Darren Fletcher: Scoring against Chelsea set me on my way at Manchester United

17 December 2010 10:56
November 6, 2005. Old Trafford. Cristiano Ronaldo flights a cross deep into the Chelsea penalty box and Darren Fletcher sends a looping header back across goal, over Petr Cech and John Terry, into the top corner of the net.

The stadium erupts. Chelsea's 40-match unbeaten run in the Premier League is about to end and Manchester United are back in the title race. Fletcher, of all people, has scored the winner.

This, remember, was at the end of a week when United had lost 4-1 at Middlesbrough and 1-0 to Lille in the Champions League, igniting an X-rated rant by captain Roy Keane on the club's in-house television station. Fletcher was one of Keane's prime targets in an interview that was never aired.

Heading for glory: Fletcher beats Michael Essien to head past Petr Cech and state his case for a regular place in United's midfield

For some United fans, the 21-year-old Scot came of age that day. He had proved his captain wrong with the most perfect timing and showed he was a big game player worthy of wearing the red shirt.

Mention that goal to Fletcher today, however, and it is met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

'It was a headed goal at the back post,' he says, matter of factly.

Fletcher is honest enough to admit he is not sure whether he was even going for goal or seeking out Ruud van Nistelrooy at the far post.

'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.

'If I could score one goal and become a hero then great, but I think it would have to be in a European Cup Final.

'It was an important goal, though, because it was against Chelsea, a huge rival, and stopped their 40-game unbeaten run.

Pointing the way: Fletcher is now fgiving advice to young players at Old Trafford

'It gave us a massive three points at a time when there was a little bit of doom and gloom about the place and helped my confidence a lot. But a consistent run of performances speaks more than a one-off goal.'

So no chance there's a photo of it on his wall at home then?

'Not at all,' says Fletcher. 'I'm not that sort of person. I get a little bit embarrassed about it, to be honest.

'I've got pictures but they're not on display. Things like that are nice to look back on at the end of your career. Medals are important because that's what you play for, but there's still a lot to be achieved.'

Keane would be proud of him now. The fact is, United won the battle that day but eventually lost the war as Jose Mourinho's Chelsea retained the title.

Red alert: Fletcher is a driving force for United in their title charge

Like Keane, Fletcher is a winner. Defeats last longer in the memory than victories. For instance, the injustice still rankles of a free-kick awarded for his challenge on Ashley Cole at Stamford Bridge last season that led to John Terry's winning goal.

So, too, Didier Drogba's decisive strike at Old Trafford five months later when United insist the Chelsea striker was offside. They were two defeats that ultimately cost United, who then missed out on a fourth successive title by one point.

'There were a few decisions in both games that we felt aggrieved about but it shows you the importance of these big games,' says Fletcher.

'Losing six points to them definitely was a massive factor.

'Chelsea are our biggest rivals again this season because of the experience of being there before. Arsenal have come on strong this year but when it comes to the main challengers, you've got to look to the champions and the fact they know how to win the Premier League.

'But I think we're fairly happy in terms of where we are in the table. You've seen the emergence of players as well. Anderson has come back from injury and been fantastic, Nani has been arguably our best player this season, Wayne Rooney is hitting form and Dimitar Berbatov has scored 11 goals.

'We haven't hit the form we know we're capable of yet but that will come.'

United's win over Arsenal on Monday night restored Sir Alex Ferguson's side to the top of the table ahead of Sunday's eagerly awaited return to Stamford Bridge.

Fletcher says the departure of experienced players like Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Ballack, Deco and Juliano Belletti in the summer has hit an ageing Chelsea side hard, as well as the loss of Carlo Ancelotti's assistant Ray Wilkins. The champions are without a League win in five games.

'Their squad is obviously not as strong as it has been in previous years,' says Fletcher.

'We know how difficult it is to battle in the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup. That's why we've got a big squad here at Manchester United. Injury crises can happen and we can cope with things like that.

'It's an older Chelsea squad, I think it's fair to say that. But I don't think they're at the age where they can talk about retiring or being past it just yet.

'There have been a few things going on off the pitch but they have got enough experience to deal with that.'

Big match player: Fletcher has evolved as a key man for Sir Alex Ferguson's side

Fletcher, now 26, has evolved from the young man who incurred Keane's wrath. Now arguably the most consistent performer in United's midfield, this teetotal captain of Scotland, who regularly attends the yoga classes and injury prevention sessions at United's Carrington training base, is handing out advice to the club's youngsters himself.

'You see yourself growing into the role a little bit,' says Fletcher.

Darren Fletcher was talking at an event organised by betfair.com, the world's biggest betting community.

'It's great having the experience of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville around you, but slowly the next generation are gaining that experience and have to be the ones to follow in their footsteps.

'You find yourself and speak to younger players but that's just a natural progression of being at a club for a long time.

'There's a number of us at that level now - Nemanja (Vidic), Wayne, Rio (Ferdinand), myself - and we feel as if there's another crop the manager has got.'

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Source: Daily_Mail