was no normal football-related ailment was underlined by the very term ‘extended break’: the diagnosis of more conventional injuries usually comes with a complimentary estimate of recovery time.
But the response from United fans indicated the esteem in which Fletcher is held as a football player. This respect has been hard-won since he made his debut in 2003. In the early years of his career many failed to appreciate his qualities and his presence in the United first team was attributed to the continued existence of a Scottish patronage network operating south of the border. This explanation overlooked the character of the imagined patron: Sir Alex Ferguson owes loyalty to victory above all else. Fletcher was characterised as, at best, a decent practitioner of the darker midfield arts: he was a harrier, a disrupter and a kicker of feet.
While this is certainly a dimension of his game, it does him a disservice by overlooking the more refined attributes he brings to the table. Fletcher is crisp passer, energetic box-to-box player and scorer of timely and occasionally spectacular goals. Through his ball distribution and positional play, he acts as an enabler for the more virtuoso talents that so often act to obscure his own contributions.
He made only two appearances in the final three months of last season and appeared only 10 times for United this season before announcing that he was to take an ‘extended break’ from football. His last competitive encounter was against Benfica in the Champions League on 22 November. Scotland manager Craig Levein remains optimistic that he may have his captain back for the start of the World Cup 2014 qualifiers but the tone and content of Fletcher’s own comments suggest this is unlikely. He was quoted in The Scotsman last month as saying: “It’s a week-by-week situation so I’ve not got any timescale on recovery but the target for me is next season now.” It was also revealed that he had been trying dietary and hypnotherapy remedies in a bid to manage the symptoms of his chronic bowl condition.
Fletcher represents something entirely different on the pitch at Hampden. The eye and expectations naturally settle on him in a way that they don’t at Old Trafford: there he is a facilitator, up north he is the conductor. He is held in high esteem because he is a reminder of a past age when Scotland could regularly put out a team full of player’s from England’s biggest clubs. He also appears to be a player who relishes international duty, something that Scotland fans are enthused by. Occasional mutterings about him failing to produce his best performances in the dark blue are reminiscent of the criticisms levelled at Graeme Souness but the ‘Manchester United’ in brackets beside his name isn’t necessarily conducive to objective analysis.
Fletcher’s possible route back into the first team at United looks fraught with difficulties. Michael Carrick- in many ways a similar player in terms of attributes and intentions-has enjoyed arguably his best run of form since Fletcher’s absence and thus poses possibly the biggest obstacle. It is unlikely that Old Trafford fans would relish a central midfield comprising Fletcher and Carrick. But considerations of this nature are for some undefined moment in the future, just don’t expect to avoid them.
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