Darren Fletcher seeks fulfilment in the Champions League with Manchester United
26 September 2009 04:15
By missing last season's final against Barcelona in Rome due to suspension, the Manchester United midfielder ironically became identified as the reason why Sir Alex Ferguson's team failed to defend their trophy in Rome.
Fletcher's stock rose by virtue of the fact that he was sitting in the stands in his club suit, paying a heavy price for his bewildering dismissal for an apparent goal-saving tackle in the semi-final victory over Arsenal.
But his new identity as the player Man United could not do without washed over Fletcher. For the second time in 12 months, a Champions League final was taking place in front of him when he only wanted to be on the pitch.
"I think my reputation has maybe been enhanced a little bit since missing Rome," Fletcher admits. "But I just watched the final from the stand, behind the bench, with the other lads who weren't involved.
"I was just a fan. I felt the team had put a lot of effort in, so let's go and win it. But after the game, walking around the pitch with the other lads, I was gutted.
"A year earlier, I was on the bench in Moscow [when United beat Chelsea] and didn't get on, so I don't feel as though I have won the Champions League.
"Moscow was great, but you want to play in the final. When you don't get on the pitch, you don't feel involved."
At 25, Fletcher is at least consoled by the fact that he will have more opportunities to make it third time lucky in a Champions League final. His emergence as United's leading midfielder in recent months ensures that he will have a key role in helping the team reach Madrid in May.
But how has it happened? Where has this destructive, energetic goal-scoring midfielder come from? Four years ago he had been written off many of the club's supporters and singled out for criticism by Roy Keane during his infamous dissection of a 4-1 defeat at Middlesbrough on MUTV in October, 2005.
The Scot, alongside Wayne Rooney, has emerged as perhaps United's most important player since the summer departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid.
He may not dominate the headlines like Rooney or Ronaldo, but United have lost just one of the last 47 games started by Fletcher – a 2-0 defeat at Fulham in March. Barcelona and Burnley both triumphed against United in Fletcher's absence.
As United prepare to face the German champions in their second group game this season, Fletcher is suddenly the man of the moment and he credits much of that to Keane, the man whose criticism could have broken him.
Fletcher said: "On the pitch and in the dressing room, Roy was always fantastic for me. He was constantly reiterating what it means to play for United, what it takes professionally.
"He always used to tell me, 'I get on your back because I want you to do well. If I ignore you, that's when you should be worried'. It is something that has always stuck with me.
"He was constantly there and I learned so much from him. The player I am now, and the way I am off the pitch, my professional levels, has all come from that.
"The biggest thing was the infamous MUTV video, which was really a kick up the backside for everyone. Anything Roy ever said, it was always done to fire you up. He was never going to tiptoe around people or put an arm around your shoulder.
"He used to make comments around the training ground and maybe get a bit annoyed at me because I snapped around at his ankles, but if he did have a go at me, I thought 'right, I'm going to prove you wrong'. That's the reaction he wanted."
Two days after Keane's interview, Fletcher reached his nadir when he was booed off the pitch as United slumped to defeat against Lille in Paris.
"It wasn't easy, but it was character-building stuff," he admits. "I could have gone away and hid and played within myself, but that's not me.
"Don't get me wrong because, at times, it wasn't easy going on to the pitch and being singled out, but you have to learn from it."
When he sat in the main stand of the Olympic Stadium last May, Fletcher was the one player United arguably needed most of all.
Without him, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi went unshackled as Barca dethroned United with an all-too comfortable 2-0 victory, but Fletcher insists he is more than the 'destroyer' many have labelled him as since Rome.
"I don't want to be pigeonholed as a destroyer," Fletcher said. "The whole idea is to become an all-round midfielder, who can pass the ball, score goals and get the team going.
"I can be a destroyer when we don't have the ball and set a high tempo and be the trigger. When we don't have possession, I'm thinking, 'right, I'm going to be the first one to press and win it back'."
Fletcher's ability to press and harass opponents was best displayed in United's 2-1 victory against Arsenal last month when his second-half performance helped force Arsène Wenger's team into submission.
The tenacity of Fletcher and Michael Carrick prompted Wenger to criticise United's 'anti-football', but Fletcher regards Wenger's comments as a compliment.
He said: "Wenger still hasn't mentioned me by name, he just says 'that player at United'.
"It doesn't bother me one bit, though. I don't know whether he was trying to get referees to pick up on me, but I have always seen myself as a fair player. I'm not dirty. I go to win the ball, but that is part of the game.
"Tackling is part of the game and British football fans love to see that. Winning the ball back and quick transitions are a big part of the game. Maybe you could say that it was a compliment in some respects."
When Wolfsburg visit on Wednesday, they will encounter a United team still finding its feet without Ronaldo.
Replacing Ronaldo, Ferguson has already conceded, is an impossible task, but Fletcher insists that United must move on and prosper without the Portuguese forward.
He said: "The manager has pointed out that Ronaldo has gone and that is a huge goal difference that we need to fill. As players, we all have to rise to the challenge.
"Ronaldo was good for us, but a lot of players sacrificed themselves for Cristiano too. In a lot of games, I'd be asked to play in central midfield but, whenever he went forward, I'd have to get out to the right to cover him.
"Maybe, now we have got back to 4-4-2, where everybody drops back as a four, it gives the midfielders more opportunity to bomb forward.
"I'd like to think I can get double figures this season because, in this team, you are always likely to get chances if you can get into the box."