When Manchester United FC announced in December 2011 that Darren Fletcher would be taking an "extended break" from football because he was suffering from a bowel disease, many feared the Scotland captain had played his last game.
So that is why there was such a huge cheer at Old Trafford on matchday one when Fletcher came on for Paul Scholes in the second half against Galatasaray AŞ. "The condition never goes away and that's the thing I have to live with," Fletcher said of his illness. "Every day is a battle for me. I have to watch my diet and take certain medication or it could come back again."
Fletcher's return is perfectly timed. United have many creative players – Shinji Kagawa, Tom Cleverley and Ryan Giggs among them – but their midfield has been crying out for an organiser in the Roy Keane mould. A fit Fletcher, who admits he was a target for Keane's famously fierce, yet constructive, criticism whenever they trained together at United, could suit the job.
The Scottish international has been at the club since he was 11. Given he is the epitome of professional focus – his entire lifetime consumption of alcohol amounts to half a pint of cider – it is easy to see why Sir Alex Ferguson puts so much faith in him. Now 28, Fletcher made his United debut in 2003 yet came into his own in the 2008/09 season, when he started 42 games. Since then he has become increasingly influential and more rounded as a player.
"I decided I needed to see more of the ball and get more goals," he said. "I knew I could be a good team-mate, but I could also run beyond the strikers, make passes and get goals. I could become an all-rounder and not just think about what I'd do when we didn't have the ball."
Fletcher's hero as a child was Fernando Redondo, whom he watched hold Argentina's midfield together at the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Not an obvious role model for a young footballer, perhaps, but it is telling that Redondo, an elegant defensive midfielder who added an attacking dimension to his game, caught Fletcher's eye.
Another key part of his make-up is his big-match temperament. He insists he gets excited about the marquee fixtures, not nervous, and is proud that no player has ever "torn him to shreds" in a high-profile game. Yet the most important ties have eluded him.
Suspension kept him out of the 2009 UEFA Champions League final defeat by FC Barcelona and illness cut short his campaign two years later, sidelining him for the final against the same opponents. Could Fletcher be United's missing ingredient? If he stays fit and well, we may be about to find out.
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