by Jack Heaney
As every summer dawns, where the transfer window is polished and megabucks are traded around for men that are pretty good at kicking a ball, the old dichotomous paradigm resurfaces. One voice remarks that leaving stars – usually much-loved figures at the club – are misunderstood. They are merely searching for pastures new; funding their own improvement by penning transfer requests, refusing shiny new contracts or flirting with the latest Sugar Daddy offering a (moisturised) hand. Branching opposite to this thought is the more, shall we say, heralded view; errant footballers are immoral.
When a big name footballer wants to leave, more often than not there will be a chorus of boos. Fresh chants will be cooked up. They will never have liked that player anyway, or noses will be turned up and ‘good riddance’ will become a popular phrase. Perhaps a touch dramatic, but none less dramatic than what a portion of Arsenal fans proclaim. Of course, the pragmatic outlook is that – while vexing – loyalty must not be expected in football; rather, disloyalty should be. The truth of the matter is that, generally, clubs take care of clubs and players take care of players. With vast, lucrative deals in the game it is naive to expect loyalty. Which makes it all the more sweeter when this virtue is exposed as, somewhere amongst the expenditure, small yet still existent.
In the case of Darren Fletcher, loyalty and dedication appears to be natural. Those familiar with the Scot will know that a chronic bowel problem has plagued his career for an extended period of time which, obviously, has resulted in an extended period of time grafting in hope of someday returning to full fitness.
Just months ago, in March, Fletcher was sanguine when asked his chances of starting the new season. In July, a particularly morose segment of Alex Ferguson’s media duties appeared to suggest retirement may be the outcome of Fletcher’s ordeal. Bugger.
The warmth for Fletcher at Old Trafford is clear. We puncture and pick apart the debate of whether players should be loyal to ones club, or whether clubs should be loyal to players. It perhaps becomes tedious in a football world governed by money; but what isn’t tedious is when, unusually in the cultivated-by-cash football climate, we are presented a perfect example of just how far a little faith can go. Darren Fletcher was for a long time regarded as fug; in football terms maladroit and a bit humdrum. The time spent rubbing hands together and watching his own breath mist in the Manchester cold while warming the bench was uncountable. The truth is that, at approximately 24, the Scot reached the stage where if you’re not breaking through now, you might never see the other side.
Yet from around 2009 Fletcher began to bloom. While not technically stupendous or enterprisingly skilful, Fletcher is a player that does not need to be. When on form he is busy; hardworking; a wasp and a pest and one that will bite ankles till the bone is chomped. The saddest part of Fletcher’s illness is that it came when he was prospering. His 2009-2010 campaign was excellent; he was coarse, vehement and unflappable. As previous derisions of mediocrity submitted to rapturous praise, It seemed as though Fletcher and Fergie were comfortably with the midfield niche in which he operated.
Strikingly, a footballer’s ascent to playing football is often underestimated; though the money is indeed crisp and the lifestyle luxurious, challenges are always presented. Yes, Darren will forever be rich and famous, but money is often mistaken as a substitute for fulfilment – and a way of perhaps underestimating the esteem it gives a man like Fletcher to wear his clubs badge. The chances of becoming a professional footballer are slim, let alone forcing yourself through the Manchester United first team. But Fletcher achieved just that. And though he may indeed retire – tomorrow or ten years from now – the way this bust-a-gut guy conducted himself will never be erased.
Many noted a bit of an exasperated Fletcher last term and, in retrospect, it is obvious that the illness deadens his energetic play. Perhaps most infuriating is the fact that Back in 2009 a referee made an honest mistake that ruled Fletcher out of the Champions League final. To endure that anti-climax again last season is cruel. Luck is tough in football; this truth must be accepted. But to think the Scot might have to retire without playing in what he labelled his ‘childhood dream’ after coming so close must be gutting.
There isn’t much to dislike about Darren Fletcher, and there is much to like in the way he forced his way through the mould a few years back. Things do not look good now but then, things can be misleading. Loyalty? Football? Darren Fletcher’s stringent adherence to such a virtuous value in football is, thankfully, returned by his club. It is three-fold; an example of a clubs loyalty to their player, a players loyalty to the club; perhaps most inspiring of all, he is an example of a man’s loyalty to his own vociferous belief.
Regardless of club colour, Fletcher must be wished well. Because even though he plays the game, Fletcher has never divorced himself from what it means to be a fan. Because honesty and endeavour were never better personified than this Scot. Because indeed, ‘Fletch’ is in a battle for his career. But at least we know that if this guy is trading blows in a fight to play football again, he’ll be packing admirable vigour behind every punch.