Darren Fletcher talks to Martin Samuel: Teetotaller on becoming the enforcer
07 March 2009 07:26
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If there is a defining moment in the career of Darren Fletcher, it came in the aftermath of a match in which he did not play. As substitute Fletcher joined the rest of the Manchester United squad celebrating their Champions League final victory over Chelsea in Moscow, Ryan Giggs stuck his head into the huddle of players.
'He said, 'Lads, this is what it's all about let's have it next year as well',' Fletcher recalls. 'And we were looking at this trophy, which hadn't even been presented to us, and there was Ryan already talking about next year. It brought home to me what this club is about.
'Later, we were sitting in the dressing room and there were so many players already talking about winning it again. Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand marching around telling everybody, 'I like this feeling, let's keep it going'. That is why the club gets stronger and stronger. I know nobody has retained the Champions League but we are definitely capable of it.
'If we do not at least get near it, the club will see that as a disappointment, just as we were disappointed we didn't do the Treble last year. We always think we can achieve more. Look at Ryan: I'm sure he sees the Premier League as his trophy and why shouldn't he? He has won it so many times it's as if he lends it out for the odd year.'
Strangely, there is not a trace of arrogance in Fletcher's voice as he speaks. Coming from another player, such pronouncements might be interpreted in a negative way as too flash by half. Fletcher, however, is what Eric Cantona would refer to disdainfully as a water carrier.
He is the man Sir Alex Ferguson sends into key matches against Chelsea and Inter Milan, utilising his energy levels to win the battle in midfield.
Had Owen Hargreaves stayed fit, he might have been a peripheral figure this season. Instead, he was recently described by Ferdinand as one of United's most important players.
'Ryan's skill as a central midfielder is that he gets it and dribbles and that makes you uncomfortable, thinking: this isn't what I'm supposed to do, this is not how I defend' Last weekend, Fletcher was paid one of his biggest compliments yet, left to stand on the touchline in a suit as Manchester United lifted the Carling Cup trophy. Sometimes, with a squad as strong as Ferguson's, it is the matches a player misses that are the true measure of his worth.
Next week brings a visit from Inter Milan and Fletcher is expected to reprise the role he played in the San Siro stadium. He partnered Giggs in the midfield that took Chelsea apart at Old Trafford in January a selection that was greeted with general bemusement when announced yet was an unused substitute in the two games preceding it.
'I knew I was playing against Chelsea for two weeks because when I didn't play in those other games the manager was saying to me, 'Think about Chelsea, focus on Chelsea, get ready for Chelsea',' Fletcher reveals.
'People thought he had gone mad that day but he knew what he was doing. I've played against Ryan in training and his skill as a central midfielder is that he turns the opposing central midfield player into a right back.
'Nobody in that position runs at you. A central midfielder gets the ball and looks to play it wide, or beyond to the striker. Ryan gets it and dribbles and that makes you uncomfortable, thinking: this isn't what I'm supposed to do, this is not how I defend.
'That day my job was to cover for him and for Cristiano (Ronaldo), to win tackles and get about the Chelsea midfield, not give them a minute. And it worked to perfection. Ryan controlled the game. We hurt them. It was the first time we had dominated Chelsea, a step forward for us.
'It was hard to turn down Rangers and Celtic, but I was never one of those Scottish guys who hated the English. I wanted England to do well in the World Cup, still do'
'People ask me why I do well in those games but I don't think I do anything differently. I think I always play like that but it is only when you are up against the best teams that people notice the work being done in midfield.'
Fletcher, 25, is a contrary sort, on one hand a player whose game depends on utter selflessness, on the other a man who must be completely convinced of his own ability when setting about the best teams in Europe. The contradiction is reflected in his route to the first team.
Born in Mayfield, one of Scotland's largest council estates, south of Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, he was spotted by Manchester United at the age of 12 but, under Scottish laws, could not sign for an English club until he was 16.
Celtic and Rangers were interested even before his teenage years and were prepared to guarantee a professional contract, but Fletcher held firm, without a club, until he could make the move south. So, for a water carrier, he must have also fancied himself a bit.
'It was hard to turn down Rangers and Celtic, but it was a time when both clubs had a lot of money and the young Scottish players were not coming through,' Fletcher says.
'They were buying from outside: John Hartson, Tore Andre Flo, Andrei Kanchelskis, Chris Sutton. Barry Ferguson was the exception as a young player. Even Hearts and Hibernian were buying foreigners for a few hundred grand. At the time, Manchester United offered more opportunity.
'I was never one of those Scottish guys who hated the English, anyway; my dad did not bring me up like that. We wanted England to do well in the World Cup, still do.
'I came down and I had a three-year scholarship and it was absolutely drummed into me that this was my chance.
'I'm teetotal. I had three years to make professional and I feel you should dedicate your life in that time. You shouldn't be out every weekend'
'My family are agricultural workers. They worked all year round, barely a week off, so I was taught to appreciate the life of a footballer, because
I didn't want to end up doing what they were doing. It's all done by machinery now, there are no jobs like that any more, but in the holidays I would be sent to give my dad a hand, because they wanted me to recognise the chance I was being given.
'It was literally back-breaking work because you are bent over all day; I've got uncles with problems like that, from working every week in the field, picking potatoes.
'I'm teetotal, my mum was, too. A teetotal Scotsman draws plenty of laughs, but when I went to Manchester it was on the absolute understanding that there could be no going out to all hours. It stuck with me.
'I took it upon myself to give it everything to become a professional footballer and then, when I made it, I didn't feel the need to start drinking. I do think that played a part. I don't begrudge anyone who does drink but I had three years to make professional and I feel you should dedicate your life in that time. You shouldn't be out every weekend.
'I'm the only one still here from my year group. There were others who could control, pass and shoot the ball as good as me but I think football is played in your head.
'It is the way you deal with everything: being at Manchester United, the expectation, the crowd, the nervousness, all of that pressure. The game is played up there before you go on the pitch, and I had that strength.
'When I won my first medal, for the FA Cup, I was still staying in one room, in digs. That was where I went after the game. It kept you grounded. We didn't have to clean boots but we had jobs. Mine was to pump up the first-team footballs to the right size. If you didn't get it right, you got told in no uncertain terms.'
According to Fletcher, Keane is the unsung hero behind Manchester United's present dominance.
Roy (Keane) was probably the biggest influence on my career. Rules about getting in a half-hour early, they were his instructions and those traditions continue'
The playing squad still adheres to his rules, his discipline, still remembers the monsterings he would give players who failed to conform to his exacting standards. Fletcher was a favourite target, apparently, although he bears no grudges, or nervous ticks, as a result.
'Roy was probably the biggest influence on my career,' he says. 'He would come down hard on me if I ever did anything wrong but he made me realise what it meant to be a Manchester United player.
'I can remember coming in from training one day and checking my mobile phone for text messages. Well, that was it. He absolutely hammered me, all the way into the gym.
'He was a great influence, really. If Roy had a go at you, he did it because he cared. He was the best captain you could wish for. He would tear you to shreds on the pitch if you gave away the ball, 'get your effing touch right, effing this, effing that' but, as soon as you got into the dressing room, it was over. He was a winner. I've met dedicated professionals but he had something else.
'The first time was scary, you thought, 'Oh, I can't make a mistake here', but it was actually the best schooling you could get.
'It was a shame the way it ended for him here. It's hard to talk about the criticism and what he said, because we all looked up to him so much, he was respected by everybody.
'We all just wish it hadn't happened. He was our captain, he was our leader and he left a mark: where we are now is down to him, our dedication comes from the standards he set. The rules about time-keeping, about getting in a half-hour early, they were his instructions back in the day and those traditions continue.
'Even now as a first-team player you make sure the young lads are in check, you make sure they are on time. It is so professional now. Everyone is in the gym after training trying to get that edge, urine samples before training, readiness tests to see if your body is up for training.
'Team spirit is built differently these days, too. It used to be about going drinking, now it is about gym work, being on the bike by 10 o'clock, giving people stick if they are late, we even have a countdown clock.
'We have PSP games that we can play on for an hour, six-a-side. We get the foreign lads involved, but the only problem is all their first words end up as army instructions, 'kill him, get down, get me up', that sort of thing. But it brings us together. How about this? Carlos Tevez, Ji-sung Park and Patrice Evra are best mates. I don't know how it works.
'What language do they speak? One is Argentine, one is Korean and the other is French, but they walk around together, they banter with each other. What they have in common, I don't know.'
Fletcher's most obvious national connection is with his manager and countryman, Ferguson, and do not think it goes unnoticed by team-mates.
'They call him my dad or grandad,' he says, 'but I don't think my nationality is anything to do with my time here.
'Let's face it, the manager wouldn't have won much had he built his career on being sympathetic to Scottish footballers!
'He is just one of those guys who is very patriotic about Scotland. Any Scottish team, any Scottish sportsman. It puts a lot of pressure on me, actually, all these little side bets he puts on during international week. Nothing like going off to play France, with the manager shouting 'if you lose, don't come back' after you.'
Except Fletcher did not lose. His Scotland team beat France in European Championship qualification, twice. That must have been worth a few quid to Ferguson. No wonder he likes him around for those big games.