A 21st Century Legend
“Darren Fletcher! His dream has just come true. His first Scotland goal in only his second appearance could be the one that takes Scotland to the Playoffs!”
Every time I think of Darren Fletcher I hear the echo of Rob MacLean’s commentary of his winning goal against Lithuania in 2003. The game, a home qualifier Scotland had to win to reach the Playoffs for Euro 2004, was meandering towards a goalless draw. In the 65th minute, Scotland Manager Berti Vogts hooked Colin Cameron, replacing him with a wiry, shockingly blonde 19-year-old debutant from Dalkeith.
It was only four minutes later when James McFadden, another player given a debut for Scotland as a teenager by Berti, played the overlapping full back Gary Naysmith down the left channel. Gary’s delivery to the edge of the six-yard box was prodded clear by a Lithuanian centre back. The clearance fell straight to the lurking Fletcher on the edge of the box who caught the ball perfectly on the volley sending it into the bottom left corner and Hampden into delirium.
In that moment, Scotland fans dared to dream. They were a two-legged playoff away from Euro 2004 and returning to the top table of world football after a six-year absence and they had a new talisman to help take them there. A teenager playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world, Manchester United.
Reflecting on Darren’s career it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than this: Darren Fletcher is the first legend of Scottish football in the 21st century. Consider the numbers: 342 appearances for Manchester United, including 312 under one of the greatest managers of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson. While in red, Darren won it all – four English Premier League titles, the FA Cup, the League Cup, four Community Shields, the Club World Cup and the pinnacle of European domestic football, the UEFA Champions League.
While it may appear strange to think of a player who never played professionally in Scotland as a legend of Scottish football, in my opinion the label fits for two reasons: Darren represented Scotland at the highest level in club football and he was unwaveringly committed to the Scotland national team, earning 80 caps.
Darren’s career followed a path craved by many but achieved by few. A Manchester United player from the age of 11, Darren was faced with the daunting task of learning, developing and breaking into one of the most competitive sides in the world. While Manchester United take immense pride in including an academy graduate in every match day squad, the competition to make it there is fierce.
Darren’s development clearly caught the eye of fellow Scot Sir Alex Ferguson, who would later reveal he tried to give Darren his competitive debut in the last game of the 99/00 season, aged just 15. Premier League bureaucracy would prevent that from happening. To put this into context, Manchester United had won the historic treble of League, Cup & Champions League 12 months earlier with a squad including midfield titans Paul Scholes and Roy Keane.
As a nod to how highly Darren was regarded in his teenage years, in 2001 the magazine FourFourTwo included him, aged just 17, in their 100 Top Young Players in World Football. Darren placed in 13th above Kaká, Zlatan and Andrés Iniesta, who all went on to achieve a thing or two in the beautiful game.
Darren’s Manchester United debut came in March of 2003, starting on the right of midfield against FC Basel in the UEFA Champions League. The following season, 03/04, would be his breakthrough season, making 35 appearances in all competitions. While it took an Old Trafford crowd raised on Keane & Scholes a while to warm to the rangy young Scot, Sir Alex showed great confidence in his countryman.
These appearances would draw the attention of Scotland Manager Berti Vogts who gave Darren a 30-minute debut in a friendly in Oslo in August 2003. Darren had made 4 appearances for the under-21 side the season before when Berti chose to fast-track him into the A squad.
The drama of his home competitive debut vs Lithuania would come two months later in October 2003. It wouldn’t be long before his leadership qualities were recognised with the captain’s armband. Leading the team out in an end of season friendly in Tallinn against Estonia in May 2004, Darren became the youngest Scotland captain in 118 years, a record dating back to John Lambie in 1886. He wore the captain’s armband for Scotland in 34 of his 80 caps.
The passion and commitment for Scotland Darren showed in every game make it hard to pick a standout performance. The qualification process for Euro 2008 saw Darren and Scotland play with passion, tenacity and clarity of purpose. Darren played the full 90 minutes in the win at Hampden against World Cup runners-up France, not looking out of place up against Patrick Viera and Claude Makelele for Les Bleus.
Over this period Darren had grown to become an integral part of the Manchester United team, trusted by Sir Alex in the biggest matches when the stakes were at their highest. From 2003-11 Darren played 30+ games each season across Premier League, Cups and Champions League, adding medals to his collection along the way.
Unfortunately, Darren’s story is as much about what could have been, both on and off the pitch. In the Champions League semi-final second leg against Arsenal in May 2009 Darren was shown a straight red card after a penalty box challenge on Cesc Fabregas. At the time United were 4-0 ahead on aggregate, meaning that the red card would suspend Darren for the Final. Replays showing conclusively that Darren played the ball rather than the man would only deepen the sense of injustice.
Then Inter manager José Mourinho spoke of Darren’s importance to the side before the Final saying “Fletcher is more important than people think. His work in midfield, especially in the midfield 'wars', in crucial matches is very important . . . he 'eats' opponents in defensive transition.” When Manchester United were soundly beaten in the Final by Barcelona, many pointed to Darren’s absence in the middle of the park as cause for the defeat.
Off the pitch, circumstances would conspire to rob him of most of his peak years when he was diagnosed with the bowel condition ulcerative colitis. He announced an extended break from football in November 2011 to battle the illness. The next few seasons would be blighted by comebacks and illness-enforced absences with Darren not playing regularly until after he had left Manchester United to join West Bromwich Albion in 2015. On his first game for the Baggies he wore the captain’s armband. A leader, always.
Darren’s most recent and 80th cap for Scotland came in the final qualifier for the 2018 World Cup, away against Slovenia. He is already Scotland’s 2nd most capped outfield player, only behind the legend Kenny Dalglish and his 102 appearances. Were it not for the illness, Darren would surely be close to surpassing King Kenny.
Given his dedication and passion for representing his country, it is the greatest shame that he has not had the chance to lead out the side at a World Cup or European Championship. If any Scotsman since 1998 deserved to, it is surely Darren.
In terms of caps and medals, Darren stands alone among Scotland players of his generation. He is truly a 21st century legend of Scottish football.