For the first time in 10 months, Darren Fletcher played for Manchester United, though his fight with ulcerative colitis began long before that. For over a year United’s best defensive midfielder has been battling the bowel disease. At first the problem was thought to be viral. Then nobody knew what the problem was. Finally, there was a diagnosis, one which limited Fletcher to eight league appearances last season.
Today against Galatasaray, Fletcher made his first appearance since last November, coming on in the 79th minute for Paul Scholes. It was only the briefest of run outs, but being brought on with his team only up one was a sign. If he wasn’t ready for some kind of important role (if Ferguson was just diving him a cameo), he wouldn’t have been brought on a potentially point-losing situation.
Not only was he brought on, Fletcher was given a standing ovation.
“It was a mark of respect that [the crowd] gave him a marvellous ovation,” Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said after the game.
Before Fletcher became ill, he was an all-league performer, voted to the PFA’s team of the season for 2010-11. With his absence, questions around Manchester United’s midfield have intensified. Alex Ferguson’s long be derided for his unwillingness to bring in a creative presence, but without Fletcher in the middle (and when it seemed Paul Scholes had retired), the team looked especially thin.
But what would the team look like if Fletcher were healthy? Given the nature of his illness, it was hard to tell how long he’d be would out. If the right treatment couldn’t be found, Fletcher’s career could be over. Uncertain information always makes decisions harder.
Instead, the 28-year-old is back. How soon (or whether) he can make a major contribution is unknown.
“Of course, being out of the game for a year it took him quite a few minutes to really get going,” Ferguson added. “He did one or two good things but he can only get better after this.”
If he can return to his former self, Fletcher adds his name to Nemanja Vidic, Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, Tom Cleverley and Anderson as players who scarcely contributed (or weren’t around) last year who will have a major impact on this season’s title race. And if he doesn’t quite return to his former self, at least he’s playing again.