Retrospective #3: The making of Darren Fletcher
Sunday, 6 November 2005 and it’s the 19th anniversary of Sir Alex’s appointment as Manchester United manager but the celebrations were on hold. A look at the league table made grim reading for any Manchester United fan. An unusual pallid gloom had descended in and around Old Trafford following the events that had transpired over the seven days preceding a pivotal encounter.
It all began on 29 October. A Saturday afternoon trip to the Riverside seemed not too difficult but ended in a manner even the most cocksure Boro fan would not have prophesied. A chagrined 4-1 defeat after a Gaizka Mendieta-inspired performance left United reeling at 6th place in the league table, a staggering 13 points behind leaders Chelsea (albeit with a game in hand). A defeat many fans remember to this day.
Two days later, United’s season plunged into a more atrocious crisis. Roy Keane, clearly enraged with the team’s tepid display against Middlesborough, purportedly disparaged some of his team-mates in an interview on MUTV which was banned from being shown. Some called it a plausible criticism while the others disputed that it went over the top. It was a rant that eventually led to Keane’s exit from United and disintegrated what once seemed an indissoluble bond between him and the club.
On Wednesday night, Manchester United were up against Lille away from home in the Champions League, hoping for a swift change in fortune. Consecutive losses are just not United’s thing and Lille, at least on paper, appeared to be a mediocre opposition waiting to be thrashed. However, the outcome was synonymous to the events of the past few days. United’s season hit an appallingly new low as they capitulated to the French side going down 1-0 which left them 3rd in their group. It was hard to recall the last time United endured such a catastrophic phase. As the press indulged themselves in criticism of the entire team, the manager and the largely unpopular 4-5-1 formation, Sir Alex was facing one of the most daunting challenges of his career. There were even a few murmurings that he had lost it and his time was up.
Up next was a league match with Chelsea who were on a veritable 40 match unbeaten run in the Premier League and managed by Jose Mourinho, the canny Portuguese, who Fergie had never beaten before. Probably the last team United wanted to face at that moment.
And now on this Sunday afternoon, United were desperately searching for a beacon of hope to rejuvenate their season. The memories of the tumultuous last seven days must have been rotating inside their minds. Adorned in their red home shirt and white shorts, Ruud van Nistelrooy led the team out on to the pitch against the then-champions. Cheered on by the fans, United dominated most of the early parts of the match. Cristiano Ronaldo’s early effort from outside the box went high and wide. Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney both went close to breaking the deadlock but their shots were off-target.
Then on the 31st minute…
Cristiano Ronaldo put in a cross with his left foot into the Chelsea penalty box. It first seemed he would fail to find a team-mate. It was just at that moment when a lithe-bodied and blonde-haired Scot appeared at the back post to seemingly nod the ball across the goal. However, the ball looped over Petr Cech’s head. Cech turned back and hoped John Terry would head it away. The ball looped over Terry too. And it ended up at the back of the net.
The crowd erupted in unconfined joy. Darren Fletcher had picked the best possible time to score his first goal of the season. It was the goal that eventually won United the match and was a boon to United’s chances of salvaging their season. And it was the perfect way to celebrate Fergie’s 19th anniversary in charge of the club.
Fletcher played at a sumptuous level rarely seen before. His desire to prove his critics wrong was manifest in his performance and he achieved it with aplomb. Another star-performer on the night was Alan Smith who marshalled the midfield brilliantly. Alas, his career did not proceed the way it should have as discussed here.
Few realised at the time the sheer significance of Fletcher’s goal on his career.
Injuries, quite a few of them, impeded Fletcher’s development at the early stages of his career. There was a time when he was heralded as a prospective surrogate for David Beckham in the Manchester United midfield. Fletcher, the United Reserves Player of the Year in the 2002-2003 season, initially started his career on the right side of midfield before switching into a central position. In 2005, he was a player who polarised opinions amongst fans. He was reportedly one of those players who Roy Keane targeted in his banned MUTV rant. There were many who doubted his ability and felt he was not ‘good enough’ to be in the team. His continued presence in the first XI despite his underwhelming displays elicited waves of frustration and discontent from a majority of the Manchester United fans. He was often the subject of their derision and mockery:
“I’m not sure one goal changed people’s view of me. It takes a longer process than that to show them what you’re about. I’d like to think so anyway,” said Darren Fletcher in the Mail last December. You have to concur with his quotes. One single goal certainly did not completely change people’s perceptions, but it was the much-needed catalyst that helped him to resuscitate his career and made the fans believe in him. It was the beginning of many good things to come eventually.
The quondam criticism of Fletcher has now been replaced with lavish praise and appreciation. He has become indispensable part of the team and is considered as a “big-game” player. While he is enjoying the fruits of his labour, when you look back, you cannot help but think that goal against Chelsea was the turning point of his career.
This was written by Abir Ahmed. Abir’s work has recently appeared on the likes of In Bed With Maradona, Back Page Football and World Soccer. You can read his enlightening piece on Bangladesh’s daunting road to the 2014 World Cup here. You can follow him on Twitter.